Marion Dell

When they took Talland House father and mother gave us – me at any rate – what has been perennial, invaluable.1

Talland House is an elegant villa on the outskirts of St Ives in Cornwall. It was the Stephen family’s holiday home from 1881 until 1895. In 1882, the first summer they went there as a family, Vanessa was three years old and Virginia only a few months.

For the sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, their time living at Talland House and exploring St Ives and the countryside around it was a life-long source of personal pleasure, shared memories, and creative inspiration. Virginia fictionalised the house, her parents and their summers in St Ives in her famous novel To the Lighthouse, published by the Hogarth Press in 1927, for which Vanessa illustrated the dust jacket.

Talland House was never a grand house; its appeal lay in its location and in the free and relaxed way of life which they were able to pursue there. The lightness and space contrasted strongly with the confined darkness of their London house and the foggy gloom of London winters. It became a haunted, and a haunting, house embodying the ghosts of their childhood, which they were to remember for ever.

Leasing Talland House

Talland House had been newly restored after a fire in December 1873, allegedly caused when the son of the house accidentally knocked over a lamp. When Leslie Stephen bought the lease it was an uncharacteristically spontaneous and liberal gesture and one which had very happy consequences. Virginia was to reflect with surprise at the 

ease and amplitude of those days that a man to whom money was an obsession thought it feasible to take a house on the very toenail, as he called it, of England.2

The expansion of the railway was making St Ives accessible to an ever-increasing stream of artists, walkers and tourists who could get there from London easily in a day. Virginia and Vanessa remembered the long journeys on the Cornish Express from Paddington and the increasing excitement as they arrived at St Erth where they transferred to the branch line for the brief final leg of their journey. With servants and mounds of luggage they finally arrived in St Ives at about 7.00 in the evening. Talland House was then part of the Tregenna Castle Estate, which had been bought by the Great Western Railway Company. Many of the Stephens’ friends, especially Henry James, the American novelist, who wanted more comfort, space and quiet than was available at Talland House, often stayed at the nearby, luxurious, Tregenna Castle Hotel.

From a look-out point in their garden the Stephen family could watch for the signal to indicate trains arriving and set off for the station just below their house. There they met a stream of family members and friends who visited them each summer. One such arrival is recorded by the ten year old Virginia in her family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gate News, in suitably high flown journalese language and with endearing inaccuracies:

Mr Fisher arrived at the ancient borough of St Ives on Saturday afternoon. The felicious family of Stephen were posed on a convenient bank awaiting the arrival of the locomotive. In due time it came. Paterfamilias, Materfamilias and family rushed down to meet their renowned relation. Oh ‘t was a happy sight to see! We leave the rest to the imagination’s vivid course as we are sure dear reader that you possess that faculty in it’s highest degree.3

Herbert Fisher, Julia’s brother in law, was Vice-Warden of the Stannaries, the court that regulated the tin mining industry. His position, unfortunately, was less exacting than it had been because of the decline of the Cornish tin trade. It was only necessary for him to come to Truro about four times a year but he would stay whenever possible with the Stephens at Talland House. His son, also called Herbert, had very happy memories of playing with his cousins there.

Family Life

It was a small house for a large family. Talland House was worn and faded but always welcoming. Virginia’s fictionalised description of the house rings true. Mrs Ramsay

saw the room, saw the chairs, thought them fearfully shabby. Their entrails . . . were all over the floor; but then what was the point, she asked herself, of buying good chairs to let them spoil up here all through the winter when the house, with only one old woman to see to it, positively dripped with wet? . . . and there was room for visitors. Mats, camp beds, crazy ghosts of chairs and tables whose London life of service was done – they did well enough here; and a photograph or two, and books. . . . If they could be taught to wipe their feet and not bring the beach in with them . . . things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer.4

Downstairs there was a large drawing room and a large dining room, with French windows opening onto the garden. This view found its way into Jacob’s Room, where Jacob was invited to a dinner party. Behind the other guests he could see

the grey-green garden, and among the pear-shaped leaves of the escallonia fishing-boats seemed caught and suspended. A sailing ship slowly drew past the women’s backs. Two or three figures crossed the terrace hastily in the dusk. The door opened and shut. Nothing settled or stayed unbroken. Like oars rowing now this side, now that, were the sentences that came now here, now there, from either side of the table.5

Also on the ground floor was the ‘back den’ or smoking room, to which Leslie Stephen frequently escaped when bored by visitors. Then there was the bustling kitchen, which played a large part in the children’s memories. It was just below the room that at one time was their night nursery, where they would let down a basket on a string from their window to the open kitchen window. If the cook, Sophie Farrell, was in a good mood the basket contained favourite titbits when it was drawn back up again; if not, it was empty or even cut off the string. They got to know local tradespeople and overheard gossip and St Ives’ stories. Virginia remembered Mrs Adams who brought live blue lobsters and put them on the kitchen table and Alice Curnow who hauled huge baskets of laundry to and from the house. Upstairs were several smaller bedrooms and the two main front bedrooms with their beautiful wrought iron balconies. Here Virginia remembered her mother in a white dressing-gown surrounded by the passion flowers that grew up the front of the house.

One of the front rooms was always their parents’ but other bedrooms were used differently as the children grew older and depending on who was staying at the time. Up some twisty wooden stairs were the attic bedrooms, which were also shared by the servants where thin partitions allowed sounds to be heard by all. Virginia vividly remembered hearing Stella Duckworth crying on the night she had refused Jack Hills’ offer of marriage and a young Swiss maid grieving for her father. The sun pouring into the attics lit up

bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing.6

Another small staircase led from the attic outside to a flat area of roof fenced in by a balustrade. From here there were magnificent panoramic views and it was a specially good vantage point for watching the firework displays. Both Virginia and Vanessa, and later Vanessa’s children and grandchildren, adored firework displays which still feature at Charleston celebrations.

While the house was full of people it was probably less cramped and certainly much lighter, than 22 Hyde Park Gate, their home in London. To future artists it provided rich material. Much of it, including the sense of overcrowding, finds its way into To the Lighthouse, where

disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no other privacy to debate anything, everything . . .7

Life there was not all holiday. The children continued their lessons in the dining room, often taught by Julia and sometimes by Leslie or one of the governesses who were periodically hired. They were often French or German speaking but there is little evidence that they taught the Stephen children much in those languages, and, if Virginia’s newspaper accounts are to believed, were sometimes more interested in reading French novels on the beach than looking after their young charges. Julia continued her philanthropic works visiting the poor and sick. Leslie continued his writing, especially on the Dictionary of National Biography, working such long hours that his health often suffered.


Although the Stephens only came as a family in the summers Leslie Stephen often came alone at other times, especially when the children were very young, and they sometimes let friends use the house out of season. It was, moreover, always filled with friends. Visitors were listed in the Weekly Summary and Visitors’ List in the local newspaper. On August 24th, 1889, for instance, Mr and Mrs Leslie Stephen and family have listed staying with them at Talland House: Mr John W. Hills, Corby Castle, Carlisle; Dr Wolstenholme, Coopers Hill; and Mr W.C. Headlam, King’s College, Cambridge. In the list published on August 31st, Mr Hills has left, Mr Wolstenholme and Mr Headlam are still there, and Mr H. Fisher and Mr W. Fisher have joined them. The list remains the same the following week. In the September 14th list, however, the guests are Mr F.W. Gibbs, Miss Lushington and Mr A.H. Davies, who are also listed as staying for two weeks. These friends were expected to take part in games, especially cricket, theatricals and expeditions to nearby beauty spots. Stella’s friend Margaret Lushington often stayed with her at Talland House. She loved music, playing the piano and singing. The two indulged in ‘girl talk’ and confidences late into the night. Margaret’s diary gives accounts of mornings spent writing letters, shopping expeditions into St Ives, blackberrying, walks to Knill’s Monument or onto the beach, and the inevitable cricket. Stella’s love of photography comes over clearly in her own diary entries and is often mentioned in Virginia’s newspaper, especially when there were mishaps with broken or forgotten plates, or problems with the developing. Gerald also was a keen photographer. Family, guests and servants were asked to pose, sometimes reluctantly, for the camera. Happily for us, many of these photographs survive.

The Garden

Leslie Stephen was particularly attracted to the garden when he first saw Talland House. There were a wooden gate and footpath up to the house and a garden covering two or three acres up a hillside. There was a stream, which flowed down through the garden, disappearing underground in places and appearing again to splash among rock pools. There were interesting hedged spaces and nooks and crannies, which more than compensated for the lack of space inside the house. Each area had its own family name and history. There was the Coffee Garden, and the Cricket Ground where they often played late into the evening with a ball painted with luminous paint. Both Vanessa and Virginia were renowned for their skill as bowlers and batsmen, Thoby even claiming that they were better than boys at his school. Young friends such as Hilary Hunt, Holman Hunt’s son, and Dick and Rupert Brooke loved to play.

George, Gerald and Stella’s future husband Jack Hills, all played and their friends such as Madge Symonds, the inspiration for Sally Seton in Mrs Dalloway, were pressed into joining in. There was an orchard, kitchen garden, strawberry beds, and huge glasshouses where grapes were grown, Julia’s particular pride. Departing friends would often be given bunches of grapes to take back to London.

Julia also loved all the flowerbeds, and used to enjoy sitting in her sheltered Loo Corner and talking to friends under the trees. She spent much time matchmaking here. One of her successes, the match between Leo Maxse and Kitty Lushington, was finalised in the Love Corner in 1890, overheard by the hidden Stephen children. Family photos and accounts record the many social gatherings here each summer, and give a picture of a noisy, boisterous, happy, extended family. Their young cousin William Fisher used to love sailing home-made paddle steamers, propelled by an elastic band, on the pond.

Family members such as Julia’s mother Mrs Jackson, the Lushingtons, Stillmans and Symondses all stayed or visited regularly. James Lowell, the American Ambassador and Virginia’s godfather, was a frequent visitor as was Henry James. Their neighbour George Meredith read his poetry here to Julia. Mr Wolstenholme, a mathematician friend of Leslie Stephen transposed into Mr Carmichael in To the Lighthouse, dozed for hours in his wicker beehive chair.

Another of the main attractions of the garden was its views across the bay. The children often stood on one of the vantage points watching the many different boats and, of course, seeing Godrevy Lighthouse.

From the Lookout place one had then, a perfectly open view across the Bay. . . . It was a large Bay, many curved, edged with a slip of sand, with green sand hills behind; and the curves flowed in and out of the two black rocks at one end of which stood the black and white tower of the Lighthouse; and at the other end, Hayle river made a blue vein across the sand, and stakes, on which always a gull sat, marked the channel into Hayle Harbour. This great flowing basin of water was always changing colour; it was deep blue; emerald green; purple and then stormy grey and white crested. There was a great coming and going of ships across the bay. Most usually, it was a Haines steamer, with a red or white band round the funnel, going to Cardiff for coal. In rough weather, sometimes one would wake to find the whole bay full of ships, that had come in overnight for shelter . . . Then every morning the clumsy luggers went out, deep sea fishing; and in the evening there was the mackerel fleet, its lights dancing up and down; and the fleet returning, rounding the headland and suddenly dropping their sails. We would stand with mother on the Lookout place watching them.8

The Beach

From the house a path led down through Primrose Valley, an area of gardens and orchards, to Porthminster Beach. Virginia always remembered looking down on the gardens so that the tops of the trees, laden with their red and golden apples, were at her eye level. These apples were a source of great pride to their owners, one of whom was Mr Lobb who came up to help in the garden at Talland House. The yield from Mr Lobb’s young apple trees in Primrose Valley merited articles in the local newspaper in October 1892 and again in September 1893.

Often Julia took the younger children down to the Beach to paddle or poke around in the rock pools. There were bathing huts and safe places for swimming. Sometimes all the family went and Helena Swanwick, the artist Walter Sickert’s sister, remembered seeing them playing there. When the Stephen family first went there the beach was relatively deserted but each year more and more tourists came, as was recorded in the local newspaper:

With the advent of our summer visitors, the beautiful Bay of St Ives is every day studded with many rowing and sailing boats, and our beaches present quite an animated appearance. Here may be seen ‘young men’ and maidens, old men and children, thoroughly enjoying the sands and health giving breezes: and Mr Pascoe, who is ever ready and willing to oblige his customers and to do everything for their comfort, is in attendance with the bathing tents, which are being well patronized. There is a great demand for apartments for August – indeed the applications are so numerous that it is impossible to accommodate all who would like to spend a few weeks in the quaint old town of St Ives.9

Virginia recorded in her own newspaper of August 8th the following year that, sadly, Mr Pascoe had renounced his position as bathing master.

The Area Around

The older children enjoyed swimming and picnics on the beach but they would also frequently go walking with Leslie Stephen, almost always accompanied by Shag their beloved dog, to collect moths or botanical specimens. Virginia’s newspaper for July 18th, 1892 records Leslie’s delight at finding a new plant specimen and his encouragement to his children to learn the ‘difficult tribes’ of plants. One of the great attractions of Talland House was the expeditions, in a carriage or by foot, which one could make from there. There are many accounts of visits to Bosigran, Penzance, Land’s End and Gurnard’s Head.

Local Life

The Stephens did not see themselves as merely visitors but took an active part in activities in the town. They went to the St Ives Arts Club and officiated at many awards ceremonies, being invited to give medals. Leslie Stephen was Vice-President of the Swimming and Sailing Association. Julia continued her philanthropic activities even when on holiday, visiting the sick, sitting on various charitable committees and raising money for a nurse in St Ives. The young Duckworths joined in social events and played in local tennis tournaments. Golf was becoming popular and the Hyde Park Gate News records:On Tuesday Mr George Duckworth accompanied by his younger brother Gerald went to play golf at Lelant. Mr Gerald was easily beaten by Mr George Duckworth. Mr Leslie Stephen with his 3 children walked to Lelant to see the game. . . . On their arrival at Lelant they saw a certain young lady making valiant to hit the golfball which remained untouched while her club flourished wildly in the air some inches above it. Numerous other ladies were playing on account of there being a laidies’ match that day. Our correspondent was much struck by the skilful way in which the ladies managed to keep their petticoats down but on the whole he thought the game one which only an energetic man can really enjoy.In October 1893 Stella donated a guinea to the Prize Fund of the St Ives Board Schools and in the same month Leslie and Julia made one of their many donations of books to the St Ives Free Institute and Library.

Leaving Talland House

The lease of Talland House was eventually sold to the painter Thomas Millie Dow in 1895. Leslie Stephen had been considering selling it for two or three years. He was feeling the financial pressure of paying Thoby’s school fees, Gerald and George Duckworth came down less frequently as their work kept them in London, and Laura’s mental deterioration meant that she was by now in an institution. Moreover, their pleasure had been diminished when the Porthminster Hotel was built below their house, partly spoiling their view of the bay. What decided the issue, however, was the sudden death of Julia in May 1895. The whole family never went back to St Ives again, though both Vanessa and especially Virginia were to do so many times as adults.

Talland House Today

The town of St Ives has now expanded to surround the originally secluded Talland House. The house has been very much changed since the Stephens left. Thomas Millie Dow built a large extension on the side, which destroys the original symmetry. A plot of land, in the corner of the Talland House garden, was given to Florence Millie Dow’s half sister and April Cottage is built there. This was beautifully designed by the architect George Kennedy, who was married to Florence’s daughter Mary. There is an interesting connection with Virginia because their nephew Richard Kennedy later became the ‘boy at the Hogarth Press’, writing his memories of working with Leonard and Virginia Woolf at 52 Tavistock Square. Much of the garden has been sold off for development. A car park occupies much of the erstwhile orchard and kitchen garden. The railing round the roof is long gone and the attics extended. The inside was much changed when it was converted into flats in the 1950s. The original staircase from the hallway was ripped out so that now the ground floor is self-contained and access to the upper floors is only from outside. The original fireplaces and other period features and decorations have been removed and new spaces partitioned off. However, the beautiful wrought iron balconies remain and the drawing room and dining room retain their elegant French windows opening out onto steps down to the terrace and garden. One can still imagine the family sitting together in the drawing room or see in the dining room the setting for the dinner party with Mildred’s masterpiece, boeuf en daube, described in To the Lighthouse. Best of all, one can stay at Talland House, stand on the terrace or the balconies and look across the garden with its escallonia hedge, across the Bay, to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf claimed in her novel that the beam shone into their bedrooms and this has been much disputed. However, the light which Vanessa and Virginia saw, which was reputed to be visible at a distance of between fifteen and seventeen miles, was replaced in 1934, so the beam we now see is different.

1. Virginia Woolf ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in ed. Jeanne Schulkind Moments of Being , (Harcourt Brace, New York, 1985) p128.
2. Virginia Woolf ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in ed. Jeanne Schulkind Moments of Being , (Harcourt Brace, New York, 1985) p127.
3. Hyde Park Gate News 22 August 1892.(British Library ADD MS 70725)
4. Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse (Vintage, London,1992), p24-25.
5. Virginia Woolf Jacob’s Room (Vintage, London, 1992), p51.
6. Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse, op cit, p8.
7. Ibid. p7.
8. Virginia Woolf ‘A Sketch of the Past’, op. cit., p129-30.
9. Weekly Summary , St Ives Times, 25 July 1891. Hyde Park Gate News 17 Oct. 1892. Op.cit..