Created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s, this National Trust property continues to enthral, as author Tim Richardson discovered

Photography © Jason Ingram  

If a garden is to be considered an art form, rather than simply a hobby or pastime, then in the pantheon of British gardens, Sissinghurst might be compared to the Mona Lisa. Like the painting, it has become so familiar that it is difficult to appreciate it for what it is: a great garden on its own merits, as opposed to a visitor attraction burdened by an international reputation. That was certainly my feeling when I embarked upon this book; I thought I knew the garden well already. Yet rather to my surprise, the process of getting to know Sissinghurst afresh, and in a far more intense manner than before, has revealed that there is plenty that is new to say. In fact, on occasion, it has felt as if, all this time, the garden has been hiding in plain sight.

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 A considerable amount of descriptive — if not critical — attention has been lavished on Sissinghurst over the years because this is a place that exerts a hold over people like no other. That sense of connection is in part attributable to the personalities of its makers, Harold Nicolson and Victoria (“Vita”) Sackville-West, who acquired Sissinghurst in 1930 and over the ensuing decades poured so much of themselves into it, without ever descending into exhibitionism. The knowledge that the garden was made by them, for them, and for them alone — despite the presence of so many paying visitors, even in their lifetimes — has paradoxically only served to cement this feeling of intimacy with visitors. 

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Gardens are not only a matter of what can be seen, smelled, heard and touched. Just as much, they are about what is felt, what is thought, and the atmosphere of the place. Sissinghurst was conceived in an intensely personal way — with every planting decision by Vita, and every angle and vista designed by Harold, expressive of their innermost emotions, hopes and desires. They put their all into Sissinghurst. It is a place where the character of the creators has somehow endured in its very fabric, where the emotional resonance of the life they lived together persists and seems palpable.

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As is so often the case, the garden was not just a hobby for them; it was the life-project of two intellectuals, expressive of their world views, of their unconventional love for each other, and of a passion for the place itself. It also speaks of the cultural context of the times, and of their own engagement with literature and the challenge of what we now call modernism, which inevitably seeped into the garden’s pores (and arguably into its structure). 

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We should feel grateful to its creators, Vita and Harold, who made, as Vita said, “a garden where none was”.

Sissinghurst: The Dream Garden, published by Frances Lincoln, £30