Imprisoned at Sissinghurst

 

The White Garden at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/Jonathan Buckley

Today Sissinghurst Castle is known for its stunning garden, created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the middle of the twentieth century. In the eighteenth century, however, Sissinghurst served as a grim prisoner-of-war camp for a number of years. We have just acquired a painting that sheds light on this lesser-known episode.

Image: Bonhams

During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) Sissinghurst Castle was used as a camp for captured French seamen. The painting we have just purchased records an incident on 9 July 1761 when two prisoners were shot by a drunken guard with apparently little provocation. The naïvely painted picture was probably made soon after the event by one of those present.

As well as recording a war crime, the picture shows various parts of the Castle that were soon to disappear. The inmates were treated appallingly and ended up having to use much of the contents of the house as firewood, which contributed to its subsequent dilapidation. 

©NTPL/Jonathan Buckley

The front range, visible in the foreground of the painting, still survives (seen above from the other side) – 

©NTPL/Jonathan Buckley

  – as does the main tower, but most of the rest of the Tudor prodigy house has disappeared.

Vita Sackville-West created her writing room on the first floor of the tower. This was her inner sanctum, where nobody dared to disturb her while she worked. 

©NTPL/Jonathan Buckley

Vita and Harold made Sissinghurst into a place of great beauty, but the evidence of its darker history has not been expunged entirely. Some of the graffiti the prisoners left behind can still be seen in the tower. This new acquisition will be the centrepiece of a display there telling the story of this unhappy period.

The picture was purchased at auction at Bonhams in London on 20 January with the help of generous donations from the Tenterden and District National Trust Association, the Rye and District National Trust Association and from Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Harold and Vita. 

Adam Nicolson in the Rose Garden at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/Penny Tweedie

It was Adam who identified the precise subject of this picture, an account of which survives in the Admiralty files in the National Archives. He has recently written a book on Sissinghurst, which can be found here. 

2 Responses to “Imprisoned at Sissinghurst”

  1. littleaugury Says:

    Your posts are fast becoming full blown episodic detective stories-all of which would be super in a series for television,dvd!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    You are too kind. The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, is currently doing a series of radio talks on the BBC entitled ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’. It would be good if I could achieve something similar, i.e. tell stories through objects – although I cannot hope to cover the entire world!

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