Painting with purple at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

The purple border at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

In 1888 Vincent van Gogh wrote to Emile Bernard from the South of France. In his letter he talked about the vivid colours there, and in particular, what affect the intense blue sky would have on the other colours in his painting. He finished his letter by writing:

" There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn’t you?"
- Vincent van Gogh

It was a view also held by the famous garden designer of the early twentieth century, Gertrude Jekyll, (1843-1932) who often used the colours of blue, yellow and white in her garden schemes, or ran the whole colour spectrum together from cool silver, blue and purple through to hot yellow, red and orange in her long borders. This was the painterly approach, and Jekyll having trained as an artist used it naturally and instinctively.

It is interesting, therefore, to discover that, even though Jekyll was one of Vita’s earliest gardening influences, she took very little of Gertrude’s advice when creating the colour schemes at Sissinghurst. Instead she chose to conduct her own experiments in colour.

Not only did she create the Cottage Garden with its narrow range of ‘hot’ colours but she also chose to create a one colour border using purple as the anchor, thus ignoring both Vincent Van Gogh and her early mentor Gertrude Jekyll. It was a bold step and a challenging one, relying on an ability to stretch a single colour into its many different shades and tones and great skill as a plantswoman. As an amateur gardener Vita had a refreshingly fearless attitude to experimentation in the garden.

Today the Purple Border is a complex tapestry of purples ranging from violet-blue through to crimson-magenta and every shade in between.

It has been developed and refined by subsequent Head Gardeners particularly Pam and Sibylle who encouraged Vita to introduce an even greater variety of plants and a longer season of interest.

Although it builds to hit its floral peak in high summer, the Purple Border is more than just a one piece show stopper, with waves of flowers rising and falling throughout the season.

There are surprisingly few shrubs in the border, but the stars are the three Rosa moyesii which erupt into the air like fountains at regular intervals along the border and Cotinus coggygria that sits like an ominous thunder cloud at the end of the right hand side.

A mixture of herbaceous perennials, annuals, biennials, tender perennials and bulbs step in to complete the performance.

In Spring, the first wave of purple arrives with tulips, wallflowers, Lunaria annua and Hesperis matronalis that weave their way through the clumps of emerging foliage. The silvery Cynara cardunculus leaves are always quick to emerge and make a great foil to the purples and mauves.

Early summer rolls in with typical exuberance. The tall bearded irises surge upwards along with spires of Lupinus ‘Blue Jacket’ and clouds of geraniums. Rosa moyesii is covered with the single rose-red flowers that Vita so adored spewing up into the air.

The tide surges on: Delphinium ‘Black Knight Group’, Campanula lactiflora, Knautia macedonica, Malva sylvestris subsp mauritiana. A fusion of inky purple, ruby red, pomegranate, lavender, amethyst, plum, violet, lilac and wine. The colours rise and fall.

By July the wall at the back is smothered by the rich hues of contrasting clematis: the inky violet ‘Etoile Violette’, cherry-red ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ and the beautifully icy lilac ‘Blekitny Aniol’.

Late summer is the time when the tender perennials and annuals that were planted out at the beginning of the season really start to shine. Dahlias ‘Requiem’ and ‘Edinburgh’ are stalwarts of the Purple Border as are the many salvias. The dark stems and calyces of Salvia ‘Amistad’, contrast brilliantly with the soft velvety flowers of Salvia leucantha and blue and white ‘Phyllis’s Fancy’. Added to this mix is Cosmos ‘Cranberry Click’ with its carmine flowers sparkling throughout and finally, perhaps a controversial choice; a dash of chartreuse-yellow in the form of Ridolfia segetum. Was Van Gogh right after all?