Monday 9 January 2017

Flower Power : Sissinghurst Succession

In these dark and dreary days of midwinter in the northern hemisphere we need a bit of colour. What better way than to think about the summer and gardens full of brightly-coloured flowers and some sunshine. One of the most popular and well-known public gardens in the UK are those at Sissinghurst Castle. This year sees the 50th anniversary of its purchase by the National Trust, even though it has been open to the public since 1938. What makes it significant to lgbt heritage is that it was created and looked after by a succession of lgbt couples.

Sissinghurst itself is not a genuine castle. It began life as a medieval manor house and was expanded during several centuries into the stately property it is now. In 1930 it came into the possession of a famous British literary couple, Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) and Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962).

Their marriage became one of the most famous, even infamous, marriages in British history, not only because it lasted over 50 years and produced the wonderful Sissinghurst gardens, but also because both accepted from the outset that they would have same-sex relationships outside their marriage. As Vita Sackville-West himself might have said, love is love regardless of gender.
Harold and Vita lived in a medieval house in the village of Sevenoaks Weald until 1930. They had heard that their property was about to be redeveloped by a local farmer and they looked for a new home. Sissinghurst was recommended to them by a local agent and even though it was very run down the couple decided to buy it and move in.

The garden, in total disarray and overgrown, was to be a passion for Harold and Vita even more than the restoration of the building itself. Harold planned the new gardens and Vita did the planting. Their original plans no longer exist but we can get a taste of their ideas through the work of a succession of talented couples who have looked after the gardens ever since.

Both Harold and Vita had highly successful careers which often took them away from Sissinghurst. Yet they created a distinctive garden and regenerated the small working farm on the estate at the same time.

In 1959 Vita decided to appoint a head gardener. In the end she appointed two, Pamela Schwerdt (1931-2009) and Sibylle Kreutzberger. These two women had met at the Waterperry School of Horticulture for Ladies and established a life-long companionship. At Sissinghurst they “tidied up” the gardens and introduced new planting schemes that were more contemporary while still in keeping with Harold’s and Vita’s original ideas. The garden, which was open to the public, soon gained national attention and in the first nine years of Pamela’s and Sibylle’s time at Sissinghurst visitor figures jumped from 6,000 a year to 57,000.
In 1967 Harold gave Sissinghurst to the National Trust. The family were allowed to live there (as their grandson still does) and Pamela and Sybille were kept on as Head Gardeners. By the time they retired in 1991 they had assembled a talented team of gardeners under them who ensured Sissinghurst’s reputation would carry on into the 21st century.

The successor as Head Gardener appointed an assistant who was herself her eventual successor. The assistant, Alexis Datta, was recruited from the gardens of Cliveden House, another of the great stately homes in England. Alexis’s partner, Jacqueline Ruthven, became Head Propagator.

During Alexis’s tenure as Head Gardener from 2005 the visitor figure at Sissinghurst rose to around 195,000 a year. This is partly due to the general rise in visitor figures to heritage sites across the whole of the UK but also to the sustained reputation and increasing interest in the Sissinghurst gardens.

Not many public gardens have remained basically the same as originally planned. Many modern trends and fashions have come and gone in the gardening world but Sissinghurst has remained as a window into the world of a couple of the 1930s. While changing to reflect modern growing techniques and becoming an organic garden Sissinghurst has provided a refreshing change to those large over-flowered public gardens of larger properties. It is seen as a traditional English garden. That is its main appeal, as the photos I've included of the gardens show.

In 2013 Alexis and Jacqueline retired from their positions. Both went on to other garden projects but they left Sissinghurst with the 83-year legacy of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson intact for future generations to enjoy.

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