In the Kent countryside, not far from London, lies one of England's largest and finest stately homes: Knole House. Home to the Sackville family since the 17th-century, Knole - which boasts 365 rooms and 52 staircases - is perhaps most famous as the setting for Virginia Woolf's 1928 book, Orlando, written about the childhood home of her lover, Vita Sackville-West. Ashley Hicks, who photographed Knole for a new book, Knole: A Private View shares his experiences of capturing this extraordinary, storied house.
Magical, astonishing, wonderful Knole. I first saw it as a young architecture student, with a noisy throng of kids at a party in its glorious attics, wisely kept away from its painted rooms and treasures. I had read Orlando, of course, and I remember trying to connect the house with the book but the disco music doubtless got in the way. I went back often, years later, as a paying visitor, with a daughter at Sevenoaks School and the house irresistibly close, when I fell properly in love with its creaking rooms and shimmering furniture.
When asked to photograph the house, I was absolutely thrilled. There is nothing I love more than taking pictures of atmospheric, historic interiors, and there are few more exciting than these. I feel a bit like one of those suspicious characters in the 1950s who ‘had a good war’ and must confess that I had a good Covid lockdown, spending part of it with the run of an empty Knole, closed to visitors but open to me and my camera. I spent entire days roaming the place. Usually the house would be full of tourists, with curtains and shutters closed to protect the furnishings and electric light everywhere. Instead, I was alone and could let the daylight in.
The house always feels like a sleeping beauty, something from a fairytale, but never more than on those days when I poked around its darkened rooms, the only sound its whispering old timbers, the gloom complete until I pulled back a curtain or raised a blind so that the light stole in and brought everything to delightful, sparkling life. Even the three great state beds, which are such miraculous survivals and kept behind glass, I was able to get at, going behind the glass, letting natural light show off the sparkling detail of their embroidery and gilding.
The day that I photographed the King’s Room was the most amazing. It was June, and the sun streamed in through the great window, lighting up the spectacular bed, that amazing survival of Parisian upholstery of 1672, made for James, Duke of York and his Italian wife, Maria d’Este, known to us as King James II and Mary of Modena.
Yet another of the perks of office collected at Knole, its deep, voluptuous gold and silver embroidery suggests what Louis XIV’s beds must have been before they were redone. I texted Robert [Sackville-West] and asked when he had last seen the room with its shutters open. He rushed over and joined me behind the glass, gazing in wonder and awe at the magnificence of his family’s treasure.
Robert and Jane live where the family have always lived at Knole, in the warmer, cosier rooms on the ground floor, below the great parade of State Rooms. I loved photographing their rooms, with far less perks and treasure, but supremely relaxed and comfortable: books everywhere, dusty passages with old wardrobes full of uniforms and chipped china. They have woven the house’s history and their modern lives together in a hugely sympathetic way, reminiscent of Orlando, but a happier vision.
Magical, astonishing, wonderful Knole.
Knole: A Private View of One of Britain's Great Houses, written by Robert Sackville-West with photographs by Ashley Hicks, is available via the Cabana Bookshop.