This week we have a guest blogger, Harvey James. Harvey is a library cataloguer and has written his blog about Vita’s gardening book collection here at Sissinghurst. The collection is extensive and gives us a rare insight in to Vita’s development as a gardener. Read on and enjoy.
Over the last four years, it has been my privilege to catalogue the library collection of Sissinghurst . The project should be completed later this year. The library is one of the largest in the National Trust and contains possibly the most significant 20th century collection. There are approximately 11,000 volumes, including the personal collection of Vita Sackville-West in her tower writing room. Vita was a precocious reader and her girlhood bookplate shows her early affinity for nature.
Unfortunately, limited archival material survives on site to record Harold and Vita’s working plans and ideas. Some examples though do remain amongst Vita’s garden books and can provide vital clues to original planting schemes. This small folder shows Vita’s planting notes with the numbers cross-referencing carefully recorded varieties with her opinion on the plant’s effectiveness.
One striking feature of the library is the extensive evidence of the books’ use found in annotations and the insertion of other materials. Vita’s books reveal many fascinating aspects of her reading. It is clear that literature was never far away, no matter where she was and what she was doing. It was the same for her husband, the author, diplomat and politician, Harold Nicolson. The library is key in demonstrating her broad taste, the wide range of influences and ideas that informed not only her own writing, but also her creation with Harold, of their special garden.
The library shows the literary and topographical backdrop to the library, its poetic and historic foundations. While it is no surprise to find such garden authors as Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and George Sitwell amongst the books, it is also illuminating to find how some of Vita’s planting schemes could be inspired by readings of Shakespeare, the Bible or on Eastern travel.
In addition, to the more literary influences, far more tangible evidence of Vita’s planting exists in the surviving nursery catalogues that Vita marked with the varieties she wanted. In her Observer column of September 24, 1950, Vita expressed her temptation faced with the “bewildering … diversity” of the catalogue lists. In the same article, she mentions “a catalogue of such enchantment” from Ralph Cusack, of County Wicklow, an Irishman who is “a man after my own heart”. The marked up copy is still in the library. Several other seed catalogues testify to Vita’s choice of plants. Copies of Marchant and Thompson & Morgan catalogues pictured below are good examples bearing annotation. Such items are sometimes regarded as ephemeral, so their survival here should provide a valuable resource. These and other items in the writing room have great potential for further research into the original plant varieties employed in the garden.
Harvey James, library cataloguer