All Passion Spent
Vita Sacksville-West and Sissinghurst Castle Garden
To my knowledge, there is only one internationally famous and glorious garden that was created by a married couple, who were in fact living underground gay lives. That place is Sissinghurst; the pair, Vita Sacksville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson.
It’s only a few hours from London’s Charing Cross train station to the bucolic countryside of Kent. I made that journey many times, each time learning more, seeing more, and dreaming more.
Vita was an extraordinary figure in gay cultural history, an author, and a foremost innovator in garden design. She married Harold in 1913, giving them both an abiding friendship, children, and cover in homophobic England (sex between men was only decriminalized in 1967). Like many others, they chose the safety of a straight marriage. To their credit, they were open with each other.
Vita’s two great amours ended in heartbreaking separation, the subject of TV and movie dramas. She had a lengthy relationship with Violet Trefusis, an English socialite and writer, that continued after both were married. Then with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of any time or place, who had tragic bouts of what was likely bipolar disorder. Vita became the central character in Woolf’s extraordinary novel, “Orlando: A Biography”, chronicling the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries.
One of Vita’s letters to Virginia: “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple, desperate human way…So, this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become.”
The daughter of old nobility, Vita inherited a ruined Elizabethan manor house and spent decades creating a garden that is still highly influential. Starting in 1946, she wrote newspaper articles about garden design, which were read eagerly by professionals and the public alike.
Harold created the masterpiece of the architectural framework that released her creativity. She poured her ideas and sensibilities into Sissinghurst. For her, gardening was always about beauty.
Sissinghurst is a sensual wonder that revolutionized garden design. Vita and her friend, Lawrence Johnston, the designer of Hidcote Manor, discarded the norm of the day, which was to have a single style for the entire garden. Sissinghurst is divided into ten garden rooms with different themes, some with sculpture, fountains, or topiary, enclosed by old brick walls or yew hedges, so all the rooms can’t be taken in at once. There is even a bench made by pruning box hedging in the shape of a seat.
She created the first monochromatic garden rooms, most notably the White Garden. With Harold’s perfect lines, she let the planting be exuberant, engulfing, and romantic. Self-seeded plants grew where they naturally fell, wild flowers with cultivated plants – a revolt against stuffy, manicured formality. Her Rose Garden celebrated the heritage roses that had grown out of fashion, but had a wonderful scent and character.
Sissinghurst has the original Elizabethan tower that dominates the garden, which was her study and library. Climbing the steep stairs, I could take in the five-acre garden from above, as Vita would have seen it.
Vita truly became the artist-gardener here, in a bewitching combination of wildness and restraint, all passion spent on this visual space.