Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962)

Lady with a Red Hat, portrait of Vita Sackville-West, William Strang, 1918, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Lady with a Red Hat, portrait of Vita Sackville-West, William Strang, 1918, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Vita was born and spent her early years at the grand, ancestral, Sackville family home, Knole, near Sevenoaks in Kent.  She was the only child of the 3rd Baron Sackville and loved the house and the traditions she had grown up with.  So she was devastated when she was disinherited at his death in 1928, and the house went to the closest male heir.

Vita was a successful writer of novels and poems and in 1913 she married (against the family’s wishes) the diplomat and journalist Harold Nicolson. Together they led a bohemian, artistic life, well documented later in Portrait of a Marriage by their son Nigel Nicholson, also a prolific writer, which caused an uproar when it was published. 

In 1930 the Nicolson’s bought the semi-ruined Elizabethan Sissinghurst Castle and devoted their time there to improving the gardens, with Harold taking responsibility for the design, and Vita the planting.  Both were new to gardening and developed a lifelong passion, creating the extraordinary world famous gardens.

Vita wrote a weekly gardening column for the Observer from 1947 to 1961 which her daughter-in-law described as ‘like that of an amateur gardener talking to a friend about their horticultural triumphs and follies – boasting a bit, laughing a bit, grousing a bit, mingling reminiscence with hard advice, and sentiment with something approaching poetry’.

She wrote, for example of how she conceived the White Garden which later became one of the most famous and well-loved parts of the garden:

For my own part, I am trying to make a grey, green and white garden.  This is an experiment which I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it.  One’s best ideas seldom play up in practice to one’s expectations, especially in gardening, where everything looks so well on paper and in the catalogues but fails so lamentably in fulfilment after you have tucked your plants into the soil.  Still, one hopes.

She then goes on to describe some of the plants that she would use and then adds a poetic touch:

All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planning, under the first flakes of snow.

On other occasions she wrote about roses, describing not just their horticultural virtues but lovingly discussing their names and origins such as this Rosa alba:

The old Maiden’s Blush of cottage gardens is an alba; the French call it Cuisse de Nymphe, and when it appeared in an even rosier variant they called it Cuisse de Nymphe Emue.  We, in our puritanical England, acknowledge no truck with the thighs of nymphs, however emotional, so under the name of Maiden’s Blush it remains, and a very pretty and innocent-looking pink and white debutante she is.

Her articles were very popular, and she often received ‘over a hundred letters a week from grateful or indignant readers’ which led to the publication of several compilations with surprisingly unimaginative titles such as In Your Garden, In Your Garden Again, More for Your Garden, and Even More for Your Garden.

White Garden at Sissinghurst, National Trust Images

White Garden at Sissinghurst, National Trust Images

Vita’s legacy to garden development and English garden history is immense – inspiring ‘white gardens’ and colour-themed borders everywhere; renewing interest in forgotten and long-lost roses; and the early and influential use of enclosed gardens within a garden – now called ‘rooms’; but most of all in the romantic yet practical way she wrote and gardened, taking us back to a golden era of our imagination; as in this description of a rose:

Souvenir du Docteur Jamain is an old fashioned hybrid perpetual which I am rather proud of having rescued from extinction.  I found him growing against the office wall of an old nursery.  No one knew what he was; no one seemed to care; no one knew his name; no one had troubled to propagate him.  Could I dig him up I asked? Well, if you like to risk it, they said, shrugging their shoulders; it’s a very old plant, with a woody, stiff root.  I risked it; Docteur Jamain survived his removal; and now has a flourishing progeny in my garden and also on the market of certain rosarians to whom I gave him.  Docteur Jamain is a deep red, not very large flowers, but so sweetly and sentimentally scented.  Some writers would call it nostalgically scented, meaning everything that burying one’s nose into the heart of a rose meant in one’s childhood, or in one’s adolescence when one first discovered poetry, or the first time one fell in love.

Vita may have lost her first love – the house at Knole – but she found a new and lasting one in the gardens at Sissinghurst.