Henry James and disproportionate passion

In 2015 I was invited to give a lunchtime lecture at The National Portrait Gallery, London, in association with the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.

Entitled ‘The “dusk of disproportionate passion”: The Garden Room in Rye and Tilling’, this was a version of a lecture I originally gave at The Real Thing: Henry James and Material Culture, 6th Annual Conference of the Henry James Society, University of Aberdeen.

NPG 1767; Henry James by John Singer Sargent
Henry James by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1913, NPG 1767 © National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1896, Henry James became captivated by Lamb House in Rye, a Georgian, red brick house at the top of a cobbled street with a unique, bow-windowed ‘garden room’, a perfect place to write. The next year he signed the lease, and it became his main home for the rest of his life. He spent time decorating and carefully choosing antiques, creating a comfortable, domestic retreat where the observer of society could himself entertain guests. While house hunting, he wrote The Spoils of Poynton, a short satiric novel about perfect taste and who deserves to own a beautiful collection of antiques. The moral issues around the decoration of houses had been part of a more widespread aesthetic debate for the previous twenty years, and inform issues of collecting, taste and gender within the novel, complicating the concept of what constitutes ‘home’. The final iconoclastic event of The Spoils of Poynton is unavoidable when we examine the inordinate power of the ‘things’. Real life and fiction became further intertwined when James’s portrait by Sargent suffered an iconoclastic attack by a suffragette in 1914, just months before war broke out.

After James’s death, his friend E.F. Benson moved in, using Lamb House as the inspiration for Mallards in his Mapp and Lucia novels (1920-1935). In these comic tales, the house is as violently fought over as the spoils of Poynton, or the recipe for Lobster à la Riseholme. Its beauty and authenticity are not in question, unlike Lucia’s dubious connoisseurship, which is exploited for its comic effect. The two writers are concerned with placing their vivid characters within the domestic setting, and through their utilisation of the material culture of the home achieve satire and sympathetic characters at the same time. In both fact and fiction, Lamb House evokes strong attachment and passions, and the destruction of the Garden Room, along with James’s library and Benson’s piano, was just one of the iconoclastic acts of 1940.


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