National Trust prepares to celebrate its gay history

Sissinghurst Castle, Knole, Sutton House and Smallhythe Place are just some of the properties that will feature in next year’s focus on LGBTQ history

The long happy marriage and the very separate bedrooms of Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, will be celebrated at their Kent home as the National Trust turns its attention for the first time to the gay history locked within the walls of many of its properties.

The Nicolsons were a famously devoted couple, and had two sons, the writer and publisher Nigel and art historian Benedict, but both also had passionate relationships with partners of the same sex.

The gardens at Sissinghurst Castle
The gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. Photograph: Alamy

Their book-lined cottage home still full of their possessions, surrounded by the idyllic gardens they created at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, has rarely been seen by the public because it was maintained by the family as a writer’s retreat, but it will now be on view by timed ticket every day the gardens are open.

Sackville-West’s relationship with Virginia Woolf inspired her novel Orlando, following a gender-changing hero across centuries at Knole, the palatial ancestral home Sackville-West adored but could not as a daughter inherit, and so had to leave while a male cousin moved in. Knole is also now a National Trust property. This month the trust bought a first edition presentation copy of the book, inscribed by Woolf to Edward Sackville-West, the cousin who inherited the property.

The trust will publish a new guidebook next year telling the LGBTQ history of some of its properties, and put on a range of events under the headline Prejudice and Pride, including Sutton House Queered, a year-long programme at the property in Hackney built as a Tudor merchant’s mansion and which by the 1980s had become a heavily graffitied anarchist squat.

Sutton House, Hackney, London
Sutton House, Hackney, London. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Sarah Waters, author of the bestselling historical novel Tipping the Velvet, who is working with the trust on the project, said: “These days we can all be a bit bolder about exploring and enjoying the UK’s rich heritage of sex and gender diversity. And I’d argue that without an awareness of that heritage our experience of certain National Trust properties is incomplete.”

Displays at Smallhythe Place in Kent will focus not on the glamorous Victorian actor Ellen Terry but on the women her daughter, Edy Craig, shared her life and home with. In June there will be performances of The Boy, a dramatisation of De Profundis, the anguished letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover Bosie from Reading jail.

Simon Murray, director of the National Trust, said the year’s programme – on which it is working with Leicester University – was only the beginning of its efforts to tackle more complex aspects of its history, including women’s suffrage in 2018 and the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019.

“Over the next few years we will be exploring some of the complex and often more difficult aspects of the history of our places, stories we have perhaps shied away from, but which are important to our understanding of their history,” he said.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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