Robert Weinberg is a writer on art and a radio and podcast producer, whose features and exhibition reviews have appeared in the Telegraph, Apollo, The British Art Journal and numerous other publications. In this guest feature for IranWire, he reviews the exhibition, A Persian Paradise, which is at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent, until March 24, 2024.
It may be something of a surprise that, in the mid-20th century, Iranian culture had a profound influence on the creation of one of southeast England’s most appealing visitor attractions. Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent was the 30-year project of the poet and novelist Vita Sackville West (1892-1962) and her husband Harold Nicolson (1886-1968), who had himself been born in Tehran into a British diplomatic family.
In 1925, Harold returned to serve at the embassy in his birthplace and became captivated by the country’s landscape. It “seizes one by the throat,” he wrote. Meanwhile the independently-minded Vita — whom Harold had married in 1913 — had read much about Iran’s plant life and wanted to see it for herself. During her two visits in 1925-1927, she also fell in love with the country and, in particular, its gardens.
“Once I start thinking of Persian gardens I am lost,” she wrote. “I can see only the fruit blossom and the little desert escapes, and the unpruned rose bushes and the grape hyacinths growing beneath them, all making a picture of such remembered beauty for me...” It is the cuttings and innovative planting ideas that they took home with them—along with objects, craft pieces and archaeological fragments — which form the basis of a fascinating exhibition currently at Sissinghurst, a most English of settings which they infused with their experience of Persian gardens.
“Iran made Vita rethink what a garden could be,” says Nicci Obholzer, Senior Collections and House Officer for the National Trust, who has curated the exhibition, A Persian Paradise. “She was struck by how different the Iranian gardens were from the sort of primped lawns and careful borders of British gardens. In a way, all gardens start in Iran and have been taken on by other cultures and developed in different ways.”
It was not only the Iranian flair for botany that Vita and Harold brought back to Kent. In recent months the team at Sissinghurst — assisted by researchers from King’s, University College London, the V&A, and the University of Cambridge — has begun to realise the extent and importance of the collection of Persian items that were placed, or stored away, around the castle. Ancient clay urns, 19-century painted miniatures, lacquered papier-maché boxes, chunks of ceramic wall reliefs, and remnants of bowls and plates, many of them glazed in Vita’s favourite colour turquoise, are on display.
“Some of these are very old or important, even though they’re in pieces,” says Nicci. “They were like that when they brought them back.” Vita also seemed unconcerned about the state of the fragments of carpet she picked up. “It speaks to the kind of ruin element that appealed to her. She just wanted the colour, or the design, or the fact that it was really old.”
Two chunks of stone with clearly incised swirls, initially thought to be fossilised ammonites, are most probably pieces from a bull sculpture excavated from Persepolis’ Hundred Columned Hall. Vita pocketed them and presented them as love tokens to Harold and the writer Virginia Woolf with whom she was romantically involved for a decade. “It was as if she had given a fragment each to her two, emotional, intellectual loves,” says Nicci. By 1934, their intimacy over, Virginia thought of her piece of Persepolis as representing the ruin of their relationship.
In more harmonious times, the two of them had attended the screening in London of a silent documentary, titled Grass, that followed the nomadic Bakhtiari Tribe on their annual spring migration to seek better pastures for their livestock. The film came to mind again two years later when Vita witnessed for herself Southern Persia’s majestic mountains and plains with their roaming sheep. She was then amused to recall a woman seated in the audience behind them who had wistfully murmured, “Lovely mutton they must have there.”
There is also the opportunity to view this 1925 film in Sissinghurst’s conical oast house roof, while seated beneath an explosive arrangement of dried flowers and fronds fashioned as a Persian Paradise garden by today’s assistant head gardener, Saffron Prentis.
Vita’s love for Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, and her penchant for performing in oriental-themed plays at home, meant that there was naturally something about the prevalent Victorian and Edwardian Orientalism that coloured her expectations and experience of Iran. But it is also evident that her travels gave her a deeper appreciation of Iranian life. She wrote about its people with humanity in two travelogues, Passenger to Teheran (1926) and Twelve Days in Persia (1928).
Numerous photo albums on display show their intrepid escapades, the Ford inevitably breaking down on some remote plain, an encounter with an eight-foot-tall giant, and premonitory impressions of the damage that oil extraction was causing to the landscape and environment.
“They were obviously very much a product of their time,” says Nicci, “but I definitely think their experience gave them a more sophisticated outlook about what was going on. Vita talks, for example, about seeing a beautiful woman on a horse. But then she sees how hard the people work and says she knows that it’s not all romance. You can’t go on a trek with the Bakhtiari tribe and not realise that life for its people was quite brutal. It was an experience that opened her eyes to the reality of life.” Harold, for his part, made attempts at learning Farsi. A child’s alphabet primer is on show here, with his phonetic notes to help him pronounce the letters scribbled in the margins.
But ultimately, it is in Sissinghurst’s garden that Iran’s influence on Vita is most keenly felt. “A lot of the garden has Iranian influences which we are only now beginning to understand,” says Nicci. “They would come across a surprising shot of colour with glorious, bright orange crown imperials. Vita talks about them looking like medieval embroidery, or damask, or lanterns. We have a sunken pond with a lion’s head and in the white garden there is a section that is geometrically designed – another Iranian feature.
There’s also an unusual, incredibly deep area called the purple border. In her writing about Iran, Vita is always talking about the swathes of purple. We have various different kinds of ferns in the nuttery, every now and then dotted with colour, lots of shade and lots of green, near water. That’s very Iranian as well.”
In an article for the Royal Horticultural Society, the garden designer Alvide Lees-Milne, a friend of Vita’s, wrote that Iran had had the largest influence on Vita’s garden. What Vita then created at Sissinghurst, section by section was — somewhat akin to Virginia Woolf’s writing — the summoning up of vivid memories that manifested themselves in a stream of consciousness.
By planting roses such as the pink Rosa Isfahan, Vita said she was swept back “to those dusky mysterious hours in an Oriental storehouse where the rugs and carpets of Isfahan and Bukhara and Samarkand were unrolled in their dim but sumptuous colouring and richness of texture for our slow delight.”
With this exhibition, and the garden at Sissinghurst, that delight endures.