Remember the Virginia Woolf desk acquired by Duke University that we wrote about last week? Additional details about the desk, which Woolf designed and her nephew Quentin Bell painted, have come to us from Caroline Zoob, author of Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House.
Zoob, who lived at Monk’s House for a decade as a tenant of the National Trust, said she had never seen the desk. So she wrote Naomi Nelson of Duke, asking if the desk Duke had acquired — one Zoob described as “slopey” — had ever been at Monk’s House.
Nelson quoted from a letter dated Jan. 5, 1981, from Bell to Colin Franklin, to whom Bell sold the desk in 1980:
The history of it as far as I can remember is this: it remained in my aunt’s possession until about 1929, having been taken first to Asheham and then to Monks House at Rodmell. There in some kind of general turnout and spring clean, Virginia decided to throw it out. I think she had for many years abandoned the habit of writing in an upright position and certainly I never saw her doing anything of the kind, so that this tall desk, usually, I think, used by office workers of the last century and requiring the writer to stand or to sit on a very high stool, was going free. I was offered it and accepted it, and it came to Charleston.
According to Nelson, Bell’s letter “goes on to describe painting the design on the top and reveals that his wife [Olivia] shortened the legs (‘long before the current revival of interest in Virginia Woolf.’)”
Lisa Baskin Unger acquired the desk from Franklin, and it became one of “the most iconic items” in her collection, which is described as one of the largest and most significant private collections on women’s history. So the Virginia Woolf desk now in Duke’s possession is apparently Woolf’s original stand-up desk with its legs shortened to suit Olivia Bell.
The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University recently acquired Unger’s collection and is now in the process of cataloguing it. The Baskin Collection also holds a collection of letters to Aileen Pippett, author of The Moth and the Star, the first full-length biography of Woolf. Pippett’s correspondents include Vanessa Bell.
— Duke University (@DukeU) April 22, 2015