The world would likely be a much drabber place but for the extraordinary endeavors of Gertrude Jekyll.
An accomplished musician, composer, embroiderer, woodworker, metalworker, artist, garden writer, photographer and botanist she is not really remembered for any of these. Rather it’s the 400 odd gardens she designed in Britain (and some abroad in France and the United States) that made her name.
‘Earthy and practical and determined … short, stout, myopic, downright … a frightening, but kind, wise old lady’ (Christopher Hussey)
Born to privilege and intellectual learning, unless you were in the upper circles she may not have been your friend, but as a dedicated plantswomen and subtle pioneer there is much to admire about Gertrude.
Born in 1943, the fifth of seven children, to Captain Edward Jekyll, who was an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and his wife, Julia Hammersley. The family moved to a sprawling country house near Guildford in Surrey, called Bramley House. Here, with her many siblings, Gertrude played in and explored the garden and parkland with its streams, woods and mill-ponds, climbing trees, playing cricket with her brothers, and learning first-hand about plants, flowers and the landscape. Schooled at home by governesses she learnt languages, music and art. Curious and at times obstreperous, Gertrude was considered a headstrong child, (clumping through the house in her gardening boots). Her father called her a ‘queer fish’. But it was a happy family and the girls in no way treated differently to the boys, were close siblings. She particularly enjoyed spending time with her father in his ‘workshop’ learning all manner of handicrafts from him.
Perhaps realizing activity was the best thing for their restless daughter her parents supported her desire to study art at the Kensington Art school at 17 against the conventions for upper class women of the time. Here her inner circle of friends became wide and influential including John Ruskin, William Morris, G F Watts (who came to live at Compton) and Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and JWTurner – artists whose experiments with colour profoundly influenced her garden designs,
Gertrude enjoyed many friendships – particularly with people she admired or shared her interests. A great letter writer she corresponded all over the world with people she met on her travels to Europe and North Africa. Unafraid of her questioning mind, a great reader and note-taker, Gertrude was always seeking out information and new finds. All the time developing her knowledge of both art and plants.
Whilst enjoying the company of her inner circle Gertrude also craved time alone. She enjoyed repose, tranquility, and time for reflection; she would disappear for periods of solicitude in the year. There are few paintings of her but those that in those remain she is always restrained and composed. An imperiousness that has since become part of her story.
“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust”
After art school Gertrude got busy learning many country crafts; mastering thatching, fencing, walling, carpentry and metalworking, carving, gilding and inlaying; working in silver decorated by embossing. She also became a designer craftswoman, embroidery in particular and exhibited her paintings. But gradually, Gertrude’s ambitions as a painter fell away, in part because she suffered from poor eyesight, (she could only see things very close up), a condition that worsened.
But was as a plant and garden writer she began to get noticed. After the death of her father, she moved to Munstead in Surry with her mother. Creating the garden inspired her to write of her findings (as well as selling and exhibiting it’s plants). Always blunt-spoken, and unafraid of controversy, her writings were practical and witty. (She used to refer to the smell of one plant as “housemaid’s armpit”.) Her advice was new and brave, replacing the formal gardening practice (of grand estates) with passionate hands-on gardening and planted borders inspired by nature and art. From 1881 she wrote some 2,000 articles for magazines, including The Garden and Gardens Illustrated, and 15 highly successful books.
Her garden photography was one of the first to be published too. Uunder the tutelage of her bother Herbert she took to photography with the same passion as her other skills. She photograhed her garden and crafts intensively over several years, and developed her own pictures which were kept in albums. These she found a most useful aide-memoire as her eyesight worsened.
“The best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to life up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness”
Her garden at Munstead led to design commissions from her friends and (wealthy) fans. Her style was nature-inspired designs; woodland gardens, water gardens and herbaceous borders that always strove to achieve a natural look. Her artists eye for colour and contrasting plant textures were most affecting too.
At the age of 46 she met the aspiring young architect Edwin Lutyens who was then, in 1889, only 20. There developed between them a respect for each other’s work and a profound friendship that was to last for the rest of her life. He called her “Bumps” and together they journeyed around the Surrey lanes, in pony and trap, taking in the countryside (and it’s composition), cottage gardens and architectural detailing. Lutyens all the whilst sketching away.
United by the Arts and Crafts ideal of craftmanship and materials his architectural skills complemented her expertise in plants and garden design. This led to a productive working relationship and togethter they designed worked on many commissions (including Lindisfarne Castle)
Gertrude’s good connections and commitment to correspondence bought them commissions from Europe and America. Often they never home to carry these out, sending instead detailed instructions by mail.
‘I suppose no horse likes a new collar, I am quite sure I do not like new boots’.
Despite or because of her poor sight Gertrude’s skill lay in her absolute attention to detail. She never lost that artistic training, she looked deeply and well at everything. She believed passionately in the understanding of beauty in the natural landscape and strived to create it in her work. Her dedication, industriousness, and no-nonsense approach were all aspects of her philosophy. She demanded we look and question, encouraging us to see what’s really there, not what conventions tells us. “Is the bark of a tree really brown? Or is it black and tan and crumbling mould and mottled moss?”
Gardening for her was an art, and her philosophy made life and art inseparable. Through unity of house, garden and countryside, she aimed to create surroundings which nurtured body and soul. She never stopped working; writing and growing plants until her death.
Gertrude was one of the first women to receive the Victoria medal of honour in 1897, the Royal Horticultural Society awarded her the Veitch gold medal in 1929.
She died at Munstead Wood on 8 December 1932 and was buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Busbridge, Surrey, on 12 December. As she stood at the open door of Munstead Wood in 1932 Logan Pearsall Smith recalled her as ‘some ancient, incredibly aristocratic rhinoceros gazing gravely out from amid a tangle of river reeds’.
On her epitaph it says; Artist, Gardener, Craftswoman.
Featured Image: Google Doodle celebrating Gertrude’s 174th birthday on November 29, 2017