A Woman’s Place at Knole

Press release
Artist Emily Speed sitting next to her artwork in the Orangery at Knole
Published : 18 May 2018 Last update : 21 May 2018

A new exhibition has opened at the National Trust’s Knole in Kent, highlighting the progression to equality through creative interventions at the 600 year-old former archbishop’s palace, royal residence and home to the Sackville family for four centuries.

A Woman’s Place tells the stories of women who have contributed to Knole’s spirit and history through the work of six contemporary artists, including the 2017 Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid.

A Woman’s Place sees the six commissioned artists respond to themes of women and power through sculpture, film, online content and other interventions throughout the house and grounds at the historic home of the Sackville family. The project explores love, betrayal, class, gender and inheritance and gives a voice to some of Knole’s most fascinating – and unrecognised – women. 

Women’s rights impacted significantly on those who have lived at Knole. In 1928, the rules of inheritance and the familial tradition of passing the house to a male heir prevented Vita Sackville-West, the only child of the 3rd Baron Sackville, from inheriting.

The loss of Knole deeply affected Sackville-West and was immortalised at the pen of Virginia Woolf in her novel Orlando. The relationship between Vita and Virginia will be the focus of Lindsay Seers’ work - a website to visit before, during or after a visit to Knole - for A Woman’s Place.

Many other women’s stories at Knole have remained largely hidden, until now.

Himid’s work will focus on the women who served and lived in the background at Knole, including the unseen and little-documented Grace Robinson, described in the house inventory as a ‘blackamoor’ laundry maid.

The Turner Prize winner will populate the courtyards at Knole with miniature paintings of overlooked workers and motifs of clothing and pattern, as well as producing a specially commissioned flag to fly over Knole for the duration of the project.

Other installations include:

  • CJ Mahony’s glass work which considers the nature of ownership, symbolising the women – including family members and National Trust staff – who have cared for Knole but have never been able to own it. 
  • Emily Speed’s working fountain in the Orangery borrows the form of a dressing table and explores the impact of Knole on the women who lived here, and of three women specifically: Josefa Durán known as Pepita an infamous flamenco-dancer), her daughter Victoria Sackville-West, and Victoria’s daughter, Vita. The work alludes to the difficulties and complexities of these mother–daughter relationships, and of finding moments for tenderness, care and sensuality against the backdrop of public display and the performance of being a ‘lady’ of Knole. 
  • An audio drama of heart-wrenching stories based on the 17th century letters of Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Frances Cranfield by Melanie Wilson.
  • And a film exploring formal categorisation – of gender, nationality and family – at birth and how these labels shape our lives by Alice Williams. As Vita wrote: [gender is] “a technical fault over which we have no control.”

A Woman’s Place is directed and curated by Lucy Day and Eliza Gluckman and the project forms part of the National Trust’s Women and Power programme. This year-long programme celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the right to vote in the UK for the first time.

Lucy Day, Director of A Woman’s Place, said: “Knole gives us new ways to see how the lives of women have been – and continue to be – influenced by notions of gender, place and time. The responses by these six inspiring artists, in media ranging from website to sculpture and sound across this fascinating site, provide a space to pause and reflect on the historic – and current – fight for equality in this anniversary year.”

Hannah Kay, General Manager at Knole, said: “It is a pleasure and a privilege to host such a pioneering project at Knole. It is especially exciting to be working with such celebrated female artists to tell the story of Knole through the viewpoints of the women who have lived and worked here with care and creativity.”

Further information on each of the artworks can be found here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole/features/the-making-of-a-womans-place-at-knole