Flash of genius: how a Cornish lighthouse inspired Virginia Woolf’s fictional icon

St Ives holiday home that planted the seed for English writer’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse has now earned a historic plaque

For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men.

Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf. Photograph: George C Beresford/Getty Images

Almost a century after Virginia Woolf wrote those words for her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, a commemorative plaque is to be installed on the house in the Cornish town of St Ives where she spent her childhood summers and was inspired by views of Godrevy lighthouse in the bay.

It is the result of years of campaigning and fundraising by Professor Maggie Humm, vice-chair of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, who says the property, Talland House, is a “crucial part of the Woolf story”.

Humm, who lives in London, said that after four years of pressing the town council, the local MP and heritage groups in St Ives, it was eventually agreed that a permanent marker should be placed on Talland House. It is scheduled to be unveiled on 11 September.

“It was 20 years ago that the founding members of the Woolf Society first made approaches about a plaque on the property, but it came to nothing. About four years ago, I started the campaign again. Then the town council finally got on board, and since then they’ve been brilliant,” said Humm.

To The Lighthouse is a modernist novel in which the Ramsay family and their eight children rent a summer home on the Isle of Skye – echoing Woolf’s own early life – with the ever-present promise of a visit to the lighthouse off the island as the narrative thread to which Woolf stitches the thoughts and observations of the mother, Mrs Ramsay.

Woolf thought it “easily the best of my books”, and it outsold all her previous works when released in 1927 through Hogarth Press, run by Woolf and her husband, Leonard. The New York Times called it “a brilliantly ambitious analysis of domestic psychology”. The book’s lack of any real plot has meant it’s generally considered unfilmable, although there was a BBC TV adaptation in 1983, starring Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, and a young Kenneth Branagh.

St Ives bay.

Through crowdfunding, almost £4,000 was raised for the plaque through donations from Woolfians across the world, especially in the US and Europe. The plaque design is similar to the Blue Plaque scheme run in London by English Heritage, but in the Cornish flag colours of black and white, saying that Woolf spent each summer in the house between 1882, the year of her birth, and 1894.

Talland House was bought by Woolf’s parents, Julia and Leslie Stephen, and they began holidays there the year she was born. “They went every year until Woolf’s mother died,” said Humm. “You can imagine the journey from Paddington in London to St Ives every summer with eight children and all their luggage.”

Talland House sits above Porthminster beach, and across the bay, three miles out, sits Godrevy lighthouse, built in 1858 to warn shipping of the treacherous Stones reef. When Woolf was a child, it would have been manned by lighthouse keepers, but the 26-metre tower was automated in the 1930s, and since 1995 has been operated entirely by solar power.

Although To The Lighthouse is set in the Hebrides, it is Godrevy on which the lighthouse is based, and on which the young Woolf would have gazed every day from Talland House during the summers her family spent there. Talland House is now apartments but is a source of pilgrimage for Woolf fans. The gardens have recently been restored by heritage horticulturist Polly Carter to exactly as they would have looked during Woolf’s time.

A St Ives council spokesperson said: “While St Ives is well known for its connection with the visual arts and important 20th century painters and sculptors, this will mark our connection to important writers who also left their mark on west Cornwall.”


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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