One of my favourite pictures in one of my favourite books about one of my favourite gardeners is of a writing desk on which there are several photographs, a framed portrait of the Brontë sisters that once was folded and still bears the marks, a pen and inkwell stand, a lovely china bowl of what I imagine is pot-pourri, several stamped and addressed envelopes that look as if they are waiting to be opened, a couple of sheets of postage stamps depicting the crowned head of a young Queen Elizabeth, a scribbling pad dated 1962 (a poignant date) and a small closed diary. There is also a packet of lens cleaners, a silver letter-opener in the shape on an arrow complete with its flight-feathers, and a blotter, the kind that is hand-held and you rock backwards and forwards to dry the ink on your paper. It is an intensely personal collection and when I look into it I feel an intruder.
Only half the desk is in range of the camera lens but on that half are at least six small vases of flowers. It must have been the northern summer at the time because in one of the vases — a charming ceramic pot — are several sprigs of lily-of-the-valley; in another — this one decorated with what looks like a Chinese scene — is a mixture of small rose buds and foliage; another holds some white flowers that could be anemones; yet another — this one with a dark glaze — holds a large modern rose perfectly set off with some asparagus fern. At the back of the desk and against the wall and in a vase that is hidden from view are three stems of unopened magnolias beautifully set off by their large shiny leaves.
It is a black and white photograph so I cannot tell you about the colours of the flowers; I can only tell you that each little bouquet is lovely.
The desk speaks of someone who writes and loves flowers. Of course, is does! Because the writer is Vita Sackville West (pictured above on another occasion), poet, novelist and creator of the famous Sissinghurst garden in Kent in England. One of the photographs on the desk is of her husband, diplomat, fellow writer and gardener, Harold Nicholson. The date on the scribbling diary is poignant because she died in 1962.
The photograph is amongst the last pages of Jane Brown’s Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography of V.Sackville-West, a brilliant 1985 account of the making of that famous garden — ‘a garden made from deep within memories and experience’ as Jane Brown so eloquently puts it. The same photograph is in my copy of Anne Scott-James’ equally important book, Sissinghurst: The Making of a Garden, published in 1974.
There are several black and white photographs to be found on the web of Vita sitting at her writing-table (the picture at the top of this text is one of them). You can tell it is actually an old table if you look closely, and that it is rather battered and worn. There is a nice disorder to the objects on the desk in these photographs, as if Vita has been at work and only just turned away from it to pose for the photographer.
The text accompanying the photograph in my two books suggests that this is how her writing-table looked on 2 June 1962, the day she died, and when the then well known photographer, Edwin Smith, was due to visit. The photograph is attributed to him so perhaps he took it that day. I wish I knew. The flowers in their vases are northern summer flowers, June flowers.
Later photographs like the one above are in colour and in these the desk is very neat and has obviously been arranged by art directors to show visitors to the famous garden where Vita did her writing. Some of these photographs have no vases of flowers in them at all, which I find surprising: the art directors didn’t do their homework it seems! But what the one above in particular does show, however, is the fabulous old tapestry hanging above the dilapidated writing-table; it depicts a garden. How apt! Did she find this inspirational, I wonder.
It does not really matter what art directors have done in their zeal; what is important is that, according to her biographers (good authoritative writers like Anne Scott-James and Jane Brown in particular), there were always flowers from her garden on her writing-table — flowers that are evident in some actual photographs of her and are from a garden that must have been a daily inspiration for her writing.
I try for similar inspiration and always have a small vase or two of flowers from my garden on my desk. This week there are the first of the old fashioned freesias that I planted last year under the silver birches, hopeful that they would naturalise and take over that corner of the garden. They are crammed in amongst the last of the pink hyacinths that have surprised and delighted me for two years now (I had quite forgotten that I put the spent bulbs in a far corner of the garden). The last of the white cyclamen are there too; I don’t think they should be flowering now but as they are very beautiful, headily fragrant and have such handsome foliage, I won’t bother with explanations. And violets, lots of them, some a dusky pink, some white, some the deep violet that a violet should be, all of them violet-fragrant.
Only two weeks ago there were some miniature daffodils, sweet pretty things that I fell for in a pot in a nursery years ago and, like the hyacinths, planted and forgot about.
Next week, there should be wallflowers to put on my desk. I think they will look good combined with the white lavender that is already in flower. I hope it lasts until the wallflowers catch up. And that I will find inspiration there too …