A burst of Sissinghurst

The ultimate English garden is Sissinghurst in Kent. How has it been coping with these difficult years of lockdowns and, recently, drought? I have been to have a look.

The cue for my visit has been the opening of a small exhibition in Sissinghurst’s Long Library. It has the beguiling title Affairs in Berlin: Harold in Germany, Vita in Love and it runs until February 17 next year. It is fun to see if you are visiting Sissinghurst anyway. I was helped to understand it by its main co-ordinator, Kathryn Batchelor, and by Lesley Chamberlain, who has written recently on its subjects.

In 1928-29, Harold Nicolson and his wife Vita Sackville-West were still based at Long Barn, in Sussex, where Vita was making her first garden, long since disappeared. The exhibition addresses a lesser-known side to these years and contains, for me, a surprise.

As a schoolboy, I was inspired by Vita’s gardening columns of the 1950s and 1960s and was motivated by them to write columns of my own. In the 1980s, I edited a selection of them, for which I read all the newspaper columns she ever wrote. I also read her garden diaries but, until last week, I had never heard her voice.

First I will explain what the exhibition presents. It contains no new biographical discoveries but through books and posters it gives an apt reminder of the couple’s wide cultural and personal hinterland. Its focus is Berlin. In late 1927 Harold moved there to take up a diplomatic posting. He already spoke and read German fluently, but Vita knew German less well. At first she stayed in Sussex, not just with her lover of the moment, Virginia Woolf, but with a project that I had quite forgotten.

As a poet herself, she had been quick to recognise the genius of the poet Rilke. Soon after his death in 1926, she formed a plan to translate his German verse into English for the first time. She must have learnt some German while being schooled at home, but she was greatly helped by her accomplished cousin Edward Sackville-West, who knew the language well.

Items on display in the Sissinghurst exhibition ‘Affairs in Berlin’ © National Trust

In February 1928, she went out to visit Harold and again in August, months, I think, when her garden could cope without her. Her work on Rilke benefited. So did her private life.

Berlin offered clubs and social havens for what would now be classed as an LGBTQ clientele. From 1919 onwards it also had Europe’s first Institute for Sexual Science. Harold visited the clubs with his male companions and he and Vita went to what she described as “the sodomites’ ball”. She also met Margaret Goldsmith, lady of letters, American trade commissioner and wife of the Berlin correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. They had a passionate affair. As Goldsmith’s German was fluent, she was a great help to Vita’s work on Rilke’s poetry.

In 1931, she and her cousin Edward’s translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies was eventually published. It was reissued last year by the Pushkin Press with a helpful introduction by Lesley Chamberlain.

Its first publishers were Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Virginia had been Vita’s lover for a while and, in January 1929, came out to visit her in Berlin. She described the Nicolsons’ life as “rackety”: evidently she saw süsse Vita, not la dolce vita. In Vita’s absence Virginia had been finishing her own tour de force, Orlando, a love song to Vita set in many different times and eras, which never fails to entrance me. She was wary of Vita’s socially superior background and by the time the book appeared had reason to be wary of her fidelity too.

In 1929, Harold renounced his diplomatic career and in 1930 the Nicolsons bought Sissinghurst Castle, then a ruin. Their garden owes a debt to French gardening of the past: all those old roses and pleached limes. Did it owe anything to its German prelude? Vita had once described the view out of her window as “not too depressingly German”: the Berlin years left no mark on its conception, varied though it was.

A poster for the exhibition at Sissinghurst, featuring a man with a smoking pipe and a woman wearing a hat
A poster for the exhibition © Cassie Dickson

Its German debt was to come later, with the two gardeners whom Vita took on near the end of her life. Pamela Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger came from German families but had long trained and worked in Britain. They became the geniuses of the place after Vita’s death in 1962.

The garden was already more than 30 years old but they carried it forward, extending its seasonal interest while caring for the Nicolsons’ superb planning and planting, which gave it its magic. Sissinghurst of the 1970s and 1980s reached new heights thanks to their skill and dedication.

In a gardening column for October, Vita once wrote how pink and green the autumn garden was: “not bronze and blue, the colours we associate with the turning woods and the hazy distance”. I sat in its front courtyard with its current head gardener, Troy Scott Smith, and discussed the challenges confronting it. He first worked at Sissinghurst in 1992 and has returned for a second spell as head gardener.

During the lockdowns, the National Trust furloughed six of the eight gardeners and temporarily stopped Sissinghurst’s 50 volunteers. When the team reassembled, a first priority was the reinstatement of an area that the Nicolsons, ever looking outwards, called Delos, in honour of a visit to that Greek island. It is a big improvement, one whose Aegean flora has coped quite well with this year’s dry summer. Elsewhere, the drought was a nightmare: Sissinghurst has no system of irrigation.

Now in its nineties, the garden has repeatedly had to give up some of its famous former plantings. I went hoping to admire the long bed of blue-flowered daisies, Aster x frikartii, which ran under the wall down to the moat. Bred by a German-speaking Swiss grower, it would have been a fitting match for the library’s little exhibition, but it has had to be removed. Eventually the asters developed a killing virus. For the moment they have been replaced by zinnias, flowers Vita also liked.

No garden stands still. Scott Smith has his sights set on 2030, the centenary of the couple’s acquisition of the garden. After the recent difficulties, there is all to play for. In the front courtyard the garden used to greet visitors with dark violet petunias, fine dark red pelargoniums and a stunning border of blues and misty purples. To one side a big cercidiphyllum tree was indeed an autumn harmony of pink and green.

They have all gone by now and Scott Smith is embarking on a reinstatement. Red-purple-leaved castor oil plants are quite wrong, he knows, in the border of blues that Schwerdt and Kreutzberger made magical.

In the exhibition, a board invites visitors to dial 2 on a black telephone and listen to Vita answering. Fascinated, I did so, expecting to hear a patrician voice speaking down to me, perhaps with a smoky depth. Instead I heard crisp enunciation in a middle register. She had been recorded reading verses from her poem The Land, which contrast the dry landscape of Persia, one she had visited, with the lovely green of England in summer.

She sounded even more memorable as the gardeners outside the window were raking loads of dead brown grass from the lawn, the result of Britain’s hottest summer days on record.

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