“It is an unpretending house…” that is how novelist Virgina Woolf described her new home Monk’s House in Rodmell, East Sussex. Indeed, she was not mistaken. When Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf bought Monk’s House at auction in 1919 for £700 the house was rather austere with no hot running water, no bath, an oil stove but no grate in the kitchen and toilet facilities in the form of an earth closet (EC)! This seems not to have deterred the Woolf’s who made it their weekend and holiday retreat and spent several years updating and modernising it, the sales of her books paying for the work (indeed Mrs Dalloway and The Common Reader paid for 2 toilets to be installed) finally adding a two storey extension in 1929 and by 1931 having electric fires in the bedrooms. After Virgina’s death in 1941, her husband Leonard continued to live at Monks House until his own death in 1969. Today the house is owned and maintained by the National Trust, opening to the public every Wednesday to Sunday afternoon between 1.30pm and 5.00pm between March and October.
From the front the house looks pretty, but unassuming, being close to the road bounded by a low brick wall and close panel wooden fence, the front elevation covered in white clapboard. A brick path along the side leads to the entrance at the rear of the house, which itself supports a full length glass lean-to conservatory/greenhouse in which grow beautiful exotic flowers for cutting to place in the house – this was built by Leonard who was a keen gardener, for Virginia who loved fresh flowers.
There are 4 rooms open to the public at Monks House. On entry you descend 3 steps into a small, dark hallway-cum-dining room where you turn left into the sitting room. The original room was much smaller and it was the Woolf’s who knocked down a partition wall to create a large oak beamed room with flagstone floor and open fireplace (although an electric fire was installed as the ultimate luxury). The room itself contains much of the Woolf’s original furniture hand painted and decorated by Virgina’s sister Vanessa Bell (who lived at the nearby Charleston farmhouse) and Duncan Grant, recalling their work for the Omega workshops and the inimitable Bloomsbury style. Included is a hand painted table by Vanessa Bell, a tiled table with hand painted tiles by Duncan Grant and a tapestry fire screen hand stitched by Duncan Grant’s mother to his design. Leaving through the door back into the dining room on the wall to the left is a large mirror with a hand stitched frame, again designed by Duncan Grant and stitched by his mother and given as a gift for Christmas to Virginia in 1937, who declared it to be “the loveliest looking-glass I’ve ever seen“. Again there are more furnishings, paintings and pottery by Bell and Grant around the room. Leaving the dining room you find yourself in a tiny kitchen, in to which the Woolf’s installed a new range as soon as they moved in, although the kitchen was still prone to flood in wet weather. Today there is a large screen placed across the tiny window which looks out to the roadway, this was painted by Angelica Bell, Vanessa Bell’s daughter and Virginia Woolf’s niece for the house after it had been acquired by the National Trust.
Leaving the kitchen through the back door and up 3 steps, the visitor turns sharp left, up another couple of steps and through a doorway into the lower room of the 2 storey extension added by the Woolf’s. This spacious, light and airy room was Virginia’s bedroom and writing room. It was originally intended to be a sitting room for the couple, but on completion the views from the upper room were deemed to be more suitable to share with visitors, and the lower room became Virginia’s room. Much of her writing was done in this room, including the novel “A Room of One’s Own” in which she wrote “A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia loved the brightness of the room declaring “I find that a sunny house is incredibly cheering”. Again the furnishings, paintings and ornaments are by Bell and Grant, including the hand painted tiles on the fire surround which were painted by Vanessa Bell with a ship and lighthouse motif, recalling Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” and signed “VW from VB 1930”. In a corner there is a bookshelf on which stand the complete works of William Shakespeare each novel recovered with handwritten titles in Virginia’s own hand, as a project she undertook during a more troubled period in her life.
Leaving the bedroom by the garden door the view is down a long brick path towards the church which stands at the bottom of the garden.
The garden itself is divided into four distinct areas, a formal walled area by the house, an orchard, a large open lawn and a kitchen garden, which on the day of visiting was full of fabulous vegetables and flowers for cutting. The walled area is thought to have originally been a piggery, but now is beautifully planted with long straight beds. Standing at end of the wall itself is a cast of Stephen Tomlin’s 1931 bust of Virginia and at the opposite end is Charlotte Hewer’s bust of Leonard, made in 1968, just one year before he died.
Walking through the garden to the end can be found Virgina Woolf’s writing studio. This wooden building was put up in 1934 to replace her previous writing room. “There will be open doors in front; and a view right over to Caburn. I think I shall sleep there on summer nights.” Many distinguished guests visited Virginia in her writing room, including the writer and critic Lytton Stracey; the influential and brilliant economist Maynard Keynes as well as the American author T S Eliot. After Virginia’s death the studio was enlarged and used as a studio by Trekkie Parsons, who was Leonard Woolf’s lover after the death of his wife. It now houses a display of photographs showing the Woolf’s and some of their distinguished visitors. Through a glass screen the original studio can be viewed containing Virginia’s desk, glasses and the blue writing paper which she favoured.
Virginia Woolf’s writing studio
Behind the wall next to the studio is the local church and also the kitchen garden. On the patio together with the original garden chairs is a battered tin trunk containing tennis rackets and balls, while on the grass there sat a basket of Bowls with which the visitor is encouraged to play, although on the day I visited it was raining!
This is a delightful home to visit with it’s original and authentic furnishings which create an intimate atmosphere. If like me you are interested in the Bloomsbury set you will not be disappointed. Even better, the house is close enough to Charleston where Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell lived with her husband Clive and their friend and lover, Duncan Grant. To round off a delightful day a visit could also be made to the lovely church at nearby Berwick which contains beautiful wall paintings and decoration by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
(* Quotations and supplementary information from the National Trust property guide “Virginia Woolf and Monks House”).