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. Continue reading