Near Cranbrook, Kent
Vita Sackville-West & Harold Nicolson
It is widely known that Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West were rather unconventional. As fringe members of the avant-garde Bloomsbury Group, they practiced what today would be called an open marriage with both having affairs, often with people of the same sex. And while Harold was Apollonian in nature, formal and discrete, Vita was very much Dionysian with an insatiable lust for life and love. Despite this, they formed an incredibly strong partnership which produced one of the best gardens in England. And as such, arguably one of the best gardens in the world.
Harold was a British diplomat, author, diarist and politician. He held many prominent positions within both society and politics throughout his life. At the advent of WWI it was Harold who was entrusted with handing Britain's revised declaration of war to Prince Max von Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London. He subsequently rose through diplomatic and political ranks to become Parliamentary Secretary and official Censor at the Ministry of Information in Sir Winston Churchill's 1940 wartime government of national unity.
Despite his diplomatic career being honourable and prestigious in Edwardian Britain, Vita’s parents wanted their daughter to marry an aristocrat from an old noble family and only reluctantly approved of the marriage. Harold and Vita would have two sons: Benedict, an art historian, and Nigel, a politician and writer.
Vita was a successful novelist, poet, and journalist, as well as a prolific letter writer and diarist. She was born in 1892 at Knole House, often regarded as one of the largest houses in England. Due to English aristocratic primogenitor inheritance customs, Vita's male cousin inherited Knole house. This was a source of life-long bitterness for Vita.
Vita saw herself as psychologically divided into two: one side of her personality was more feminine, soft, submissive and attracted to men, while the other side was more masculine, hard, aggressive and attracted to women.
Harold and Vita discussed their shared homosexual tendencies frankly with each other. And despite what one could consider an unusual relationship, they remained happy together. They were famously devoted to each other, writing almost every day when separated due either to Harold's long diplomatic postings abroad, or Vita's insatiable wanderlust.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden
In 1930, Harold and Vita stumbled upon the ruinous buildings and derelict farmland of Sissinghurst. The property had once belonged to Vita’s ancestors. Drawn to this connection and its romance, they ignored the difficulties and expense of restoring the property and promptly purchased it.
Work on the house and garden commenced straight away. Although they were not able to move into the house until 1932 when enough work had been completed to make it livable. The property is characterised by a number of small to independent medium-sized buildings, each with their own functionality. With this unusual layout, the garden was constantly traversed. Together Vita and Harold expanded and experimented with the Edwardian system of enclosures or garden "rooms", which they used to turn the garden into a component of their partite house. In time, this became part of the garden's defining nature.
Harold provided the architectural structure of the garden with strong classical lines which would frame his wife's innovative, informal planting schemes. He had a natural skill for symmetry, forcing focal points and encouraging views.
As with life, Vita was Dionysian in her approach to the garden. Her personal mantra was “cram, cram, cram” and she preferred abundance, sensuality and spontaneity in her plantings. Vita’s palette was sophisticated and cutting edge. She embraced all colours and used them in new and exciting ways. Most notably, she innovated single colour-themed gardens, somewhat masking the sheer range of colour that Vita used at Sissinghurst.
The garden suffered as did most in Britain during WWII. After the war, Sissinghurst became even more free and romantic than ever. While the garden was admired by many, there were those in horticulturalist circles who thought that its excessive freedom and informality gave way to chaotic ugliness and would ultimately lead the garden into oblivion.
It was at this time, that Harold and Vita took the unusual step of appointing two women head gardeners, Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger. Formally trained at the Waterperry Horticultural School in Oxfordshire, Pam and Sibylle would remain joint head gardeners for 30 years. Eventually they oversaw the transition of the garden to The National Trust on the passing of Harold and Vita. This continuity ensured that Vita and Harold's ethos lived on in the garden.
While Vita was adamant that her house and garden not be turned over to The National Trust in her lifetime, she left her son, Nigel, the property upon her death in 1962 along with a letter saying that she understood the financial burdens of keeping the property and giving her blessings for The National Trust to take ownership. Shortly after, Nigel offered to relinquish the property. Amazingly, The National Trust was ambivalent about the property and it was not accepted until 1967. Today, Sissinghurst is one of the most visited gardens in the United Kingdom with its iconic imagery instantly recognisable by a global audience.
The White Garden
The most famous and reproduced of Sissinghurst's garden rooms. The white garden reaches the highest echelons of sophisticated colour and foliage textural use.
Originally planted as a shrub rose garden, the white garden only came into its current format after WWII. While precursor white gardens existing at Hidcote Manor, Crathes Castle and a few other notable gardens predated that at Sissinghurst, none where attempted on the scale of, nor achieved the desired effect as much as Vita’s. It is thought that the garden arose out of its proximity to the dining room situated in the nearby Priest’s Cottage. The luminosity of white flowers and silvery foliage at night would have lit up the ebonised garden beds as Vita and Harold traversed the garden to their bedrooms at night.
Initially, the central focus of the white garden were almond trees amongst whose branches Rosa mulliganii clambered. Over time, the over-exuberant roses suffocated the almond trees and hastened their death. In 1970 the last almond tree died and the current iron arbour was made by a local blacksmith based on an unfolded paperclip model designed by Nigel.
The garden is curious in consisting of two dissimilar halves yet containing a sense of symmetry and balance. One half is a parterre of L-shaped, box-edged beds surrounding box cubes. The other, comprises of two deep borders either side of the north – south axial path. The severe formality of the box beds is softened by the plants that spill over on to the paths and belie the unbalanced, asymmetrical nature of the beds beneath.
Paradoxically, it is in the white garden that Vita’s most dramatic (and successful) use of colour can be found. Her studied use of flowers and foliage within the limited palette of grey, green and white removes the distraction of colour, enabling one to focus on form, texture and scent. This subtle complexity is thought to be why the white garden became one of the most celebrated and influential gardens of the 20th century.
The Rose Garden
Of all of Sissinghurst’s flowers, it was roses that most captured Vita’s imagination with their colours, textures of velvet or satin, evocative fragrance and generous blooms borne in early summer. The rose garden is where Vita indulged her senses and could be truly hedonistic.
Like the white garden, the rose garden conveys a sense of symmetry and balance despite its awkward, non-parallel proportions. Similarly, it is the combination of Harold’s simple structural design and Vita’s soft, billowing plantings that achieve this. It is only with a bird’s eye view from the tower that the actual geometric shape and irregular fit of the garden becomes strikingly apparent.
Initially planted as the kitchen garden, it was only in 1937 that the roses, which had outgrown the Priest’s House, were transplanted here. The rose garden beds are described as billowing and over-brimming with their loose plantings providing continuity and a free-flowing feel. While most typical of Vita’s personal style, the planting is quite different from that of any other part of the garden. Textures are soft with little use of contrasting foliage, save for the sword-like irises, and there are almost no punctuation style plants to provide drama and arresting focal points.
In the years since her death, the roses themselves have become synonymous with Sissinghurst’s style: soft abundance, subtlety and romance. With many companion plants being added to prolong the flowering season for the legions of admiring visitors, the rose garden is now happily enchanting well beyond the rose season.
The Cottage Garden
Harold and Vita considered the cottage garden to be their own innermost, intimate garden and spoke about it in particularly endearing terms. Sitting below the windows of their bedrooms, the cottage garden was named for its location and intimacy rather than its plant choice. Eschewing traditional plants, this section of Sissinghurst contains tender exotics, hedychiums, salvias, cannas and the bold foliage of ligularias and veratrums. Indeed, typical cottage plants are far more numerously represented in Sissinghurst’s rose and white gardens. Planted to provide colour for an extended season, the flowers are restricted to sunset colours of orange, red and yellow. Bright in spring with wallflowers and tulips, these colours extend through the year becoming more golden and russet in autumn with a blaze of dahlias.
The cottage garden remains discrete, visually connected with the moat walk alone among the rest of the garden rooms. Its relative seclusion and cosiness, its sunset colours harmonising with the warm brick of the cottage and the generous abundance of its planting, make it a favourite to this day.
Violets and Tea's Thoughts
What Makes Sissinghurst a Great English Garden?
It doesn’t contain fountains. There are no trellis walks nor laburnum and wisteria tunnels. There is no long grassy walk flanked by herbaceous borders. No fancy topiary nor sweeping pastoral scenes kept at bay by a hidden haha. And no balustrade terrace nor columned temple. But to say that Sissinghurst is not a great English garden would be to mistakenly think of understatement and subtlety in design as a weakness.
The great strength of the garden is that it is intimate and relatable. It doesn’t necessarily contain any bold features that could not be recreated at home. And hence, its genius is in its apparent simplicity. There are no grand gestures that seem too out of reach of the ordinary person; there are just some flowers, trees, a few hedges, a verdigris copper pot and a pool of water.
While it was fashionable for the Edwardian’s to create rooms within their gardens, Harold and Vita’s garden rooms linked the fragmented buildings of Sissinghurst together, so that the garden areas truly served as rooms of their house. Vita herself would refer to the long axial walks and small geometrical gardens as akin to rooms of an enormous house that would open off an arterial corridor. Perhaps reminiscent of her childhood at Knole House?
In this way, instead of being seen as garden designer and planter, I would consider Harold and Vita as architect and interior designer. They lived in this garden and placed their specimens as one would place a chair, or a lamp, or a throw rug. It is unsurprising, then, that Vita’s use of colour was as sophisticated as it was.
To me, no part of the garden stands out more than any other as all the rooms fit together to form a beautifully coherent space. Yet each separate garden room is complete, in and of itself. These intimately sized rooms enable us to mentally transplant that entire visual scene into our own garden spaces at home. So, while there is no way I could recreate the same garden, and even saying so seems somewhat blasphemous, I feel as if I could.
While other gardens (I’m thinking of you, Great Dixter!) give us the courage to be bold and experiment, Sissinghurst gives us the belief that we too could create something so beautiful.
Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden
Sissinghurst, An Unfinished History
Planting Schemes from Sissinghurst
Gardening at Sissinghurst
Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West