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Gertrude Jekyll


An Article for Garden History by Jennifer Ward


Analogies between art and gardening are manifold; a gardener's sense of colour, arrangement and symmetry are artistic qualities before they are technical or scientific. When a gardener looks at a pat of annuals as if they were a palette of paint, or at a muddy spade as if a dripping paintbrush, they are stepping onto the path of Gertrude Jekyll, one of the best-loved gardeners of English landscape history. It was Gertrude Jekyll, perhaps more than any other English landscape artist of the 19th Century, who highlighted gardening's close alignment with art and design. It was Gertrude Jekyll who brought accessibility and play to the fine art of horticulture.

Gertrude was born in London, in November of 1843, to a wealthy and distinguished family. Her brother Walter was friends with author Robert Louis Stevenson, and was the inspiration for his classic, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When Gertrude was a young girl, her family left the big city for Bramley House in the district of Surrey. This new home was possibly where her interest in gardening first began to take root. At 18 years old, Gertrude's parents did a most unusual thing for the time: they sent her to art school. Often in the Victorian times, young women who were not quickly married off were kept at home to care for their aging parents. The Jekyll's had the foresight and generosity to send their talented daughter to Henry Coles's School of Art at South Kensington in London. It was here where Gertrude slipped easily and comfortably into the exciting world of arts and crafts, design and architecture; here where she found her true element. She made many friends, and focused her study on aspects of gardening not yet fully explored in England. Through such extensive training in the arts, Gertrude developed a keen eye for colour and proportion, highlighting experience, smell, and texture as important components of the artistry that is gardening. In spite of degenerating eyesight later in life, her artistic eye proved so reliable that she could design a space without actually seeing the physical site. The architectural plans she consulted were exploded by her imagination, and she was able to transfer her vision into actuality with little effort.

It is perhaps Jekyll's friendship with English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens that caused her rise in popularity and renown. She met the young Lutyens at the age of 46, when he was only 20 years old. This somewhat unlikely friendship led to one of the most memorable partnerships of the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th Century. Together they worked on over 100 gardens, one of their most well-known being Hestercombe in Somerset. But Gertrude's individual accomplishments should not be overshadowed by this partnership. Over her lifetime, Jekyll was the consultant for over four hundred gardens, both in the UK and abroad. Though many of her gardens have not survived—being lost to urbanization, changes in ownership, or war—some have been lovingly and successfully restored. For example, the Glebe House in Woodbury, Connecticut was restored only ten years ago. Hester Combe in Somerset and Upton in Hampshire, and Munstead Wood in Surrey, have both been brought to their former glory as well. The University of California is home to many of her original drawings, sketches and garden plans. In England, you can view microfiches of her designs at the Surrey History Centre. These plans have made authentic restoration possible.

Among all of these, however, it is the Upton Grey Manor House in Hampshire, UK, that has been called a "living museum" of Jekyll design. At the age of 65, Charles Holme asked Jekyll to design his garden there, and because he was one of the most prominent figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, and founder of Studio magazine (the most widely-read and popular magazine of its kind at the time), this proved to be an important project. It also shows the breadth of Gertrude's ability, for, in addition to succeeding with projects of this magnitude, she also designed miniature flowers for Queen Mary's dollhouse, with her faithful friend Lutyens in charge of the landscaping plans! Jekyll's abilities were varied; she could achieve similar results in the magnanimous and the minute, bringing beauty to acres and inches alike.

Gertrude's talent did not end at the herbaceous borders she was so recognized for. In fact, it is often said that she is best remembered for the dissemination of gardening education her books brought to the gardening world. In addition to the hundreds of articles she wrote for The Garden and Country Life, she began, at the age of 50, a flourishing career as an author. Jekyll wrote fourteen influential books, and co-wrote many more. Her writing is memorable for not only its practical advice, but also for its almost poetic introduction of the enjoyment of gardening, as if it were a spiritual practice and not just manual labour. This close alignment of work, beauty and meaning was in fact one of the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, of which Jekyll was a central figure. The movement's best ideas are carried forth by adherents like Jekyll, for a significant amount of her books have been carried through into subsequent editions, and inspired numerous anthologies and biographies of her colourful life.

Nicknamed "Aunt Bumps" by Lutyen's own children, Jekyll was like an eccentric old grandmother, her head full of stories and her pockets full of knickknacks. She died at the age of 89, leaving behind many friendships and memories of the authentic and quirky quality to gardening that only an artist could bring. She was revered among gardeners for her loyalty to colour over the sweeping trends of the early 20th Century, including angular modern garden designs. Gertrude simply would not let the great gardens of her home country be taken over by continental designs and cease to be the places of wonder that she had known so intimately as a child. She is remembered for seeing things in gardening that others could not see, and for her beautiful gardens and her beautiful words: "A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust."

Notable Publications:

Wood and Garden, 1899.
Home and Garden, 1900
Wall, Water, and Woodland Garden, 1901
Lilies for English Gardens, 1901
Roses for English Gardens, 1902
Old West Surrey, 1904
Some English Gardens, 1904
Flower Decoration in the House, 1907
Children and Gardens, 1908
Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden, 1908
Gardens for Small Country Houses, 1912
Annuals and Biennials, 1916
Garden Ornament, 1918
A Gardener's Testament, 1937

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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