Curator's choice: The must-sees of Sissinghurst

I vividly recall the first time I came Sissinghurst – a hot June day in 2000 with the gardens basking under the sun. Here and there, I could hear the gentle hum of insects as they flew from bloom to bloom... However, it is easy to forget that Sissinghurst was a home and not just a garden. Two exceptional writers and collectors – Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson – lived within ruined walls of Sissinghurst Castle. They raised a family and pursued their respective literary careers here. They also displayed items from their rich and extensive collection of art, furniture and personal items here. This is my personal selection of objects in the collections at Sissinghurst – objects that delight me through their beauty, objects that make me reflect on the lives lived out at Sissinghurst and objects that fill me with surprise…

Dr Jerzy J Kierkuc-Bielinski, Regional Curator Dr Jerzy J Kierkuc-Bielinski Regional Curator
Vita’s Gladstone bag

A Hidden Treasure: The mysterious case of the Gladstone Bag

All good castles should have a story about a hidden treasure, locked away in a tower, out of sight until one day it is discovered by chance. Sissinghurst is not different in that respect. One of the objects that I find most fascinating is a rather old and battered, leather case. It was found forgotten and locked, in a corner of the turret room in the tower. It contained something of value – but what...?

Boy on a Tiger by possibly Italian (Venetian) School

Shooting arrows at Tigers: What do we discover through conservation?

One of the aspects that I find most satisfying are the various conservation projects that we undertake. In 2019 we undertook conservation on a painting in Vita’s writing room – a work showing a naked child seated on the back of a tiger. A most odd subject for an artist you might think… However, we found out that this painting was something rather special… It turned out that the painting was in fact a very early copy based on a detail of one of the most important works of art ever painted in Britain – Sir Peter Paul Ruben’s 1636 ceiling of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, London.

 Violet Keppel, Mrs Denys Robert Trefusis (1894-1970) by Sir John Lavery

‘A Beautiful Bird of Paradise’: Sir John Lavery’s ‘Portrait of Violet Keppel, Mrs Denys Trefusis’

The liveliness of this portrait is absolutely captivating and immediately made me want to know more about life of the woman in the painting. The portrait did not belong to Vita – yet why is it now displayed in Vita’s Writing Room? What linked Vita and Violet and what impact did they have on each other’s’ lives and writing?

Oil painting on canvas, Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

The portrait in the attic: Philip de Laszlo’s Portrait of Vita as a Young Woman

I think this image of Vita is especially stylish. It was painted when she was aged 18 to mark her ‘coming out’ into society as a young woman in 1910. Vita’s mother specifically chose de Laszlo as he was the society painter at the time. Yet, Vita so disliked the painting that she hid it in the attic. What could have been the reasons behind this…?

Delian altar at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

When ancient Greece came to Kent: What are the Delian altars?

Classical antiquity is one of my passions. The gardens at Sissinghurst contain a number of objects that evoke the worlds of ancient Rome or of ancient Greece. Amongst these, I think that the group of Hellenistic altars from the sacred island of Delos are the most intriguing. What ancient rites or sacrifices were performed at these altars? How did they end up in the middle of Kent? The answer to these questions lies in the role Harold Nicholson’s ancestor – a certain Captain Hamilton – had in the Greek War of Independence during the 1820s. It was he who brought the altars from Delos to Shanganagh Castle in Ireland. And from there they would eventually be brought to Sissinghurst by Harold.