Exploring LGBTQ history at Knole

Portrait of Eddy Sackville-West by Barbara Ker-Seymer, c.1930

Knole is celebrating its rich LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) connections as part of the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme, marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Like many places now managed by the National Trust, Knole’s history has been shaped and enriched by people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality. Most famously it was the backdrop for a triangle of intense friendship between Vita Sackville-West, her cousin Eddy and the writer Virginia Woolf.

Vita and Virginia

Knole was the beloved family home of novelist, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West who had an open marriage to diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson. Both enjoyed a series of same-sex relationships outside their marriage. Vita’s most famously included Virginia Woolf and the writer and socialite Violet Trefusis, with whom she eloped for a time leaving behind her two young sons.

“The relationship between Harold and Vita is interesting because it was outwardly so conventional,” says Knole’s curator Emma Slocombe. “Marriage is how a couple made their way through society and a union of two people of Vita and Harold’s social standing allowed them to fulfil themselves through other relationships.”

Vita met Virginia in 1922 and they had a consuming relationship until Virginia’s death in 1941. “They were lovers and spent at least one night at Knole together when Vita snuck Virginia in,” says Emma. “How secret it was I don’t know, but the staff must have been aware.”

Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos
Oil painting on canvas, Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

Virginia Woolf adored Knole and spent a great deal of time at the house. She used it as the setting for her historical novel Orlando, which spans 400 years and tells the story of the house based around the title character who changes sex. The novel was inspired by her lover Vita and was described by Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson as “the longest, most charming love letter in literature”.

The original manuscript of Orlando, now very fragile, is kept at Knole and will be on display in the Visitor Centre over the summer. The National Trust has also recently acquired a copy of Orlando inscribed to Eddy Sackville-West from Virginia, which will also be on display throughout June.

Orlando: The Queer Element

One of the highlights of Knole’s LGBTQ celebrations will be a theatrical evening centred around Orlando and exploring the themes of sex and gender. Orlando: The Queer Element is an immersive, multi-sensory collaboration with the British Film Institute and Clay & Diamonds. The evening includes a live performance of Virginia Woolf’s novel, as well as a screening of Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation. It take place in the courtyards at Knole on Friday 30 June, from 7pm-10.30pm.

Tickets cost £15 per person and can be purchased at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole/whats-on or by phoning BFI’s ticket line on 020 7928 3232. Booking is essential. 

Orlando manuscript dedicated to Vita Sackville-West

Life in the tower

Visitors to Knole can also explore the Gatehouse Tower, the former home of author and music critic Eddy Sackville-West. His bohemian rooms house a fascinating collection of his books, photographs and music.

Eddy was closely connected with the literati of the day and part of the free spirited Bloomsbury Group who he often entertained in his apartments. “Everybody came to Knole. It was absolutely thrilling,” says Emma.

The proof lies in the visitor’s book on display in the tower - homage to the literary and artistic establishment of the 1920s and 1930s with entries by LP Hartley, Aldous Huxley, EM Forster and Duncan Grant among others.

This summer Knole will introduce new displays in the Gatehouse Tower, which will focus on Eddy’s experiences as a gay man in the early 20th century.

Eddy's bedroom in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole
Eddy's bedroom in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole

“Today we are comfortable having conversations about sexuality, but Eddy was a gay man at a time when it was illegal,” says Emma. “That is why he spent time in Berlin. He could go there and sleep with whom he liked without judgement. It was a progressive place to be.”

Although fond of parties and socialising, Eddy also inherited the seam of melancholia that runs through the Sackville family and afflicted Vita and her father. “There is a side of him that liked to go to parties with Nancy Mitford and say waspish things about who is sleeping with whom, but he could also be quiet and introverted. He was a prolific writer and you can’t do that constantly surrounded by people.”

Unlike Vita and Virginia, Eddy’s personal relationships and feelings remained largely hidden. He is known to have had close relationships with numerous men, but never enjoyed the freedom to explore his sexuality with the rare openness of his cousin and literary friends.