Monday, March 3, 2014

Monk's House

The conservatory and garden at Monk's House  
October, 2013

If "places explain people" as David Garnett once said, then Monk's House goes a long way towards explaining Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I have been reading Virginia Woolf's books since I discovered her in my early twenties and she is one of my favorite writers. I had always dreamt of visiting her country house in the village of Rodmell located in Sussex, England. Last fall I finally made the pilgrimage. I wrote a bit about it here, with a promise to write more. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit the homes of the writers I love. And I had a feeling that a journey to Monk's House would be filled with meaning for anyone who loves the books of Virginia Woolf.

There has been much written about Monk's House over the years and I have eagerly read what ever I could get my hands on. In addition, when I was in my twenties I did what today I can only marvel at: I read all six volumes of Virginia Woolf's letters! Better than any biography, I thought at the time, for getting a real sense of a person. Through them I learned about the Woolfs purchase of the house as well as their experience of living in it. More recently I read a great article with gorgeous photos in "The World of Interiors" ( go here to read more) and at that point I made up my mind. I had to see this house for myself. And so when I planned our trip to England in the fall, a visit to Monk's House was top priority.

In a way, being there felt strangely comforting and familiar. Maybe because of all that reading. For example, I knew that Virginia chose the village of Rodmell because of its proximity to Charleston, the home of her sister Vanessa Bell. The surrounding countryside looked very much like that around Charleston. I knew that the house was a sanctuary for Virginia's writing as well as a gathering place for her friends who talked and gossiped late into the night. And Virginia could be a mischievous gossip. I knew that she had a fondness for the color green and despite her sister Vanessa's ridicule (which was especially stinging since Vanessa was a painter), she used it in every room. And that most things in the house had been hand-made and decorated by Vanessa and Duncan Grant -- the needlepoint pillows, the seat backs of the dining room chairs, the tiles covering the table in the sitting room, just to name a few. I knew that when she made a little money she added on a bedroom for herself. And that Leonard had created a beautiful garden for them both. And yet, there was no way to really understand this place without walking though the doors.

And so on a beautiful autumnal day we made the trek to Sussex.

We parked the car and walked the short distance to the property. The brick and weather-board cottage  is so modest and unpretentious that you would never notice it except for the sign pointing you in its direction. The Woolfs never used the door facing the street, preferring to enter through the garden door round the back. We were soon to find out why.

I couldn't get a good photo of the front of the house, so I borrowed this lovely one.
Photo via here

But I quickly got over my photo dilemma when I walked around the side of the house and was greeted by this -- the conservatory that looks out onto Leonard's garden. This is where they entered the house and where we entered, providing a brief glimpse of the gorgeous garden. The garden was much bigger than I had imagined and contained lovely expanses of grass, flower borders, garden ornaments, benches and an apple orchard. I had no idea how important the garden was to Monk's House; it was easy to see that this was why Leonard and Virginia had bought the house. But we would see the garden later. First came the tour of the house.

On the way into the house, we walked right past Leonard's greenhouse.
Apples from his orchard, what a great image of autumn!

The first room we came to is the tile-floored sitting room and, yes, it is painted Virginia's beloved green. This cozy spot in front of the fireplace was a favorite of hers for reading in the evenings. I could also imagine her sitting here with friends and talking late into the night.

A close-up of the fireplace screen
 I have never seen one made out of needlepoint -- just beautiful!

The sitting room is the biggest room in the house.
 Much of the furnishings and decorative objects were designed by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

I love this lamp and the way that the garden can be seen from this and every other window.

Another view of the garden and its statuary

This tile-topped table was designed by Duncan Grant

Everywhere you look you see needlepoint, even in the frame of the mirror.
Most of the needlepoint was designed by Duncan Grant and worked by his mother.

The dining room with its green enamelled stove. I loved this cozy room.
The chairs were designed by Duncan Grant and the yellow seat backs were worked by Mrs. Grant.

The cupboard was filled with hand-painted cups and plates

Virginia's sunny ground floor bedroom, filled with her favorite books and surrounded by the garden. Vanessa painted the fireplace surround and included a lighthouse at the top.

In the corner is Virginia's collection of Shakespeare which she bound in colorful papers. In 1936 she wrote to E.M. Forster that she was "rebinding all my Shakespeare - 29 volumes - in coloured paper," labelling the spines herself.  Lady Ottoline Morrell gave her this Chinese silk shawl.

Don't you love the idea of covering a favorite collection of books with beautiful papers like these?
I think we should bring this custom back.

Next it was off to the garden...

This is the quote chosen for the day. Poor Rex Whistler!

We sat on a bench and looked out at this peaceful scene. What a great spot this would have been for afternoon tea or playing bowls on the lawn.

On either end of the stone wall sit the busts of Leonard and Virginia Woolf

Her ashes are buried here

It was obvious that Virginia and Leonard loved this garden

 Leonard would have been proud of his apple trees which were bursting with fruit on the day we visited. I caught a glimpse of Virginia's writing hut though the branches.

It is easy to imagine their lives in this magical setting. Virginia would have read by the fireplace,  entertained friends in the garden, presided over meals in the dining room, worked in her writing hut, and taken walks in the beautiful countryside while creating characters in her mind. Leonard would have worked in the garden and the conservatory, happy in the knowledge that he was creating a peaceful place for Virginia to retreat when the noise and tumult of London got to be too much. For both of them, it must have been paradise.

If you get a chance, pick up the new issue of The English Home to see an excellent article on Monk's House. This one is an extract from the new book Virginia Woolf's Garden by Caroline Zoob who lived  in Monk's house with her husband as tenant-curator for ten years. 


  1. You've conjured up some wonderful memories for me.
    How I do love this place.

  2. Rich decor, evocative and so reminiscent of Virginia's work....

  3. A lovely post, and wonderful photos, thank you for sharing them! I will have to put this on my list of houses I want to see.

  4. Remnants of a DREAM...we should all be so,lucky to have our vision visited years after we vanish! But we really don't ever leave do we! LOVE the green, the needle points and gardens.

  5. I just love this house. I feel I could move in and be happy with it just the way it is. Full of live, creativity, charm, etc. I love all the needlepoint, and special accessories that were chosen and placed with love and care. Thanks for the lovely tour.

  6. I would love to live there! Wishing we could visit together :)

  7. I loved reding this post on Monk's House. I have not had the chance to visit, but long to.

  8. What a feast for the eyes! I love the colors chosen for the home and how they enhance the colors in the garden. It does look like paradise.

  9. I fully enjoyed this visit and I liked this house full of charme and coziness . Wish I could really visit it one day!

  10. So beautiful pictures, thanks :) I am looking forward to the day where I can visit the house ;) actually you can rent Monk's House Garden Studio which must be an exceptionel experience.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the story of your visit to Monks House. The house was brought to my attention recently by the publication of the book Virginia Wolfe's Garden by Zoon. I am wondering why I missed seeing this when we visited gardens in Kent and Sussex. It will be on the top of my list next time in England and the book too.