Book review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West

‘This short book is personal, and therefore very arbitrary,’ begins Vita Sackville-West in the foreword to her book of essays on twenty-five of her favourite flowers. And at first glance down the contents page, the flowers she has chosen do appear to be haphazardly selected, heavily weighted as they are, for no reason that is immediately apparent, in favour of just a few genera with some oddities thrown in for good measure. In a list of twenty-five flowers that includes four types of old rose, three types each of primula and lily, and two types each of iris and fritillary, there isn’t much room left for the many other flowers that Sackville-West must have grown and loved. ‘What, no hardy geranium? No aster?’ you might well wonder as you begin to read, while also privately thinking, ‘What, so few of my favourites?’

But read on regardless, for you will shortly come to learn of the reason for Sackville-West’s choices. She has chosen ‘painters’ flowers’, though not the broad-brush flowers of the big border, not the flowers seen as an impressionist’s mass of blue or white from a distance. ‘The flowers I have chosen depend chiefly on their loveliness of shape, colouring, marking or texture,’ explains Sackville-West. ‘They are flowers which require to be looked at very intimately, if their queerness or beauty is to be closely appreciated. They are flowers which painters have delighted, or should delight, to paint.’

And it is refreshing that she has not restricted or restrained herself within self-imposed (or publisher-imposed) rules to widen the selection, a freedom that adds to the sense of casual. Don’t be fooled by her chatty, effortless style, which will transport you through the book as though riding a scudding cloud. Here is a mind alive with wit and information, and both are imparted as lightly as possible in a style that is by turns business-like, romantic, gossipy and indignant.

Always interesting and thought-provoking, she describes the many uses of mullein tea, which rose is the true York-and-Lancaster rose, and a memorable account of coming across a group of wild crown imperials growing in a dark ravine in Persia. But of course it is the descriptions of the flowers we are here for, and despite her admitting that it is ‘indeed very difficult to write about flowers’ we need not worry that she’ll fail us. Each is given its fair value in colour, texture, and the way light shines through translucent petals, while great care is taken not to descend to ‘purple’ language. A group of Verbascum Cotswold Varieties are fondly said to be ‘dusty, fusty, musty in colouring … as though a colony of tiny buff butterflies had settled all over them.’ Only about the Rosa gallica Tuscany does she get away from herself: ‘The velvet rose. What a combination of words! One almost suffocates in their soft depths, as though one sank into  a bed of rose petals, all thorns ideal stripped away.’ She brings herself back to earth by pointing out that ‘We cannot actually lie on a bed of roses, unless we are very decadent, and also very rich,’ and then apologises for her ‘fanciful way of writing’ before running away from herself again when looking closely into the ‘quivering and dusty gold of its central perfection.’ Don’t you just love her?

The edition in my hand is printed under the National Trust’s imprint, and gorgeously illustrated by the botanical painter Graham Rust. For some reason best known to themselves, the NT decided to print the book’s title not on the actual cover, but on a large sticker that looks most impermanent and strange, rather like a ‘3 for 2’ sticker commonly found on books stacked on tables in the entrances of commercial bookshops. It was just asking to be peeled off, which of course I started to do in a moment of distraction while on the phone. Sadly it would not peel off and so now I have a half-peeled sticker on the front of this otherwise handsome book, which in the spirit of things have tried to disguise with Some Flowers.

Eighty years have passed since the book’s first publication, and some of Sackville-West’s flowers have since become much more common and popular in ordinary gardens: the witch hazel, the meadow fritillary, the iris reticulata, zinnias. Some, like the Gerbera daisy have come through fashion and out again on the other side. The flowers have become popular because gardeners hang onto Sackville-West’s every word, and they hang onto her every word because she writes with such restrained beauty and sense, disguised as casual conversation. I urge you to rush out and buy this book, and then after you have read it immediately order everything else that Sackville-West has ever written, which is what I intend to do.

Sackville-West, V. (1937) Some Flowers. This edition (2014), London: National Trust Books.

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Book review: Lessons From Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish beauty of enormous charisma, charm and energy.  Her initial career was in opera, but her particular talents lay in two quite different directions: firstly, in making prudent marriages (she married a succession of men of huge wealth); secondly, in exotic, exuberant, and extravagant gardening.

After divorcing for the sixth and final time, Walska set about creating ‘Lotusland’, her vast garden in California. ‘She filled the garden with rare and exotic species, falling in love with their beauty but never knowing their names,’ writes Matthew Biggs in his delightful book, Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they can teach us. ‘Wanting plants that always looked good, Madame… was more interested in their art, style and beauty.’

Her garden was funded, of course, by her acquired marital wealth. Biggs quotes a story in which Walska drove around the neighbourhood in search of choice specimens, and whenever she saw something she wanted in someone else’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door, offering to buy it. If the person refused, ‘a case of champagne was delivered; that usually changed their minds.’ She would go on to sell almost $1m of jewellery to fund her various collections, including a garden of 900 cycads representing half the world’s species, many of them incredibly rare.

Madame Walska’s accompanies thirty-nine similarly spellbinding four-page histories, written in chronological order starting with the fifteenth-century Japanese artist Somai who created Ryouan-Ji, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the contemporary plantsman and plant hunter Dan Hinkley. Most of the gardeners one would expect to find here are present and correct: Paxton, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Chatto, Oudolf; and there are several whose names I recognised, perhaps from cultivars (Edward Augustus Bowles, Ellen Willmott), awards (James Veitch) or other subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Claude Monet), but about whom I knew much less. Then, like Walska, there were many I had never heard of at all, including the plantswoman Rae Selling Berry and the creator of the garden in the ruins of Ninfa near Rome, Princess Leila Caetani.

The gardeners are satisfyingly varied: there are those like Walska or the businessman Henry E. Huntingdon who built their gardens from great riches. Then there are those who gardened on behalf of the rich, like André Le Notre of Versailles, or Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth. Some gardeners had other jobs and gardened for relaxation (Thomas Jefferson, Sir Thomas Hanbury), others gardened obsessively to the exclusion of all else (Ellen Willmott, Madame Walska). The artist gardener is well represented in Claude Monet, Gertrude Jekyll and Jacques Majorelle.

I was unfamiliar with the writing of Matt Biggs, accustomed as I am to hearing his cheery voice on Gardeners’ Question Time. His writing style is as soothing as his subjects, telling their stories in clear, well written, well researched paragraphs, and it carries a quiet joy in its theme. Like many RHS published books, Lessons is printed on good quality mat paper: a satisfying book to feel and hold; each gardener is accompanied by a little portrait along with botanical illustrations of some of those plants best associated with them: Deschampsia for Piet Oudolf, Gentian for Geoffrey Smith, Asters for Gertrude Jekyll, Geranium for Margery Fish. Every gardener has a page of ‘Lessons’. Geoff Hamilton teaches us that ‘things don’t have to be perfect… Gardening is all about enjoyment; don’t take it too seriously’. Beth Chatto tells us to ‘accept the existing conditions, choose the right plants for that location’. Vita Sackville-West ‘disliked excessive tidiness’ (me too, Vita). Madame Ganna Walska has advice for us in conservation and sustainable gardening, though no specific instruction is given on the acquisition of husbands.

But while the lessons Biggs extracts from his subjects are mostly practical tips and ideas, a greater lesson was emerging for me. The unifying characteristic of these great gardeners, the thing they all had in common, was an overwhelming drive and passion for plants, gardens and nature, a strong desire for self-education, and a work ethic that set them apart. Whatever your background, your education, your income or your starting point, so long as you have courage, a will to work and conviction in your own style, there is room for you and your story among the stories of all the gardeners who have ever lived.

Biggs, M. (2015) Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they teach us. 1st edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

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