Rye thoughts

Allan Ramsay: Thomas Lamb of Rye (1719-1804) painted 1753; National Galleries of Scotland

I promised some more Rye, but not wry, thoughts about that East Sussex town bordering Kent, where we’ve recently spent a very pleasant week.

Normally I wouldn’t post about holidays — they tend to be personal matters, after all, of little concern to the world at large — but in the case of Rye and further west in Sussex there is much of huge literary interest, as is appropriate for a bookish blog.

As it happens, this little town is well worth a pilgrimage: here I want to mention a particularly significant building, but I shall later also post about the town in general and later still about other selected sites in East Sussex and Kent.

Lamb House, West Street, Rye, now a National Trust property. Note the fire insurance plaques at first floor level

Lamb House is an 18th-century house near the highest point of Rye. It was built by James Lamb the elder, a merchant and “man of uncommon virtue […] raised no less than thirteen times to the Mayoralty of this corporation” (according to a tablet to him in St Mary’s church). In his will dated 1756 he left several properties to his surviving children — Thomas, James, Elizabeth and John — with Lamb House going to Thomas. James and his descendants (including son Thomas, grandson Thomas Phillipps and great-grandson Thomas Davis) were part of a powerful dynasty dominant in Rye for over two centuries, many being at various times mayors of, or MPs for, the town.

Allan Ramsay’s portrait [above] of the first Thomas Lamb (1719-1804), painted when the sitter was 33 or so, is now in the National Galleries of Scotland. Thomas’ initials are inscribed on the street façade, together with the date 1789 and the numeral 70, doubtless to mark that he had reached the age of three score and ten.

The last two Thomases — son and grandson — were friends for a while with the poet Robert Southey, but the literary associations don’t stop there. Joan Aiken’s ghost story, The Haunting of Lamb House, for example, posits a supernatural link between James’ son Thomas and another James; this time it’s the author Henry James who, buying the house in the closing years of the 19th century, lived here for the best part of two decades before his death during the Great War.

Henry James’ many visitors included (in alphabetical order) Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G K Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Edmund Gosse, Rudyard Kipling, Hugh Walpole, H G Wells and Edith Wharton. As I will detail in a forthcoming review, Aiken’s novel takes us on to another literary inhabitant of the house, E F Benson — another of James’ acquaintances — who went on to set his Mapp and Lucia novels here in Rye, thinly disguised.

Looking towards Rye church from Lamb House

This view of St Mary’s church is from the bedroom where King George I stayed a few nights after being nearly wrecked in a great storm off Rye in 1726. The royal personage stood as godfather to James Lamb’s eldest son George (who predeceased his father). The King later sent a silver gilt bowl as a christening present, inscribed The Gift of His Majesty King George to His Godson George Lambe. It’s suggested that Henry James was inspired by this object to write The Golden Bowl (1904) after he’d viewed it in the vault of a Rye bank.

Just on the right of this view, by the lamppost, would have stood the Garden House where James did most of his writing; this was formerly a banqueting room built in 1743. Unfortunately this was destroyed in 1940 during the Blitz, though the National Trust is undertaking a feasibility study with a view to reinstating it. The view from the bow window, which allowed passers-by to be inspected, inspired E F Benson to write his Mapp and Lucia novels, with Lamb House renamed Mallards.

The Garden House, Lamb House, Rye

Before we leave the Lamb family, let me give some indication of their stranglehold on local political affairs. In the online History of Parliament we’re told that

in 1794 that there were only six voters at Rye, and in 1818 only 15 of the 33 members of the corporate body were qualified to vote. The small electorate was a close oligarchy dominated by the Lamb family—Thomas Lamb (d 1804), his son Thomas Phillipps Lamb and his grandson Thomas Davis Lamb. The power of creating new freemen was vested in the mayor, and members of the Lamb family held the mayoralty on all but three occasions between 1790 and 1820.

Thomas Davis Lamb predeceased his father, dying without issue, so the property passed to another son, the Reverend George Augustus Lamb; this son, presumably because as a rector he was guaranteed a property to live in, then leased Lamb House to a succession of lessees. His son, another Thomas Davis Lamb, sold it in 1893 to Francis Bellingham, the last of the lessees, from whom Henry James bought it in 1899.

In 1950 the widow of Henry James’ nephew and heir presented Lamb House to the National Trust. There followed a succession of tenants, including a distant cousin of James and, from 1967 to 1974, another celebrated author Rumer Godden, who was eventually buried in Rye: I have her novel The Battle of the Villa Fiorita waiting on my to-be-read pile. The last tenant only recently vacated the upper floors of the property, and the Trust have now started to open up the house even more.

To conclude, and to give you a further flavour of the house, here are a selection of photos of the house and garden.

Portrait of a bearded Henry James

Most photos of Henry James show him shaven; here is a rare image of him rather more hirsute.

Lamb House bookshelves

Lamb House is sparsely but tastefully furnished, much of his personal items having been dispersed. Here are some bookshelves as he may have seen them.

King George I portrait

A portrait of George I dominates the bedroom; James Lamb’s firstborn was christened George after the king, who was in the house when the child was born in 1726.

Rev George Augustus Lamb

The last member of the family to live in the house before it was leased out was the Reverend George Augustus Lamb, brother of Thomas David Lamb. It’s interesting — though probably coincidental — to note that, apart from Thomas, the offspring of James Lamb the elder seemed to represent different royal dynasties: George (Hanoverian), James (Stuart), Elizabeth (Tudor) and John (Plantagenet).

The garden is one of the largest, if not the largest, private open spaces in the old town. The old mulberry tree may not survive much longer but there are kitchen plots and secluded spots scattered around the acre or so.

Lamb House, from the south

This is the open space at the ‘back’ of the house; the banqueting room or Garden House would have been just to the right in this view. Lamb House fronts on to West Street, so-called perhaps because it is west of the church. The thoroughfare serves to link High Street (formerly Longer Street) and The Mint, Mermaid Street (formerly Middle Street) and Watchbell Street. The view from upstairs looks over adjacent properties as well as the vegetable garden; the rebuilt wall between the two finials is where the Garden House stood.

West Street and adjacent gardens

A final glimpse of the garden from the first floor ends this brief tour. If you’d like to see more of Rye, look here and here, and consult this taster.

Garden, Lamb House

I shall be reviewing Joan Aiken’s The Haunting of Lamb House soon; this is the cover of the hardback

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25 thoughts on “Rye thoughts

  1. What a lovely section of town. I love the view of the church. How nice it would be to have a writing room like the bay windowed one in Garden house. I hope they rebuild it.

    Henry James and King George under one roof, if at different times! Forgive me my ignorance of English royal history–is he the same king george of “Hamilton” fame or an earlier edition.? And wasn’t one of them mad?

    So interesting about the children’s names. You have to wonder if that was deliberate.

    1. The writing room? A temporary replacement was constructed for the BBC tv series in 2014 but taken down straight after. It would definitely be a plus if it was reinstated but it’s fine if not.

      The King of Hamilton fame was George III, he who went ‘mad’ — the film of The Madness of King George is worth watching, and he makes an appearance in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. However, the Lamb House King George was the first of that name, an English king who spoke virtually no English, for whom Handel wrote his famous Water Music a few years earlier.

        1. Well, even I get confused by George I immediately followed by II, III and IV! And William II succeeded William I. At least the present Queen waited for 350 years before becoming Elizabeth II!

          1. That was very considerate of her. 😊. I love on “the crown” how they show her making the decision of which name to use as monarch, and very practically, she chose her own.

            1. Queen Victoria’s first name was Alexandrina and I’m trying to imagine how different the world might have been if she went with that instead of the one that history and taken and run with. (Cue for a piece of alternate history flash fiction?)

            2. Interesting…i know on the current masterpiece series, Victoria, they seem to indicate that she wanted to sound less German, so the English would be more accepting of her. But i dont recall where “victoria” came from. As for your challenge, to me, it sounds more like a book than a flash fiction. There must be so many unintended consequences!

            3. Victoria is both a female version of the male name Victor and a personification of ‘victory’, shown on Roman sculptures as winged and holding aloft a victor’s wreath. (In Ancient Greek, as you may know, Victory is Nike, which is where the sportswear firm got their tradename: maybe their famous tick or check is part letter ‘V’ and part wing…)

              The choice of Victoria as her official name was a good ploy for the times. Not only was the British Empire expanding (Victoria would suit imperialist pretensions) but there was a suitable model in ancient British history: Boadicea — or Boudicca as it should have been spelt — was a Celtic leader who opposed the invading Romans, leading the charge on the battlefield.

              Though she came to a sticky end her heroic status was eventually compounded by a famous statue of Boadicea in a war chariot, erected down on the Thames embankment. And, naturally, the name Boudicca is Celtic for … Victory. 😁

              Tempted to explore to possibilities of that Alexandrine novel now!

      1. I assumed it was a writing room, since he was observing passers by. . The app did not allow to check back to your post without sacrificing the entire comment. Sorry for the error.

    1. Thanks, Ola! For such a relatively small town it’s been tremendously blessed by past glories and literati, and now by its inherent picturesque qualities and … independent shops.

    1. It is, Lynn, well worth a visit, quite apart from the bookish connections! (And it has a lovely, well displayed indie bookshop too!) I shall be posting more about the town in general soonish…

    1. Thanks very much, Jane, glad you enjoyed this post. I know very little about Rev Lamb from my superficial research other than that he had a family and was a local rector for 58 years, but yes, he looks quite approachable!

  2. Such a great house, which I’ll have to revisit, since only the ground floor was open when I was there a few years ago.
    I suspect you have few Luciaphiles among your readers: none mentioned the crooked chimney, clearly visible in your photo of Rye church from Lamb House: “Georgie, a dream,” whispered Lucia …. “That wonderful chimney, do you see, all crooked. The church, the cobbles, the grass and dandelions growing in between them….”

    1. Yes, that ‘wonderful chimney’, once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it! The upper floor of Lamb House has only recently been opened up — I think the last tenants left a year or so ago and the house has been undergoing a reorganisation and spruce up. (The top floor is still closed to visitors, however.)

      Anyway, Mapp and Lucia await, patiently, for my attentions…

      [I originally put up this comment a fortnight ago but neglected to post it as a reply, sorry, so here it is again!]

  3. Delightful town. Just the sightseeing aspect is of great value to those who don’t live within easy reach of such sights, never mind its literary treasures!

    1. It is a handsome town indeed, Robert, I’m glad you both enjoyed visiting it as much as we did! I shall, as well the review of The Haunting of Lamb House which appears today, be posting more about Rye and perhaps you may recognise some of the views I shall include! 🙂

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