Interview: Arts charity founder Sarah Hosking talks about her life and work as she is made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Sarah Hosking, 81, bought a cottage in Clifford Chambers 24 years ago to establish the Hosking Houses Trust. The charity offers a retreat and sometimes financial support to women so that they can complete artistic or academic work. As she looks forward to retiring, Sarah tells Gill Sutherland about her fascinating life, love of literature and recent appointment as an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature...
You’ve just been made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, tell us about that.
The RSL has been going for some decades and worked to promote literature. The president is Marina Warner but it’s just about to become Bernardine Evaristo.
To my stunned amazement last March I got a letter saying you’ve been elected an honorary fellow. They have about 70 honorary fellows who have benefitted publishing in some way. My absolute heroes are there: Nicholas Hytner, he’s a wonderful man; Jonathan Douglas who is head of the Literacy Trust; and Jenny Brown, founder of the Edinburgh Book Fair. Wonderful people.
Have you had an official welcome ceremony or some such?
We were supposed to have a signing- in ceremony but we haven’t had one because of Covid. You are offered one of three pens to sign the book: Lord Byron’s, T.S. Eliot’s or George Eliot’s.
I think I know which one you’d go for…
Well Lord Byron was such a w****r I don’t think I’ll go for him. I love T.S. Eliot, but he doesn’t speak to my soul like George Eliot. The handling of her pen! I hope it will happen before I fall off my perch. Being a fellow is an amazing opener of doors, I can contact whoever I want now!
Virginia Woolf’s essay/booklet A Room of One’s Own – on women writers needing space and money to work gave you the idea for Hosking Houses Trust – how did that come about?
When I was a very young woman, I must have been about 20, someone put in my hands Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
I was absolutely bowled over. I read most of Woolf and absolutely loved her. It stayed in my mind: why isn’t there a place? Why has nobody, all these intellectuals talking away, made that room happen?
A lot of my friends – I’ve got friends going back 60/70 years – said ‘Sarah, you’ve been talking about this for years ‘... what a bore! So when I got to my retirement, I thought I’ll make it happen.
I’d had a mongrel career in the arts and knew how to make things happen. I’d learned about finance, organisation and public relations and a lot about buildings. Gutters, foundations, leases and freeholds hold no terrors for me, I love that sort of thing.
How did you decide on Clifford Chambers as your base?
I wondered where to put it and quite deliberately I looked at the country. I wanted to attract writers of all sorts, urban as well as rural. I grew up in Warwickshire and I love it. So I found this little area in Clifford Chambers for me to live in firstly, and to set up the trust – so there’s my cottage and then a stone’s throw away is Church Cottage, which is where the residencies are offered.
I bought Church Cottage in 1998 and I set up the trust with three trustees who were close friends, allies and colleagues who knew the arts backwards, and we sat in it and thought what art form shall we benefit? Someone said it’s so tiny what art form is the tiniest – writing and it was as simple as that.
You say as simple as that but over the years it has taken all your time and energy hasn’t it?
It has, it’s a good thing I don’t have a family.
I inherited just enough money from my mum and dad to get a deposit and mortgage on my house and set myself up. I bought that house on a mortgage and then the three trustees stepped in and we got a big grant.
I started fundraising in 1999. I’m writing my own book actually called Five Pounds for a Room of One’s Own because that’s how I started: by scraping together five pounds from my pension and spent it on stamps and started writing for donations. I didn’t get any money back for two years and then I got £30 from Joan Bakewell.
So Joan was your first contribution?
Yes. It was incredible. Susan Hill was very generous and then other amounts started to trickle in. I love chasing money, but it is a difficult subject and women have a rough time in this world still.
Not as bad as when I was young perhaps but there are issues. If you look at the charities that concentrate on women, they are always distressed and in need of patronage. Someone said to me once that it would be easier to wake the dead than raise money for clever women.
Because clever women are seen as threatening rather than worthy of encouragement and charity…
There is that element. There’s a wonderful line in The Lady’s Not for Burning by Christopher Fry when the girl Jennette says ‘They call me a witch because I speak French to my peacock and understand algebra’, that is so true. We do have a bit of that.
Anyway, the money came in and then the writers came in and then the trustees came in. Then bigger grants came in. An Arts Council grant enabled us to build a small studio extension to Church Cottage. So now we can have women creators who are visual artists on a small scale and a number of musicians.
You are now 81, and on the cusp of retiring, how is that working out?
I’d still like to be involved in HHT, perhaps more of an ambassador.
Until Covid came along I was booked to do ten literary festivals on the two books we’ve written about this place, and I’d like to pick that up again and run with it.
And I enjoy preparing the cottage. It’s a very dolly house, I don’t think anybody else would do a bunch of flowers on the dressing table or iron the bedding. One woman burst into tears when she arrived to find a cheque for £1,000, an ironed bed, flowers, and a lovely cottage. I specialise in shattered women who have too much to do.
Over the years you’ve recruited various patrons, and welcomed many interesting residents...
I loved having poet Wendy Cope... and Timberlake Wertenbaker. I could be sitting at my computer – that Warwickshire County Council gave us – and up will come an email from someone interesting – like it did from her: ‘I’m Timberlake Wertenbaker an English playwright’ – I know who you are I’m educated!
I invited Tracey Emin to be our patron and to my stunned surprise she said yes and we went for tea with her in her studios in London. She’s enchanting. Then she got ill and stepped down.
Emma Thompson is our patron now. She sent me a little cheque in about 2002. ‘Love Emma’ she signed it. It melts your heart, doesn’t it?
I read an article once that said her and her family only gave presents they made. I genuinely wanted to thank her. I make rag rugs and so I made one saying ‘Emma’. It took about 100 hours and it’s about 5ft long all out of cut fabric. I sent it to her for her birthday and she loved it.
Her background is a bit like mine, she had artistic parents, not much money but a lot of art and we recognised that in each other. She’s a very nice woman and I like her politics.
Tell us about your family and your upbringing.
Dad was from a Warwickshire family of slaughtermen and farmers that goes way back to the 17th century. But he was a complete anomaly in his family by being just naturally artistic. He went to the Royal College of Art and met my mother who similarly was an anomaly in her family by being artistic. So in the late-1920s there were these two very attractive arty farties and they fell in love and got married.
Dad had a career teaching art at Leicester and then he became head of Coventry Art College just after the last war.
We lived in Warwick and they both had modest success as artists and they were both commissioned when Coventry was being rebuilt in the 1950s. Dad did the mosaic about the martyrs about which he felt very strongly and it’s still there. My mother did a big war sculpture of the Guy of Warwick which is also still there, and the crib for Coventry cathedral, and I have restored that and that is used every year.
Dad always did a Christmas card and we’ve been reissuing those.
Were you encouraged to be artistic?
Yes, over-encouraged, I wanted to be a vet. I was an idle little thing at school and muffed my Latin and in those days you have to read Latin to go to University.
Anyway I went to art college and I wasn’t very good, and then I taught art in a nice little school in Oxford which was lovely.
Eventually I just got bored and I saw an advert from the Arts Council, this is in the late-1960s, and got a bursary to train in arts administration. So in 1969 I put all my possessions onto my little blue Lambretta and I went along like a blue bubble to London. My horizons went ‘Woomph!’ (mimics explosion). And really that was the beginning of adult life.
How old were you then?
About 29. After that I worked for the new arts association movement which was across the country. Twelve arts associations were set up and it was a jolly good system. It was when the local authorities were all burgeoning and they were getting more money, not less, and were expanding. The arts association had money from the arts council and the local authorities that they served, and that was your job, you promoted the arts. I was there about ten years, we had amazing freedom and I made friends there forever. We had maniac energy, we were loopy! It started to go very political before I left.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I don’t mind if I’m not remembered… If someone nosing around in 100 years’ time says ‘Who’s this funny old dove who started it?’, that’s fine with me.
HHT already own Church Cottage, and when I die my little house will go to it too as long as the criteria of the trust doesn’t change.
The purpose of the retreat is to provide uninterrupted time that is generously given to clever women over the age of 40 who need asylum. I’d like to offer far more and get more properties – we could fill three or four houses.
We need older people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They’re the people who need picking up. I know we are not photogenic by the time we get to our 50s and 60s but really the insistence of youth and beauty should be kicked in the ass.
Find out more at hoskinghouses.co.uk
Influential books from my life by Sarah Hosking
These are ten of my favourite books but it is assuming that the great building blocks of our nation’s literature – Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, David Copperfield, Vanity Fair, etc are permanently in my mind as remembered chunks, and so have not been included.
1 The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Beatrix Potter, 1905
It was my friend Salley Vickers who pointed out to me that this is a ghost story. The main character is never clearly perceived by the little girl, and only at the end is her true identity revealed while the setting is dreamlike, a hill that goes up-up-into the clouds as though it had no top. The tiny kitchen shows how people lived in pre-modern kitchens and I remember my granny (in 1940s Warwick) ironing with two flat-irons, one heating on the stove and the other held with a wrap of flannel. This story has also given me a lifelong love of hedgehogs.
2 Cooking in a Bedsitter, Katherine Whitehorn, 1961
When, as a young woman, I realised that I was not pretty I decided to rely on cooking and efficiency to get through life. Over 14 years I lived in 11 bedsitters and cooking was invariably done on the landlady’s landing with two saucepans, a camping stove and this book. It not only taught me to enjoy cooking but to enjoy life and, years later, when I met Katherine, I assured her that her little yellow book had sent generations of young people well-fed off down the path of inventive efficiency.
3 Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey, 1918
Published in 1918 and never since out of print, this enchanting small book contains four biographies of Cardinal Manning, Dr Arnold, General Gordon and Florence Nightingale. Waspish and witty, it was immediately recognised as a pioneering work of modern biography and its accompanying fame was enjoyed by its author to the full. Read ‘Florence Nightingale’ in conjunction with her own Notes on Nursing and then refer to the tearful comment of Florence’s mother who was unable to comprehend her wilful daughter, with Lytton’s verdict. “We are ducks,” she said, “who have hatched a wild swan.” But the poor lady was wrong; it was not a swan they had hatched but an eagle.
4 Becoming, Michelle Obama, 2018
Michelle grew up on the south side of Chicago in a stable family and what was significant was that her mother taught her to speak, clearly and eloquently, enabling her to win an education as a lawyer at Princeton and Harvard. It was also her own hard work and natural seriousness (‘I spent Saturday evening organising my lecture notes’) that led to her own distinguished career and the marriage whereby we all know about her. This is a work of realism, the difficulties of being married to a man like Barack who carried her to the White House where her every move was scrutinised, protected and assessed. But it was Michelle who had the charm, ease and sympathy to put her arm around our elderly Queen, against all protocol, and nobody minded.
5 The Common Reader: first (1925) and second (1932) volumes, Virginia Woolf
Two volumes, each containing 28 essays about a variety of writing people and their circumstances which I read as a very young woman and they taught me to love knowledge better (from ‘On not knowing Greek’ volume one). I lashed out from my student grant (yes, a grant in those days) on hardback copies with the covers designed by Virginia’s sister, Vanessa and printed by the Hogarth Press and, after 60 years re-reading, they still surprise. These could never have been written by a man for they are from a female perspective and are garlanded with female wit. They are recognisably from the same brain that wrote A Room of One’s Own that, forty years later, I undertook to make reality.
6 The Lodger, Charles Nicholl, 2007
Charles Nicholl is a writer who demonstrates that great works of art are produced by ordinary people. This examination of the only extant existence of William Shakespeare’s recorded speech is concerned with a court case brought in 1612. Eight years earlier, Shakespeare had been a lodger in Crippelgate with the family of Christopher Mountjoy, his wife Marie and daughter Mary. Their apprentice, Stephen Belott married Marie in 1604 but later took his father-in-law to court for refusing to pay what he believed was the promised dowry. Shakespeare was called as a witness and his statement with his signature have been brilliantly scrutinised from every possible angle. He doesn’t seem to have been a very good witness, he couldn’t remember salient facts and he rushed his signature because he was, after all, a very busy man who was, on this occasion, required to play an ordinary part, which he did badly.
7 Akenfield, Ronald Blythe, 1969
In the summer of 1967, the essayist Ronald Blythe pedalled his bike around the villages north of Ipswich talking to everyone he could find. He spoke to the blacksmith and dairyman, the district nurse and orchard worker, the Baptist dean and the horseman. Then he put them all together, calling this amalgam of villages ‘Akenfield’. Years later I visited him in his ravishing, ramshackle, romantic house, Bottemgoms, just as his writing life of innumerable articles and distinguished books was coming to an end. But Akenfield had become a classic (to the amazement of this modest man) because it retrieved the past by recording people’s words who remembered the lost world from before wars and modernisation. It was the coincidence of the man and the moment... and the bicycle.
8 Dominion: the making of the western mind, Tom Holland, 2019
This book is not a history of Christianity but an account of how Christianity changed beliefs, influencing western society, law, religion and conduct. Equality and fairness, cornerstones of modern liberalism have their roots in the Jewish notion that all are equal before God and this was a concept foreign to the classical mind. Without the religion founded by St Paul out of Jesus’ teachings there would be no respect for human rights, or care for the weakest in society, now embraced as universal values in the UN Charter. The practice of Christianity may have receded but its message has remained, marooned like a stone on the seashore as the sea that delivered it recedes. This book changed my understanding and my mind.
9 Alas, poor lady, Rachel Ferguson, 1937
I HAD never heard of its author, Rachel Fergusson (1892-57) until the enterprising Persephone Press reissued this novel. She was a suffragette and wrote nine novels, this is her best and is based upon her biting observation of women’s lack of opportunity and subsequent vulnerability. It concerns a family of sisters born in comfortable gentility in the 1880s but whose lives lead them into social decline that, by 1936, is desperate. Completely unprepared for the social changes of those years and totally dependent financially and socially on men and marriage, they were also unprepared for the sexual aspects of marriage which they found revolting. Their helplessness was compounded by rigid social habits, as in their observation that only thwarted women worked. I believe it compares with Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and it is about as tragic.
10 The Lindchester Chronicles, Catherine Fox,
When I was commissioning Kiss and Part (an anthology of stories about our village), I sought (and commissioned) a writer whose subject was the people who run the Anglican church. The Lindchester Chronicles is a trilogy about the bishop and priests, their families and friends, cleaners and hangers-on who ran an invented diocese called Lindchester. Known as the modern Trollope, Catherine Fox is gentler and also one of the funniest writers of current times but able to switch emotion to despair and death, while inserting lumps of explanation about the circumnavigational complexities of the Anglican structure. Why do only some bishops sit in the House of Lords and what happens when a bishop goes gay? Read these enchanting novels and find out.