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Exploring LGBTQ history at Knole

Portrait of Eddy Sackville-West in the Music Room, in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole, Kent, by Graham Sutherland
Portrait of Eddy Sackville-West by Graham Sutherland in the Music Room of the Gatehouse Tower | © National Trust/Ciaran McCrickard

Like many places now cared for by the National Trust, Knole’s history has been shaped and enriched by people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality. Most famously, Knole was the backdrop for a triangle of intense friendship between Vita Sackville-West, her cousin Eddy and the writer Virginia Woolf.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

Knole was the beloved family home of novelist, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West, who had an open marriage to diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson. Both enjoyed a series of same-sex relationships outside their marriage. Vita’s most famously included Virginia Woolf and the writer and socialite Violet Trefusis, with whom she eloped for a time, leaving behind her two young sons.

Vita met Virginia in 1922 and they had a consuming relationship until Virginia’s death in 1941.

‘The relationship between Harold and Vita is interesting because it was outwardly so conventional. Marriage is how a couple made their way through society and a union of two people of Vita and Harold’s social standing allowed them to fulfil themselves through other relationships.’

- Knole’s former curator, Emma Slocombe

Charming love letter

Virginia Woolf adored Knole and spent a great deal of time at the house. She used it as the setting for her historical novel Orlando, which spans 400 years and tells the story of the house based around the title character who changes sex. The novel was inspired by her lover Vita and was described by Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature.'

The original, fragile manuscript of Orlando is kept at Knole. Virginia presented Vita with the manuscript, which includes a dedication, on 6 December 1928.

Portrait of Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos
Vita Sackville-West by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Life in the tower

Visitors to Knole can also explore the Gatehouse Tower, the former home of author and music critic Eddy Sackville-West. His bohemian rooms house a fascinating collection of his books, photographs and music, including an impressive gramophone.

There are permanent displays in the Gatehouse Tower that focus on Eddy’s experiences as a gay man in the early 20th century. They shine a light on Eddy’s time in Germany during the inter-war and Second World War periods and his friendships, relationships and experiences during this time.

‘Today we are comfortable having conversations about sexuality, but Eddy was a gay man at a time when it was illegal. That's why he spent time in Berlin. He could go there and sleep with whom he liked without judgement. It was a progressive place to be.’

- Knole’s former curator, Emma Slocombe

Unlike Vita and Virginia, Eddy’s personal relationships and feelings remained largely hidden. He is known to have had close relationships with numerous men, but never enjoyed the freedom to explore his sexuality with the rare openness of his cousin and literary friends.

A group of people looking at exhibits inside Knole in Kent

Discover more at Knole

Find out when Knole is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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Portrait of Eddy Sackville-West in the Music Room, in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole, Kent, by Graham Sutherland

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