Lamb House in West Street, owned by the National Trust and tenanted until this January by Patrick and Jacquetta Rogers, opened its doors to stakeholders and neighbours last Thursday, February 22. The Trust has decided it no longer wants tenants to live in the house. This will reduce by two the rented properties available in the town, and leave a large house without occupiers.
The property of the National Trust since 1950, the most famous owner of the house was the author Henry James, who lived there from 1897 until 1914, and then passed it to his married nephew. After James’ death, it was let to Edward Frederic (EF) Benson, another author who wrote most amusingly about the town of Rye, renamed Tilling, and the lives of Mapp and Lucia, in the books of the same name. It was passed to the National Trust by Dorothea James, the widow of James’ nephew.
On pushing open the three metre high front door, it was obvious that the Trust, which now wants to run the house as a museum, had been very busy. The house itself had been cleared of carpets and curtains, and considerable restoration work was in progress. From the front hall, without its set of black and white prints of Henry James’ visitors, it was possible to see the oak parlour undergoing work on the panelling. Large explanation boards had been placed in each room, telling the reader something of the changes the Trust was hoping to make, each one a “Chapter” in the story of the house.
Moving through the old part of the house, the telephone room was empty and it was possible to see the glazed cupboards and the delft tiles in the fireplace. The bureau bookcase had disappeared, to be revealed later. The dining room looked much as it had when last seen as the house closed in October 2017. The dining table and chairs were still there, though the terracotta bust of the young Conte Bevilacqua had been moved.
The greatest change was in the opening of the upstairs two floors, which had only really been seen previously by the tenants, their family and visitors. The Green Room, which James had used as a writing room and a panelled room, with refreshed panelling and a newly painted floor, were part of the new sights of the day, though there were other rooms, notably a large bedchamber being used as storage and restoration space.
Up the narrower stairs again to the second floor attics. In the longer term the Trust hopes to offer these to artists and writers, in return for time spent with visitors. This did seem to give more opportunity for some life to remain in this old house, lived in by people and families and friends throughout its long history and now to become, if planning permission is given, a more silent, still space.
The chapter story boards were supplemented for the visitor by the National Trust manager, Hester Liakos, who explained her responsibilities for Sissinghurst, Small Hythe, Lamb House and Stoneacre, and by the house stewards, two of whom have worked at the property for a number of years. Directed to a very knowledgeable curator, more was learned about the offering in the Green Room, where the bureau bookcase reappeared. A lovely light room, with windows opening on to the garden, it is hoped to make this into a space to further interest and educate visitors about Henry James’ writings and life.
The open day showed what the Trust hope to do to “reinterpret and re-present Lamb House to the public” and to “understand Lamb House and its development and significance enabling us to make decisions about future use and presentation” (application for planning permission). It was really interesting to see the house stripped back and the thought that is being given to the new “offering”. The house itself, its garden and the Annex plans seemed to make sense and provide a way forward. it will be fascinating to see the progress made. How the wider issues of access and footfall, among others, can be resolved, will be interesting.
The National Trust hopes to reopen Lamb House in June this year.
Photos: Gillian Roder, Sandra Lanigan