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Vita Sackville-West

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Vita Sackville-West

by John Gay
bromide fibre print, 1948
11 3/8 in. x 8 7/8 in. (290 mm x 224 mm)
Purchased, 1993
Photographs Collection
NPG x47302

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • John Gay (1909-1999), Photographer. Artist of 295 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 80
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 117 Read entry

    Daughter of Lord Sackville and brought up at Knole, one of the largest country houses in England, Vita Sackville-West is better known for her unconventional marriage to the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson and for the creation of the garden at Sissinghurst, where this photograph was taken, than as the prolific writer she had been since childhood. She had won the Hawthornden Prize for her long poem ‘The Land’ in 1927 and in 1930 became a best-selling author with her novel The Edwardians, still valued and read as a record of pre-First World War life in a great country house. Her literary career was interrupted by passionate affairs with a number of women, including Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf, but after moving to Sissinghurst in 1930 she became increasingly involved in the creation of the famous garden, contributing a gardening column to the Observer, from 1946 to 1961, which was subsequently successfully anthologised.

    Her contemporary literary reputation may be gauged from the fact that John Gay took this photograph, published in July 1948, for a series of profiles of pets in The Strand Magazine. The dignified and monumental combination of the statuesque figure, the ancient arch and urn and the noble dog conceals a hidden tragedy, for Martha, the German shepherd dog (then known as an Alsatian), was already dying. Vita’s companion of thirteen years, Martha had kept her company during Nicolson’s weekly absences in London and the war years but in April that year had suffered a heart attack. Harold had arrived to ‘find Viti [sic] pacing by the lake in an agony of tears’. On 17 June, Vita wrote to him, tormented by the eternal dilemma of whether to have Martha put down: ‘when she comes and rests her nose on my knee and looks up at [me] with her golden eyes, so trustful, it makes me feel a traitor ... You see I am essentially a lonely person, and Martha has meant so much to me. She was always there and I could tell her everything.’ Three days later Martha was dead, buried in the wood at Sissinghurst, and Vita went to collect an Alsatian puppy called Rollo. A week later, this photo appeared. Vita’s last published work was Faces: Profiles of Dogs (1961), in which she remembered both her own and her friends’ dogs: the saluki that Gertrude Bell had given her in Baghdad (‘without exception the dullest dog I ever owned’), Ethel Smyth’s Old English sheepdogs, and, of course, her beloved Alsatians.

  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 16

Events of 1948back to top

Current affairs

Prince Charles is born in Buckingham Palace; he is the first son of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh
The Secretary of State for Health, Aneurin Bevan, introduces the National Health Service. Health services in Britain were now funded from central taxation and free at the point of use for every resident of the country.

Art and science

The First Morris Minor car designed by Alec Issigonis and his team (also responsible for the Mini) takes to the road, becoming a popular and classic English design.
F.R. Leavis publishes his influential study of the English novel, The Great Tradition. The book set out Leavis's ideas on the proper relationship between literary form and moral concern.


The policy of Apartheid is adopted in South Africa. Apartheid was a set of laws allowing racial segregation and discrimination against the black majority by the white ruling class.
As part of the dispute between Western and Soviet controlled Berlin, the Soviet Union blockades West Berlin, cutting off supplies. Anxious to avoid a conflict, America, Britain and France responded by flying in food and other provisions.

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