||Vita (Sackville-West) Nicolson was a member of aristocracy in the British Isles.|
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Vita Sackville-West was a British poet and author.
Vita Sackville-West: her gardening legacy  Vita Sackville-West died 50 years ago this month. What was it about her unique style that inspires gardeners today? For Sackville-West herself, who died 50 years ago this month at the age of 70, gardening was more than a profession. In her gardens at Long Barn and Sissinghurst Castle, both in Kent, she achieved a degree of aesthetic coherence which consistently eluded her in her fiction, with its tendency to melodrama and tempestuously heightened emotions. While her writing sought to imitate the human heart, in all its nuances and strangeness, in her gardening she captured a simpler, more straightforward love: the countrywoman’s love of the land and its husbandry, the artist’s love of form and colour.
Today Vita’s name has become a kind of shorthand when applied to garden design. She once defined her approach as “profusion, even extravagance and exuberance, within confines of the utmost linear severity”, and her style is characterised by abundant planting enhanced by self-seeding, a careful shading and blending of colours and a passion for roses, traits which later found echoes in the work of Rosemary Verey, among others. Self-taught, experimental, romantic but also ruthless in her approach, she was the ultimate amateur genius. Her gardening appears quintessentially “English”, one reason for Vita’s continuing international renown, particularly among American gardeners. It is not a modern vision, but as anyone who has read Vita’s gardening journalism will know, her thirsty relish for plants, for new discoveries and fresh introductions, would have imposed a degree of modernity on any garden she created. A love of gardening permeates Vita’s poetry, most notably her two long poems, “The Land” and “The Garden”; it also shapes her fiction. In her 1934 novel The Dark Island, she resorted to horticultural metaphor: “Cristina, being something of a gardener, knew well enough that certain plants may appear to remain stationary for years while they are really making roots underground, only to break into surprising vigour overhead at a given moment.” For 15 years, from 1946 to 1961, famous by then as the co-creator with her husband Harold Nicolson of the garden at Sissinghurst, Vita was a professional garden writer. Every Sunday morning, she sat down to write a column for the Observer.
Although she would claim that the column filled her with loathing, it earned her legions of fans and the coveted Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society. The Vita who emerges from her Observer columns, though practical in the soundness of her gardening advice, is a confirmed romantic in her approach to her favourite plants. She likens Fritillaria imperialis, the crown imperial, to “the stiff, Gothic-looking flowers one sometimes sees growing along the bottom of a medieval tapestry” and recalls her first sight of the plant in its native Persia: “In the midst of this moist luxuriance I suddenly discerned a group of the noble flower. Its coronet of orange bells glowed like lanterns in the shadows in the mysterious place.”
Plants for Vita were every bit as real as people: they had personalities, appealing and unappealing traits, physical attractions and elements of mystery. She once described a particularly exasperating member of her family as being “as floppy as an unstaked delphinium in a gale”. It was plants that she considered her own contribution to the garden at Sissinghurst — “the maximum informality in planting”. Her husband’s contribution, by contrast, was “the strictest formality of design”. Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, Norah Lindsay, Edwin Lutyens and Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote all influenced Vita’s gardening: today her reputation is as great if not greater than theirs. Yet her perceived legacy — Sissinghurst-inspired white gardens across the globe — is only part of the story. So, too, is her misappropriation by gardening snobs as an arbiter of all things tasteful in the garden. Vita’s vision was too big, too romantic and above all too personal for conventional notions of good taste. Innovator and imitator, she created a garden at Sissinghurst that was both a statement of self-assertion and a means of rewriting her own history.
At the end of her life, Vita described the process of writing fiction: “Ah, it is heavenly while it lasts. A sort of intoxication… You see suddenly, as in a finished picture, the entire shape and design of what you want to do. “I don’t say that you ever carry it out to your satisfaction, but for one brief moment of illumination you have apprehended the unity of what you meant. That is one of the few moments in life worth living.” Happily, half a century after her death, the intoxicating effect of Vita’s gardening vision at Sissinghurst, albeit changed and modified by those who have succeeded her, lasts and lasts.
Sissinghurst, Kent, England, UK
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Vita is 25 degrees from Walter Morrison, 30 degrees from Alison Wilkins and 10 degrees from Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on our single family tree. Login to find your connection.