Finding Henry James' Place at Lamb House

The oak parlour, Lamb House

Devastated by the failure of his play “Guy Domville” on the London stage in 1895, Henry James fled to Sussex to seek calm and refuge, away from the embarrassment he felt. In the summer of 1896 Henry James had decided to take a house in Point Hill, Playden, just outside of Rye.

The summer of 1896 was warm and dry, every evening Henry James dined outdoors on the terrace at Point Hill, with its views across the Romney Marsh. During his three months at Point Hill, Henry enjoyed ‘biking’, exploring the Sussex landscape, hoping that he would find himself the next day ‘exhausted and ready for work’ (Hyde, 1969, 72).

Henry James’ friend Edward Warren, a distinguished architect, had completed a sketch of a striking Georgian façade, which Warren had completed during a holiday in Rye. Warren, who was later to give Henry James the drawing as a gift, explained it was of the ‘garden house’ at Lamb House, the town’s principal mansion” (Journal of Henry James, July 30th 1914). When staying at Point Hill, James walked into Rye to search for the subject of Warren’s drawing. Upon finding it, he was immensely taken with “pleasant little old-world town angle into which it’s nice old red-bricked front, its high old Georgian doorway” (Hyde, 1969, 73). Having lost his heart to Lamb House, he left his name and address with the local ironmonger, who promise to let him know if the house should become available.

On the 15th September 1897 Henry received a letter to DeVere Mansions from ‘the good local ironmonger’ in Rye, which explained that Lamb House was unexpectedly and suddenly to let, and that if James wished to let it he would need to move quickly. The very next day Henry travelled down to Sussex in the hope to ask for first refusal of Lamb House. On the 22nd September Henry was offered a twenty-one year lease of Lamb House at the rate of £70 a year, and he signed the lease on the 25th September, writing to his friend Arthur Benson: “I am just drawing a long breath from having signed – a few moments since – a most portentous parchment: the lease of a smallish, charming, cheap old house in the country – down at Rye – for twenty-one ­years!” (Hyde, 1969 79).