Prejudice and Pride at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

The cottage garden in the summer at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

This year marks 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act (1967) which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England. The National Trust will be celebrating with a year-long programme entitled ‘Prejudice and Pride. Fellow museums, heritage organisations and the media will all mark and celebrate LGBTQ heritage and culture throughout 2017. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of those LGBTQ individuals whose story has not yet been fully told.

Many National Trust places were home to people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality. We look after special places for ever, for everyone and LGBTQ heritage plays an important part in Sissinghurst’s story.

Husband and wife, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, had same sex, extra marital affairs, both before and after they moved to Sissinghurst. Their relationships challenged societal norms which influenced them both creatively. Vita's relationship with Virginia Woolf inspired much of her writing. 

A number of queer objects belonging to Vita in particular can be seen on display throughout the year.
Once a term of abuse, queer has now been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community as encompassing all aspects of difference across gender and sexuality, a spectrum rather than fixed categories. Our list of queer objects includes the photograph of Virginia Woolf which sat on Vita’s desk up until her death in 1967, and for 20 years after Virginia’s.

Arguably the most important love affair Vita had was with her childhood friend Violet Trefusis (nee Keppel). This important relationship is reflected in the position of high esteem that a portrait of Violet takes in Vita’s sacrosanct writing room.

A view of Vita's writing room
A view of Vita's writing room
A view of Vita's writing room

The 11,000 books here at Sissinghurst also tell an aspect of the LGBTQ story and will be out on display in the library with editions changing frequently throughout the year. Amongst the vast shelves are a number of radical queer authors, either collected by Vita and Harold or sent to the pair for comment and review. The collection includes over 30 books by Virginia Woolf, W.H.Auden, D.H.Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Stephen Spender.
It seems Sissinghurst was a sort of melting pot, an escape from the social norms for authors and its owners and where Harold in particular could be himself away from his very public work life in London as an MP.

Enjoy a 360 degree view of the library
The Long Library at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent
Enjoy a 360 degree view of the library

This year will see Sissinghurst reflect on its already well known LGBTQ stories. There will be an exhibition taking place from June in the oast house, which celebrates both the LGBTQ anniversary and also 50 years since the National Trust took over at Sissinghurst.Pop back throughout the year to see more of the collection on display and learn about the unorthodox lifestyles of Vita and Harold.

Find out more about Speak Its Name! An exhibition in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery.