Vita and Violet

Portrait of Violet Trefusis by Sir John Lavery, 1919. ©MLA

One of the episodes in Vita Sackville-West’s life that previous generations were slightly reluctant to discuss was the passionate affair she had with Violet Trefusis. To be fair, Nigel Nicolson, one of Vita’s sons, did describe the relationship in his fascinating Portrait of a Marriage, first published in 1973.

Portrait of Vita Sackville-West by Philip de Laszlo, 1909. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Vita and Violet had been friends at school, but when they met again in 1918 they began, as Nigel Nicolson describes it, a ‘mad and irresponsible summer of moonlight nights, and infinite escapades, and passionate letters, and music, and poetry.’

Violet Trefusis's bookplate in the collected works of Jose-Maria de Heredia, in the library at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

By this time Vita was married to Harold Nicolson and Violet, under pressure from her mother, married Denys Trefusis in 1919. When Vita and Violet eloped to France in early 1920 their husbands set off in pursuit, chartering a small plane, and eventually persuaded them to return home.

The Rose Garden at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/Jonathan Buckley

Vita ultimately chose to stay with Harold and they went on to create the famous garden at Sissinghurst. But Vita could never entirely forget Violet.

The portrait of Violet shown above, by Sir John Lavery, was accepted by the Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Sissinghurst in 2010.

15 Responses to “Vita and Violet”

  1. Alison Says:

    It is a stunning portrait.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Isn’t it just? And so different from the De Laszlo of Vita, although both Lavery and De Laszlo were ‘society’ portraitists and more or less of the same generation.

  3. graham daw Says:

    so are harold’s boyfriends also represented by a portrait or two?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I don’t think so, as yet – partly because we don’t have great portraits of them like this one, and partly because those affairs were less well documented.

  5. KDM Says:

    This is wonderful. I am reading VSW’s “The Artistocrats” in anticipation of a Royal Oak Society lecture “The Private Life of a Public Place: 400 Years of the Sackvilles at Knole” KDM

  6. CherryPie Says:

    Both are beautiful portraits.

    Those relationships were very complex. You have to wonder how they would have played out in this day and age.

  7. gaye tapp Says:

    the portrait is beautiful
    the book by Susan Mary Alsop Lady Sackville: A Biography does document the mother’s vantage point a bit and is a wonderful read in general. I have Inheritance on tap this month. The affair-of course Very full of drama -as Lavery depicts Violet.- and Violet is mentioned in many of her Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill. It seems NM loathed her in private. Is there a Violet biography? surely there is?

  8. Hels Says:

    I am always very excited about the story of the Nicolsons and your portraits are appropriately gorgeous.

    It seems Vita and Violet promised to remain true to each another, despite both of them having husbands. Strange, but perhaps aristocratic marriages allowed for that sort of arrangement. The affair only ended when one of them was caught sneaking into her own husband’s bedroom!

    Sissinghurst was wonderful but I wonder if it made up for losing Knole.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    KDM, yes Knole loomed large in Vita’s life as a place of beauty and memory, because she grew up there and because, poignantly, she was barred from inheriting it because of primogeniture.

    CherryPie, yes the affair cannot be seen outside of the context of Edwardian England, where homosexuality was still scandalous, where marriages were still sometimes martters of social convenience, and where certain classes lived amazingly privileged lives.

    Gaye, as for books about Violet, Michael Holroyd provides an excellent round-up in the afterword to his ‘A Book of Secrets: Illegitemate Daughters – Absent Fathers’ (2010, see: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article7167864.ece).

    Helen, yes the affair was extraordinarily tangled. And although Vita and Harold genuinely loved each other, their marriage was very ‘Edwardian’ in that they both had their own private life as well.

  10. Toby Worthington Says:

    It was refreshing to see that wistful painted portrait of Violet Trefusis, in contrast
    to the unflattering photographs of VT in later life~most of which, as Gaye Tapp
    says, were intended to further Nancy Mitford’s unsympathetic take on that
    controversial woman.
    I’m finding the comments as illuminating as today’s text; and have often
    wondered how those complex relationships were managed!

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes ‘managed’ is a wonderful understatement considering the gripping melodrama unfolding in the pages of ‘Portrait of a Marriage’ :)

  12. Andrew Says:

    These days, no doubt there would in-depth coverage in the tabloid newspapers and celebrity magazines. Homosexuality may have been scandalous in Edwardian London, at least when it came to public knowledge, but some seem to have been less censorious in private and there was a clearly seething mass of relationships behind closed doors (or perhaps that was just the Bloomsbury set!). Compare the triangle of Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and Ralph Partridge, or (in a different context) the behaviour of Augustus John or Eric Gill.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes the massive firewall between private and public knowledge in Edwardian Britain seems remarkable to us know. Another example I suppose would be the way the relationship between Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson was kept out of the British press, although ‘everyone’ in society knew about it.

    This makes one wonder, too, what Vita and Violet’s Pinterest boards might have looked like :)

  14. Andrew Says:

    Edward VII too – Lillie Langtry, Daisy Greville, Alice Keppel …

  15. berreynolds Says:

    Visit the official website:
    http://www.violettrefusis.com

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