‘Speak its Name!’ – new LGBTQ display at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Press release
Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932
Published : 08 Sep 2017 Last update : 06 Dec 2017

 ‘Speak its Name!’ – celebrating the LGBTQ heritage of Vita Sackville West and her contemporaries

9 September – 29 October

National Trust in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London

To mark 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent is commemorating this significant step on the road to equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.

As part of the National Trust’s ‘Prejudice & Pride’ programme, a new display, Speak its Name!, has been created in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London, drawing on portraits in their collection.

The partnership display at Sissinghurst focuses on the lives of husband and wife, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, and their contemporaries. The couple had a happy and loving marriage, despite engaging in same-sex extra-marital affairs, both before and after they moved to Sissinghurst in 1930. Their relationships challenged societal norms and influenced them both creatively, and Vita's relationship with Virginia Woolf inspired much of her writing. 

Speak its Name! includes portraits of Vita’s female lovers, Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf, alongside others of the couple’s artistic and literary circle, such as Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey. Accompanying these photographs and drawings are quotations by the sitters, relating an aspect of their own personal experiences, in their own words.

The display highlights a number of prominent creative thinkers from the past and present, whose modern attitudes towards freedom of expression and sexuality exerted an important influence on literature and the arts.

The display also features items from Sissinghurst’s own collection, including a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (a novel with a lesbian protagonist that was deemed ‘obscene’ by a British judge when it was first published in 1928) and pictures of Nicolson and Woolf that once belonged to Vita.

The partnership forms part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘I am me’ season, which marks fifty years of advances in gay rights. The season included a display of the same name at the Gallery in London, (Nov 2016 – Aug 2017), and a new Speak its Name! publication, featuring portraits and quotations by and about prominent gay men and women ranging from King James I to Sandi Toksvig.

Tom Freshwater, National Programmes Manager at the National Trust says: “Many National Trust places were home to people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality, and we are exploring and celebrating their stories which are part of our LGBTQ heritage.

“Sissinghurst is a particularly important part of this heritage and we are delighted to be partnering with the National Portrait Gallery to showcase the lives of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson and the men and women who meant so much to them.”

Christopher Tinker, author of the Speak its Name! book and Managing Editor at the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “We are proud to be partnering with the National Trust on the Speak its Name! display at Sissinghurst and to be able to extend the reach of our ‘I am me season beyond the Gallery in London.

“The new display at Sissinghurst plays an important role in highlighting the individual stories of LGBTQ people past and present, as we mark the enormous advances in gay rights over recent decades and assess the continuing fight for equality for all.”

Speak its Name! can be seen in the oast house at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent, from 9 September until 29 October. Entry to the exhibition is free. Normal admission applies. For opening times and prices, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle