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The Lord and the Dancer. The grandparents of Vita Sackville-West (part 1)
30 June 2010 @ 12:39

“I don’t know of any true account of this type of relationship, not one which has been written without the intention of titillating the reader.  I am convinced that as we get older, and genders mix according to our increasing similarity, these types of relationships will stop being regarded as simply unnatural and we will understand them much better, not just on an intellectual level but also a physical level.  The psychology of people like me will be of interest, and we will have to recognize that there are many more people of my kind than we care to recognize in today’s hypocritical system.”  From the autobiography of Vita Sackville-West.

“There is nothing more ideal, more dreamy and more chivalrous than the love between a lord and a dancer.”

In 1912 Virginia Woolf was married to Leonard Woolf, a recognized intellectual who, like herself and Vita, was part of the Bloomsbury group.  Leonard knew about Virginia’s lesbian tendencies and both of them agreed to a marriage based on sexual freedom.

It was against this backdrop that the unusual honeymoon took place, “when Virginia was seeing Vita Sackville-West, a writer and aristocratic, militant lesbian who supported the authoress of ‘Orlando’ in her entry to the exclusive Penn Club”.

Vita Sackville-West is a great expert on Spain, a country which was to figure constantly in the conversations with her lover.  Vita was the granddaughter of the dancer from Malaga, Pepita Durán, and of Lord Sackville-West, who kept his marriage to the Spaniard secret right up to his death.  Virginia’s lover, Vita, retold the story of her grandfather in her book entitled, ‘Pepita’.

Woolf soon discovered the bitter taste of romantic betrayal, and whilst in Spain received a letter from Vita: “I have a huge problem as I have become involved with Mary Campbell and the beastly Roy is prowling around London with a gun in his hand to try and kill me.”  In disgust, Virginia replied, “That’s what happens for being promiscuous.”

Vita’s grandmother, the famous dancer Josefa Dominga Duran Ortega (Malaga, 1830-1871), better known as Pepita de Oliva, was a true character of this era, and embodied flamenco in the widest sense of the word.   Her personality and fervent life, her artistic successes and performances abroad, an impossible romance and illegitimate children all help to shape her biography, a story to which it is difficult to be indifferent considering the era in which this woman lived.
Born in Malaga in 1830, an attractive Josefa Durán left for Madrid to make her fortune in the world of flamenco dancing where she was pupil of the great teacher Juan Antonio Oliva.  She adopted the stage name of “Pepita de Oliva” and building on the friendship and the generosity of her teacher, in 1851 they got married.

It appears that Peptia and Lord Sackville met in Berlin and when the aristocratic diplomat came to Spain as secretary to the English embassy, he was already romantically involved with Pepita.   It is said that in 1855, the Lord bought an elegant hotel in Arcachón which he named Villa Pepa and gave it as a gift to Pepita and it was in this hotel that the long love affair between the two developed.  This was also where their two children were born and where Pepa died in 1871.  Here, in the romantic gardens, he buried the body of the woman whom he had loved so deeply, having her tombstone engraved with the following, “Here lies Josefina, Countess  Sackville”.   When Pepita died, the Lord went to the registry offices in Bordeaux and declared the assets left by his wife and the children he had had legitimately with her and requested an obituary to published in the French press saying, “Lionel Sackville-West, first secretary to the English embassy in Paris and interim Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, requests the assistance of his friends and colleagues at one of the masses which will be held in the Chuch of Our Lady, on the 21st March, for the resting of the soul of his wife,  Josefina, Countess Sackville-West”.

During this period in Granada a boy was born and baptized in the name of Maximiliano, the legitimate son, according to some, of Pepita and the bolero singer, Oliva, and according to others, of Pepita and the Lord.  Amongst the children named by Lord Sackville in the Bordeaux offices was a Maximiliano.  The birth of this child which is registered as Maximiliano Oliva Duran is the one which is linked with the marriage certificate of the singer and Pepita in Madrid.   On this certificate the name of Oliva is not scratched off but the name of Pepita has been scratched away (to remove it) and is dated 10th January, 1851.  One of Pepita Durán’s nieces confessed something very interesting, after confirming that the child was Sackville’s.  According to this witness, some years after his birth, the boy introduced himself in Spain as Sir William Sackville, brother to Lord Sackville, saying that the Lord who was a member of the highest echelons of English society, was committed to diplomatic affairs and it was necessary to eliminate traces of his marriage to Pepita Durán.   Doña Catalina added: Pepita got married to Lord Sackville in the Church of San Millán in Madrid.  In order for evidence of this marriage not to appear anywhere, the mother of Doña Catalina looked for the dance teacher, Juan Antonio Gabriel de la Oliva who allowed himself to be passed off as her husband and the certificate was “altered” in the house of the parish priest.

Later, the Granada register of baptisms was taken to England where a huge fortune was paid to have the surnames of Maximiliano changed from Sackville to Oliva.

What would be interesting would be to find out if the marriage between Oliva and Pepita was legitimate, before she got together with Lord Sackville.  Another conflicting fact is that in the death certificate of Oliva in 1888, it states that the famous dancer was married to Mercedes Gómez.

“Going back to what I told you at the beginning don’t try and remember the love affair of Arcachon.  It was a love story, an ode in tune with nature, for two hearts, not for one day but for a whole existence.”

Written by Jesús Castro

Translated by Rachael Harrison

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Christian Damsgaard said:
27 June 2011 @ 22:48

According to my father (born 1929) Peptia also got a son with Graf von Harms named Willy von Harms. Willy was my farthers mothers farther. Willy was born in Copenhagen around 1858.

Sammy Jay said:
02 April 2013 @ 16:52

Fascinating post, thanks for this. Could I perhaps ask where you got the quotation: “There is nothing more ideal, more dreamy and more chivalrous than the love between a lord and a dancer.” Is this Vita in her autobiography? Or where is it from?

Thank you,

Christian Damsgaard said:
08 July 2013 @ 21:25

Hi Sammy,

I got it from my farther Bent Boris Sørensen Damsgaard that is still alive and can be reached at boris (at)


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