This was the first of the supplementary properties I have visited – i.e. ones that didn’t fit into my criteria of having a full entry in the Handbook but which I wanted to include. And it has taught me that I maybe shouldn’t expect too much from these ‘extras’.
Monk’s House is the former home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and the house from which the writer took her final walk to the river where she killed herself. So far, so miserable! Add to this the fact that I visited on a very wet and dreary day, so the house already had an uphill struggle to cheer up this particular visitor.
On the plus side, if you’re a fan of Virginia Woolf and her writing, Monk’s House is probably worth a visit. In the same way that I was thrilled to find myself inside Hardy’s home at Max Gate in Dorset, I would imagine a Woolf fan would feel the same frisson on entering this little cottage in East Sussex. But for anyone else, the house could well be something of a letdown.
Firstly, there are only four rooms open to the public, all quite dark and dingy with the exception of Virginia’s bedroom, which is located in an extremely ugly extension added to the cottage ten years after the Woolfs bought it (not sure the planners would have allowed it today). It is certainly brighter than the other rooms but oddly it has to be reached through a separate outside door so feels very detached from the rest of the house – although maybe that’s just the way Woolf wanted it.
Another criticism of the property would be that the volunteers tend to assume that the visitors know more about Woolf and her circle than most probably do. We had a couple of pieces of artwork pointed out to us as if we should know exactly who the artist was, while another proudly told us that Virginia’s shawl was a Christmas present from Lady Ottoline Morrell in a manner that suggested we should be dear friends of Lady O and what on earth was wrong with us if we weren’t. I am always reluctant to criticise volunteers who give up so much time to the Trust and I would imagine most of the volunteers here are themselves Woolf-ites so instead of asking them to dumb down their commentary on the house, my suggestion would be to include information about the main members of the Woolf circle (particularly the artists) in the first room so the visitor can familiarise him or herself with who’s who before viewing their contributions to the house and its furnishings.
In fact, even armed with what I had gleaned from the Houses of the National Trust book before visiting, further information on the relationship of the Woolfs with Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Trekkie Parsons (that one’s going on my list of unusual names!) would have been interesting as well as helpful. Since I got back, I have looked up a few more facts about the various interactions of these painters with the Woolfs and with each other but it might have been good to have learned these (slightly scandalous!) details during my visit rather than afterwards.
One other comment I would make is that the art contributions made by these friends and family members was certainly not to my taste. The habit of the time seemed to be to paint just about anything, from tiles to cupboards, and in many cases I couldn’t really see that there was much improvement in doing so! That’s just a personal opinion, though; it seems I like my art a little more traditional… and on the wall rather than the furniture!
On a nicer day, a wander around the gardens would have been very pleasant, although the two busts of Virginia and Leonard in the walled garden certainly don’t contribute to a cheerful stroll – they both look more than a little glum. Virginia’s lodge in the garden where she would do some of her writing isn’t particularly thrilling to a non-fan either, although there is a good display of Woolf photos in there, including shots of some of the other famous people and writers who visited the cottage. My animal interest was also rewarded here with photos of the family’s spaniels, Pinka and Sally, and more interestingly of Mitz, a tame marmoset that the Woolfs owned for a few years. Now that’s one member of the Woolf establishment that I really would love to have met! You don’t get glum monkeys, do you?…
Highlights: Gardens and photo display