In September I attended a study day at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, about the work of Gertrude Jekyll in collaboration with the architect Edwin Lutyens. Gertrude Jekyll was born in 1843 and worked in an interesting time and time of change for the English country house, when the idea of the aristocracy living in a country house supported by an estate, was becoming less dominant with new professions and innovations brought in by the industrial revolution. All of Edwin Lutyen’s houses had a garden attached and they tended to be less big and grand than the old country estates. This made for a greater union between house and garden than had previously happened. At the time, there was a dichotomy in the thinking of gardeners, between advocates of formal, controlled gardens, and those such as William Robinson who advocated ‘wild’ gardening. Gertrude Jekyll managed to marry the two. She loved architecture and her planting was designed to compliment, enhance and soften it – she worked with, not against the architecture, determining that the planting and architecture should work hand in hand, rather than one dominate the other. She would sometimes use more formal layouts and sometimes more naturalistic arrangements. She (and indeed Lutyens), never worked to formulas, but matched her work to the client and the place, and the particular requirements of both, as a good garden designer would today.
She came into gardening quite late in life, having trained as an artist, where she studied the science of colour. She also wrote articles, was a photographer and craftswoman, her crafts including jewellery making, and needlework – she made a banner for the Goldalming suffragettes. However, her ambitions as an artist were cut short due to her failing eyesight, and she turned to gardening and garden design instead. She also collected and bred plants, running a successful nursery from her home in Munstead Wood. Indeed, she could be considered a polymath, as she was also interested in science, mathematics and music.
Gardens designed by or influenced by Gertrude Jekyll include her home at Munstead Wood. Unusually, the garden at Munstead Wood came first, and after she had created the garden she asked her friend Edwin Lutyens to design a house to go in it, which he did very cleverly to match the garden and look as if it had always been there. Jekyll was determined that people would have to walk to her house, so, rather than putting a drive right up to the door, it sits within the garden.
Other collaborations include Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland, which was very much a summer garden, as it was built strictly for entertaining – a long weekend house for the summer months. The garden was designed with tall drifts of bright colours to make a show from a distance – it was for looking at rather than walking in.
Upton Grey is a 15th century Manor House altered by Ernest Newton in 1903 – 1905 for Charles Holme, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. The gardens were designed and planted by Gertrude Jekyll in 1908 and 1909, but were subsequently left to go derelict, until they were restored by the Wallingers who bought the property in 1984. Upton Grey is probably the most accurately and fully restored Jekyll garden that we have today. It comprises both a wild garden and a formal garden as well as a nuttery, which was coppiced to provide wood for fences and plant supports, kitchen garden and orchard, with pergolas and arbours. The wild garden has long grass with winding mown paths, rambling roses, shrubs and trees leading down to a planted pond. The formal garden is designed on a geometric grid, with herbaceous borders – mirror borders, that displayed Jekyll’s love of balance, and her scientific approach to colour – moving from pale, cool colours to hot colours in the centre and back to cool colours at the other end. It also contains a rose lawn, planted dry stone walls and bowling and tennis lawns. She supplied nearly 3,000 plants for the garden, using hollyhocks, Dahlias, Iris, Asters Lychnis, Hemerocalis, oriental poppy, African marigold, Gypsophila, Delphiniums, lavender, foxgloves, including white foxgloves, Eryngium, gladioli, Stachys, peonies, daffodils, Cannas, roses, Virginia creeper, Jasmine, yew hedging, beech, bamboo as well as variegated maize, giant hogweed and many annuals. She used to use the latest imports and loved trying out new plants, though she would try them in her own garden first. Amongst those that she tried was Japanese knotweed, but fortunately, she had realised that it was a bit of a thug by the time she planted Upton Grey, and didn’t use it there. At Upton Grey she planted for all seasons – the structure still looks good in the frost and snow, and she included plants with autumn colour. But as well as the planting, she designed the structure and layout of the garden, replacing grass slopes with terraces using dry stone walling, which she planted, and gently proportioned steps, gracefully winding paths as well as geometric formal gardens.
For Gertrude Jekyll, smell and sound was important in gardens, as well as what it looked like, she often introduced running water, and used scented plants such as Jasmine and roses. She drew inspiration from the arts and crafts movement, which sought to elevate the status of crafts. As her eyesight failed, gardening became both her science and her art, which she approached with the same artistry as she had her earlier paintings. But also, she was a great communicator of ideas, and though many of her gardens no longer exist in their original form, her books, articles and plans remain, and this has made her enormously influential upon gardeners and garden designers to come. For more information about Gertrude Jekyll, including gardens to visit, articles and books, visit the official website of the Jekyll Estate.