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