Vita Sackville-West and Knole

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

Victoria Mary Sackville-West, known as Vita, was born at Knole in 1892 and grew up there, an only child of Victoria and Lionel. She loved Knole but was unable to inherit when her father, the 3rd Lord Sackville died, due to the laws of primogeniture dictating that only men could inherit property.

Vita's uncle Charles inherited the title and Knole, and it was during his term that the house was handed to the National Trust with an endowment. The Sackville family retained a 200-year lease on private apartments at Knole and still live here today.

Vita's literary legacy

Vita was a poet, gardener, novelist, biographer and journalist. Her love for Knole led her to write a history of the house and her family, Knole and the Sackvilles, and one of her best-known novels, The Edwardians, uses Knole as inspiration for the grand house Chevron.

Her long narrative poem, The Land, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927, the oldest British literary prize, then in 1933 she became the only writer to win it a second time with her Collected Poems.

In 1947, Vita was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. Her weekly column in The Observer called 'In Your Garden', became a garden writing classic, and she was also a founding member of Knole's garden committee.

An eventful life

Vita was married in 1913 at the private chapel in Knole. Her husband, Harold Nicolson, was a diplomat, politician, critic and biographer. After a brief overseas posting, they returned to England and went on to buy Sissinghurst Castle in a practically derelict state. Together, they re-built the house and designed the now world-famous garden, visited by keen gardeners from all over the world. 

Vita and Harold remained close throughout a relatively unorthodox marriage. Both had affairs with members of the same sex, and Vita's relationship with Virginia Woolf is celebrated in Woolf's novel, Orlando, inspired by Knole and Vita's inability to inherit her beloved family home.

The original manuscript for Orlando is inscribed 'Vita from Virginia' and remains at Knole today. Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, has described it as 'the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.'

Pause a while...

If you pause at the foot of the Great Staircase as you leave the Great Hall, you will be rewarded with the sight of a large carved oak door stop in the form of William Shakespeare, which is from Vita's bedroom at Knole. Her mother's passion for fresh air meant that all the doors in the house were kept open.

Vita loved the harmony of Knole with its picturesque setting, describing it as 'not an incongruity like Blenheim or Chatsworth, foreign to the spirit of England ... the great Palladian houses of the 18th century are in England, they are not of England'.

 
The carved wooden statue of Shakespeare at the bottom of the Great Staircase used to prop open Vita Sackville-West's bedroom door
A close-up of the face on the carved wooden statue of Shakespeare
The carved wooden statue of Shakespeare at the bottom of the Great Staircase used to prop open Vita Sackville-West's bedroom door