History of Lamb House

The Oak parlour at Lamb House Rye

Lamb House has been an inspirational environment for many authors, resulting in it also becoming a fictionalised setting for some of their most well-known books. King George I stayed there in 1726. Explore the historical significance of this Sussex treasure.

The oak parlour, Lamb House

Finding Henry James' Place at Lamb House

Read on to find out more about Henry James and his journey to Rye and Lamb House.

Fit for a King

Lamb house was built in 1722 by James Lamb, a wealthy wine merchant and local politician. When a storm drove King George I’s ship ashore at Camber in 1726 Lamb House was considered the most suitable accommodation for him, so James Lamb gave up his bed. In 1832 George Augustus Lamb sold the house to a wealthy local banker, Francis Bellingham.

An inspiring place to write

The American novelist Henry James discovered Rye and Lamb House quite by chance whilst visiting his friend, the architect Edward Warren. He was enchanted by the house and delighted when the opportunity arose to lease it in 1897. He bought it two years later.

James wrote his novella The Turn of the Screw, whilst Lamb House was being renovated from his London apartment. Working from Lamb House he wrote his most acclaimed novels: The Wings of the DoveThe Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It was while living and working at Lamb House that James began to be known as ‘The Master’. He usually wrote in the Green Room, but he preferred the Garden Room in summer. This was a self-contained building next to the house constructed in 1743 as a separate banqueting room but destroyed in 1940 during a bombing raid. Lamb House appeared as Mr Langdon’s home in James’s novel An Awkward Age.

Henry James in the garden at Lamb House
Henry James in the garden at Lamb House
Henry James in the garden at Lamb House

A home of grand connections

A friend of James, E.F. Benson, lived at Lamb House from 1919 until his death in 1940. A hugely prolific writer of fiction, ghost stories and non-fiction he is now best remembered for his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels which were set in Tilling based on Rye with Lamb House cast as ‘Mallards’, home of Miss Mapp. He was Mayor of Rye from 1934-1937.

 

The continuing tradition

Since the time of James and Benson, Lamb House has continued to attract and nurture literary and artistic personalities. Some previous National Trust tenants include the prolific author, biographer, barrister and politician H. Montgomery Hyde who lived at the house from 1963 until 1967. Hyde was an early Human Rights Campaigner and a distant cousin of Henry James. Rumer Godden was the author of over sixty fiction and non-fiction books, nine of which were made into films, including Oscar winning Black Narcissus in 1947. She also wrote many volumes of poems, short stories and children’s fiction. Godden lived at Lamb House from 1967 until 1974 and is buried in Rye with her second husband Laurence Foster. The painter, celebrated designer, publisher and Conservative politician Sir Brian Batsford lived at Lamb House from 1980 until 1987. He designed and illustrated the covers of the hugely collectable British Heritage Series of ‘Batsford Books’ from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. He was chairman of Batsford Publishing from 1952 until 1974.

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 this 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 the “pleasant little old-world town angle into which it’s nice old red-bricked front, its high old Georgian doorway” (Hyde, 1969, 73) was conveyed. In that moment, James lost his heart to Lamb House and left his name and address with the local ironmonger, who promised to alert him if the house should become available.

On the 15th September 1897, Henry received a telegram to DeVere Mansions from ‘the good local ironmonger’ in Rye. It explained that Lamb House was unexpectedly and suddenly available to let and that if James wished to procure 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 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).