Sissinghurst: The Dream Garden
by Tim Richardson
In the introduction to the latest in an impressive roll call of books about Sissinghurst – the Kent garden made from scratch by Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West – Tim Richardson sets out his intention to tease out ‘the invisible meanings of the garden, which exist alongside its more tangible sensory delights’. His book is a hybrid. Part horticultural tour, part exploration of the dreamlike qualities of the garden’s spaces, it also charts the move away from Vita’s ‘romantic chaotic creativity’ to a regime of horticultural exactitude under the National Trust, which took on the garden in 1967. Bringing the story up to date, Richardson reveals how, since the appointment of Dan Pearson as ‘godparent’, and under the tenure of Troy Scott Smith, who until recently was head gardener, the garden has once more regained the tone and feel of Harold and Vita’s intensely personal retreat.
There is no set route round the garden but Richardson’s tour logically starts with the approach and ends with Delos, a space that was conceived as a Mediterranean garden but had become, in Vita’s words ‘a queer amorphous area’. The photographs of this final chapter reveal the re-landscaped space, with planting native to the rocky Greek island that inspired the original terraced garden. In the middle of the tour, Richardson breaks off to expound his idea that in many ways Sissinghurst is a Modernist garden, influenced by ‘stream of consciousness’ literature.
Drawing richly from Harold and Vita’s writings, Richardson’s text conjures up the fleeting moments in each of the spaces, the transcendent experiences and disorientations that, for him, make this a great garden. Jason Ingram’s images, most magically capturing the garden at early dawn, provide a feast of views and close-ups that are informatively captioned and will be a compensation for those who cannot visit the garden.