“I am hopeless about the garden, which I don’t know what to do with and shall never, never know – I am densely ignorant.” Henry James
Devastated by the failure of his play on the London stage, Henry James fled to the Sussex town of Rye to seek calm and refuge at Lamb House. He knew the town well, for he had often rented the vicarage for holidays, but he had so admired nearby Lamb House (a Georgian home built in 1723 and named for the man who built it) that he left instructions that he was to be contacted if it ever came up for sale. First he leased it, then in 1899 he bought it.
For Henry James one of the elegant home’s greatest charms was its Garden Room (unfortunately destroyed by a bomb in WWII) and the large walled garden at the side of the house. French doors open straight from two rooms onto the garden and there are views of the garden from several rooms in the house. He often wrote in the Garden Room and felt the one acre garden should be improved so he could look out at something lovely.
As Henry James was woefully ignorant about plants, he employed his friend, garden designer Alfred Parsons, who created the extensive lawn edged by colourful flower borders and the various paths through the garden. Parson trained espaliered apricots, plums, pears and apples up the red-brick walls, and suggested the planting of walnut and mulberry trees (the mulberry tree that grows there today is a replacement of the one James knew). A small greenhouse was erected and chrysanthemums were grown there in pots.
Henry James then employed George Gammon as a permanent gardener and was proud when prizes in local shows were awarded to Lamb House veges and flowers. Henry James delighted in swathes of daffodils in his garden every spring and was thrilled when white Narcissus ‘Henry James’ was created in his honour. A row of Lombardy poplars was planted along the west wall to provide shelter from the wind, but those trees are no longer there.
After Henry James died in 1916, another famous author moved into Lamb House and he enjoyed the garden even more. E.F. Benson wrote the best-selling Mapp and Lucia novels which are set in Rye (though the town’s name is changed to Tilling). Benson became Mayor of Rye and a window in the local church depicts him in his mayoral robes. His character Miss Elizabeth Mapp lives in Lamb House (the name is changed to Mallards) and she uses the Garden Room to hold card parties and also to spy on Tilling inhabitants. Benson employed a gardener who treated the garden as his private kingdom (Benson was rather frightened of him), but Miss Mapp reigns supreme in her Mallards garden and boasts of going every evening to bid her sweet peonies and roses goodnight.
In 1968 another author moved into Lamb House – Rumer Godden, author of Black Narcissus and of other novels, lived there for five years. Her grandchildren loved playing in the garden.
Few gardens in England have such rich literary associations. The authors who lived at Lamb House were visited by fellow authors – Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, Rupert Brooke, Ford Madox Ford and Virginia Woolf are just some of those visiting writers. Today Lamb House is owned by the National Trust. The garden borders are bright with lilies, geraniums, crocuses, roses, hyacinths, fuchsias, tulips and lupins. A small pet cemetery is tucked away in one corner, providing a lovely resting place for Henry James’ beloved dogs. Attractive benches are nicely placed around the garden, so the visitor can sit and enjoy the loveliness.
Recently the house and garden became a film set, when Mapp and Lucia was filmed by the BBC, starring Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson. The Garden Room was recreated especially for the series and many scenes were shot in the garden where Henry James and E.F. Benson walked, entertained and were inspired.