Archive for the ‘Sissinghurst Castle’ Category

Leafing through the library at Sissinghurst

June 30, 2011

Books reflected in a mirror in the library sitting room, called the Big Room, at Sissinghurst Castle. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Sissinghurst Castle still contains many of the books and papers of Vita Sackville-West, who bought the ruinous house in 1930 and restored it together with her husband Harold Nicolson.

Frontispiece of Edward Bunyard's Old Garden Roses (1936), at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

One of the reasons Vita loved Sissinghurst was that it had a history going back centuries, like her beloved ancestral home, Knole.

Colour plate from Arsène Alexandre's The Decorative Art of Leon Bakst (1913), at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Vita expressed some of her feelings about the place in a poem entitled Sissinghurst, which includes the lines:

For here, where days and years have lost their number,

I let a plummet down in lieu of date,

And lose myself within a slumber,

Submerged, elate.

Lacquered cover of a scrapbook, possibly Persian, nineteenth century, at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Vita and Harold were inspired by the atmosphere at Sissinghurst to create their now famous garden.

Pages from 'Vita's Scrapbook of Poets', made for her by 'E.D.Y.' (probably Edie Craig), at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The books at Sissinghurst reflect Vita’s passion for beauty, literature and gardening.

Binding of The Tower by W.B. Yeats, first edition (1928), at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Many of them have inscriptions by the authors, including Arthur Conan Doyle, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Violet Trefusis, Virginia Woolf and others.

Thompson & Morgan seed catalogues, at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/John Hammond

There are fine bindings, personal scrapbooks and even seed catalogues – all speaking of aspects of Vita’s many-sided personality.

Château de Sissinghurst

June 28, 2011

Infrared image of the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

A new exhibition at Sissinghurst Castle tells the stories of the French prisoners held there during the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763). These eerie infrared images seem somehow apropriate as an illustration of the dark flipside of this beautiful place.

Infrared image of a door handle at Sissinghurst. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

In the exhibition the little-known history of Sissinghurst as a prison camp will be told in the prisoners’ own words, found in their letters home and in trial records.

Infrared image of the courtyard range. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

Sissinghurst had been leased to the government by its then owner, Sir Horace Mann, for use as an internment centre for about 3,000 captured French sailors. It was a harsh place even by eighteenth-century standards.

Naive painting depicting the killing of Bastien Baillie at Sissinghurst.

On 11 July 1761 a soldier of the Kent Militia, John Bramston, fired into a group of prisoners without warning. As prisoner Arsille Coilou later testified: “I was walking with the man Bastien Baillie who was killed in the Garden. The sentry beyond the moat advanced two or three steps. He fired, and the man fell.”

Infrared image of the Tower seen through an arched doorway. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

The incident, depicted in the naïve painting that I posted about earlier, eventually led to an investigation of conditions at Sissinghurst. Poignantly, the word ‘castle’ was only added to Sissinghurst’s name at around this time, as the prisoners called their place of incarceration the ‘château de Sissinghurst’.

The exhibition is open from the beginning of July, Fridays to Tuesdays, 10:30 am until 4:30 pm.

Vita and Violet

March 7, 2011

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.

Imprisoned at Sissinghurst

March 3, 2010


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.