Inside the Mediterranean mirage of a lush English garden
A garden makes an offbeat memory. In 1935, following a spring trip to Greece, British poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, historian and diplomat, began to plant a small plot in the spirit of Delos, the he stony island of the Cyclades whose dusty meadows of wild flowers and carpets of aromatic herbs had captured their senses. The scenery was nothing like the Kent countryside in south-east London where the couple lived and garden. But they did their best, smuggling plants from subsequent trips abroad and adding hybrids grown in England like lavender and cistus to fill their small enclosure. Over time, Nicolson positioned Greek and Roman antiques – altars, troughs, capitals, and pillars salvaged from auction houses and his family estates – to structure the informal plantation.
Outside the quarter acre, which they named Delos, was the rest of their garden, in the midst of several hundred acres surrounding Sissinghurst Castle, the ruined Elizabethan mansion they bought five years ago. earlier. They had tried to make sense of the broken plan of the estate by arranging garden furniture and walkways to reconnect, at least on the outside, the remaining habitable buildings: South Cottage, which housed their bedrooms and Nicolson’s office; the tower, containing the office and library of Sackville-West; and the priest’s house, which housed the kitchen, dining room and bedrooms of their two sons. A former stable later became a library for entertainment. Without the garden to hold it together, Sissinghurst was a fractured skeleton; with her it was a creation of flesh and blood. The couple spent as much time in their outdoor lounges as English weather allowed.
They opened the garden to paying visitors in the late 1930s, and Sissinghurst quickly became known for its romantic effects and the unusual collection of plants that Sackville-West combined with abandon. (Nicolson typically provided the architecture.) She was inspired by the cultivated profusion of Dutch floral painting and visits to places like Iran and the Caucasus, where the couple traveled during Nicolson’s diplomatic assignments. In this context, the garden of Delos took on its full meaning. It was a ruin within a ruin, a capricious and picturesque landscape transposed into a new key.
Yet Kent’s humidity and heavy clay soil were against them. In 1953, Sackville-West wrote to a friend about Delos: “It hasn’t been a success so far, but maybe one day it will be okay. ”
When garden designer Dan Pearson first visited Sissinghurst as a boy in the mid-1970s, the estate had been in the hands of the National Trust for about a decade. Pearson made the trip once or twice a year with his father, who was an avid painter and home gardener.