Written by Emily L. Quint Freeman
Freeman considers gardening as the ultimate art by discussing the notable gardens of two famous, queer woman artists.
Gardens are both art and autobiography, a landscape of self-expression combined with a love for natural beauty. As the great artist and garden-maker, Claude Monet, once observed, “I perhaps owe becoming a painter to flowers. My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”
As a gay woman and plant aficionado, I’ve explored the homes and gardens of the painter Frieda Kahlo (1907-1954) and the writer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962). Besides their creative output and remarkable life stories, I admire their garden masterpieces of style and design that draw worldwide visitors. From childhood, Frida resided in a house known as “La Casa Azul” in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City; while Vita acquired an historic estate, Sissinghurst, nestled in the bucolic county of Kent in Southeast England. Both women had an unabashed swagger when dressed in attire considered masculine in their day. Omnivorous in sexual matters, Frida Kahlo had notable love affairs including Josephine Baker, the stunning African-American entertainer; the movie star Paulette Goddard; the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and photographer Tina Modotti. She married the muralist, Diego Rivera, whose constant womanizing led to an anguished divorce.
Vita Sackville-West, on the other hand, married the diplomat Harold Nicholson in 1913. It gave the couple an abiding friendship, children, and cover in homophobic England (sex between men was only decriminalized in 1967). Harold and Vita chose the safety of a straight marriage; but to their credit, they were honest about their underground gay lives. Vita had two great amours. She had a lengthy relationship with Violet Trefusis, an English socialite, but made a wrenching decision to remain with her husband. Later, she had an affair with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of any time or place. Vita became the central character in Woolf’s extraordinary novel, “Orlando: A Biography”, chronicling the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries.
The gardens of Frida and Vita express that tension of being oneself, when coupled to what you are not. Frida at La Casa Azul and Vita at Sissinghurst truly became artist-gardeners in a bewitching combination of wildness and restraint—all passion spent on their astonishing and memorable visual spaces. Let me take you there.
Frida at La Casa Azul
As a visual artist, Frida represented the natural world in her art. Prior to my trip to Mexico City, I attended an exhibition of her paintings in London. Animals and plants of her native Tehuanan culture and post-conquest Mexico were frequent subjects of her works. Frida combined realism with allegory, referencing both Mexico’s cultural heritage and her own life, which was marked by unremitting physical pain.
Her self-portraits included pets she kept at La Casa Azul, such as spider monkeys, parrots and the hairless Mexican ixquintle, a breed of dog with an ancestry that traces back to the Aztecs. Her plant-inspired paintings were frequently symbolic of her emotional, sexual, and cultural reality, expressing her wit and play with double meanings. She would even create half-plant, half human characters to depict herself and those around her. Sometimes, her favorite plants were rendered with thorns or pierced by needles, reflecting the torture of her physical injuries and rejection in love.
After a long flight to Mexico City, I rested up for the night; the following morning, I hailed a taxi to La Casa Azul, now dubbed “Museo Frida Kahlo”. Unlike the modest borough in Frida’s day, Coyoacán has become a district of wealth with secluded residences patrolled by armed guards. I spent the better part of the day there, lingering in her garden where she spent countless hours.. She was so much more than an image on countless tourist trinkets..
La Casa Azul is a courtyard garden set with irregular flagstones, whispering of Spain, transported to the Americas and overlaid with the idea of Mexico – its cultural, biological and botanical worlds. It’s enclosed by high walls painted an intense blue with scarlet window trims. The garden overflows with terracotta pots, statues of ancient gods, pomegranate trees, native tropical and desert plants. In her lifetime, this was a noisy place where her menagerie of pets wandered.
Today, in a world beset with climate change, Frida should be recognized as an inspiring pioneer of the dry garden, so many decades before others took this up. She found beauty in the texture, shape, and color of native plants that thrive with little water, not in a setting of a botanical garden, but at her private residence. Her garden also proclaims Frida as a knowledgeable plant collector. As a child, she gathered specimens from parks and open spaces, studying them with the aid of botanical field guides. Like Monet, her favorite plants were featured in her art and La Casa Azul. These included Cephaocereus Senilis (old man cactus) and Stenocereus thurberi (organ pipe cactus) which are native to Mexico.
At La Casa Azul, yams vine upwards on the wall outside of her bedroom. She often grew marigolds, which are associated with the Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Other favorites of hers include Colocasia (elephant ear plants), bougainvillea with its shower of carmine flowers, philodendrons, yucca, and canna lilies.
Casa Azul isn’t a pastel cottage garden, where you putter, pot up plants, or mow lush lawns. It has qualities of an art installation, a figurative statement about what mattered to her. Frida liked to press flowers within the pages of her books. After she died, a tiny bouquet was discovered in her beloved copy of “Leaves of Grass”, written by the gay poet, Walt Whitman. She left us her presence not only in her art, but in this vibrant, phantastic garden as well.
Vita at Sissinghurst
To my knowledge, there is only one internationally famous and glorious garden that was created by a married couple with secret gay lives. That place is Sissinghurst Castle Gardens. The daughter of old nobility, Vita acquired a ruined Elizabethan manor house in 1930, and the couple spent decades creating the garden and renovating the house. Sissinghurst is considered one of the most influential gardens in England, open to the public and managed by a charity, the National Trust.
After years of clearing debris, Harold provided the architectural structure with strong classical lines which would frame his wife’s pioneering planting ideas. She poured all her creativity and style into Sissinghurst—for her, gardening was always about beauty. Besides being a successful novelist, poet, and diarist, Vita began writing newspaper articles in 1946 about Sissinghurst fill of gardening advice, which were read eagerly by professionals and the public. She trained and hired gay women for her gardening staff, unlike other noble estates.
While I was working in London, it was only a few hours journey by train to a town near Sissinghurst. I made that journey many times, each time learning more, seeing more, dreaming more. Sissinghurst has the original Elizabethan tower that dominates the garden, which was Vita’s study and library. Climbing the steep stairs, I could take in the five-acre garden as Vita would have seen it.
From above, you can clearly see the innovative enclosures or rooms that divide Sissinghurst. Vita and her garden designer friend, Lawrence Johnston, discarded the norm of the day, which was to have a single style for the entire garden. Sissinghurst is divided into ten garden rooms with different themes, such as the Rose Garden, Orchard, Cottage Garden and Nuttery. Some have sculpture, fountains, or topiary enclosed by walls or hedges, so you can’t see everything at once.
Vita created the first monochromatic garden rooms, most notably the White Garden. With Harold’s classical lines, she let the planting be exuberant, engulfing, and romantic. Self-seeded plants grow where they naturally fall, wild flowers with cultivated plants – a revolt against manicured Victorian formality.
Vita’s favorite plants include many varieties of irises, clematis, and roses. The Rose Garden celebrates heritage roses for their loveliness and scent like Rosa ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans’, a white rambler rose that climbs on a pergola or trellis with delicate flowers that hang like jewels. Another is Rosa ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ favored by Vita for its sumptuous velvet-purple flowers. The White Garden utilizes white-flowering varieties of delphiniums, lilies, roses, and hydrangeas. The borders are set off brilliantly by Harold’s formal yew and box hedging. For beauty, structure, and design, Sissinghurst truly deserves its world-class status.
In My Garden
Garden-making is a joy, essential to my physical and mental well-being. I handle the earth and breathe deeply. I engage all my senses in activities that aren’t boring or onerous (even weed pulling), but rather a kind of meditation on life, impermanence, and seasonal cycles. During a seemingly endless pandemic, my garden erases any sense of confinement. This is where I belong, a place which guards me. I’m its guardian while I live.
From Frida, I’ve learned to combine nature with autobiography. My time in England shows in my use of structural shrubs, cottage garden flowers, and clipped topiary. In the back garden, I’ve fashioned a vision of my summer visits to Provence. The intoxicating smell of my lavender hedge surrounds a mature olive tree. Vibrant dahlias, salvias and verbenas spill over the flower borders where butterflies land, hummingbirds sip, and bees dash—their constant drone means summer to me.
From Vita, I’ve learned to divide my garden into rooms, to offer discovery at every turn. As she loved white, I revel in deep purple, magentas and blues offset with lemony yellow. One room is a microcosm of the Arizona desert with a wild array of succulents; another, a shady English fernery leading to a productive vegetable garden in the French potager style.
During Frida’s and Vita’s turbulent lives, their gardens were both solace and inspiration. I too need a place where unrest becomes rest. From both of these artists, I’ve learned that gardens are never finished creations, unlike a painting or an essay. The seasons change. Everything is transitory. Never again will I have this year what I realized in the last. But in this alone, I’ve learned a great lesson about life.