Monk’s House, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s charming, art-!lled retreat in Rodmell, East Sussex, o"ers visitors a remarkable insight into the novelist’s life
No running water, no bathroom, no heating, no drainage and only a primitive outdoor earth closet: most would agree these shortcomings don’t add up to the ideal country retreat. But, to Virginia Woolf, Monk’s House ‘was the mongrel that won my heart’, a sanctuary where she could write, live quietly with her husband Leonard and see friends, away from the demands of London life.
‘ The story of the house is a domestic love story between Leonard and Virginia,’ explains Allison Pritchard, Operations Manager at the house, who has looked a !er it for the past six years. ‘In many ways they had a successful marriage and an equal partnership, and there’s a strong sense of that in the house still.’
The ancient weatherboarded brick and "int building was once three workers’ co#ages, set along a narrow lane on the outskirts of Rodmell, near Lewes in East Sussex. These days, Rodmell is a prosperous, picturepostcard village, backed by $elds that unfold to the water meadows of the River Ouse. But in 1919, when Virginia and Leonard Woolf $ rst came here, the village was rundown and the house basic. It was the garden, three- quarters of an acre of wilderness, that drew them. ‘ The garden still comes as a surprise to visitors today,’ says Allison. ‘ It looks like a standard plot, but
opens up behind, to a view of the 12th- century church that Virginia referred to as “the grey extinguisher” and, every a !ernoon, in almost any weather, she would unlatch the gate and go walking in the Sussex countryside.’
The Woolfs partially furnished the house with items bought from an auction of the previous owners’ belongings. From the lots spread across the lawn for the sale, Virginia and Leonard chose three primitive portraits of the Glazebrook family, millers who had lived in the house in the 19th century. These paintings remain in the house to this day.
The couple’s "rst weeks at Rodmell were not auspicious. The kitchen #ooded on their "rst night and the house was cold and far from comfortable. ‘ It’s an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors,’ wrote Virginia, wearily. But, as the years passed, her writing income, and the success of the publishing business that she and Leonard founded in 1917 paid for improvements to be made. ‘They made poky rooms practical and put their personalities into the house,’ explains Allison. Two small downstairs rooms at one end of the house were knocked through and a ground-#oor bedroom, where Vita Sackville-West once spent the night, was turned into a dining room. The kitchen was improved and extended and, at one end of the building, a new
The couple’s !rst weeks here were not auspicious. The kitchen "ooded on their !rst night and the house was cold and far from comfortable.
self- contained bedroom was made for Virginia. ‘One thing that’s missing, though, is books. You have to imagine every surface covered in books, and books piled all the way up the walls,’ Allison explains. In fact, so many were stored upstairs, the couple were warned that the ceiling beneath may well collapse.
Rooms were painted by Virginia, in vivid shades of green, yellow, blue and pomegranate, and they became the colourful backdrop for works of art and furnishings by iconic Bloomsbury names. Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and other members of their circle each depicted the garden, close friends and the surrounding landscape. Vanessa designed the fabric used on chairs and for curtains. She also painted the tiled ! replace in Virginia’s new bedroom with a design inspired by her sister’s novel, To The
Lighthouse, and their shared childhood home in St Ives. The dining table and chairs in the si"ing room were decorated by Duncan Grant and Vanessa in Omega Workshops style, with Vanessa’s characteristic circles and cross hatchings, and Virginia’s initials emblazoned on the chair backs. Duncan’s tile panel, depicting Venus at
her Toilet, provided the top for a
Rooms painted in vivid shades of green, yellow, blue and pomegranate became the colourful backdrop for works of art by iconic Bloomsbury names.
co!ee table, and his designs were worked in tapestry by his mother to make a mirror frame.
Although the house is now cared for by the National Trust, the sense of life here during the Woolfs’ lifetime remains potent. Photos of friends are propped on mantelpieces, Virginia’s glasses remain on her desk, the bowls they played on many a "ernoons are still in a box under the stairs. ‘ When they were here, their lives followed a well-practised routine,’ explains Allison. Virginia wrote in her writing shed in the garden or her bedroom most mornings. Then, a "er lunch, she walked, played bowls, edited her work, had tea, wrote le#ers and listened to music, all with what Leonard described as ‘the regularity of a stockbroker on her commute to work’.
‘Our mission in the house is to show what life was like here and to try and debunk some of the myths associated with Virginia Woolf,’ explains Allison. ‘People may o"en be drawn in by the more salacious elements of her existence: the fact that she was a depressive, had an a !air with Vita Sackville-West and took her own life. But when you come here, you see that her life wasn’t dominated by illness. There’s a sense of her fun, creativity and wit.’ Perhaps that’s why Allison’s favourite painting is the portrait of Virginia by her sister. ‘She hated having her portrait painted, but this shows her fresh-faced and youthful. Just as I like to imagine her.’
Virginia described their retreat as ‘an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors’.
The Chinese shawl on the chair was given to Virginia by Lady Ottoline Morrell. The curtain material is a reprinted design by her sister, and is available to buy at the Charleston Shop.
A small weatherboard building was installed in the garden in 1934. Virginia used it as her writing room.
The Property Monk’s House is managed by the National Trust (01273 474760; nationaltrust.org.uk). For more information about the garden at Monk’s House, turn to page 94.