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 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.
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.
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.
Most photos of Henry James show him shaven; here is a rare image of him rather more hirsute.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I shall be reviewing Joan Aiken’s The Haunting of Lamb House soon; this is the cover of the hardback