Friday, May 25, 2012

Gertrude Jekyll

by M.M. Bennetts

She wasn't a queen or a princess.  Nor was she a pawn.  She was denied neither education nor legal standing.  Yet through her extra-ordinary life, her quietly pioneering work, and her writings, she has exerted more practical influence over how the 20th century British viewed their surroundings and what they did with them than any person before or since.  And she was a Victorian woman.

Her name is Gertrude Jekyll (pronounced to rhyme with treacle).

She was born on 29 November 1843 (just five years into Victoria's reign), the fifth of seven children born to Captain Edward Jekyll, who was an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and his wife, Julia Hammersley.  The family was well-to-do, though not titled, and living at 2 Grafton Street in Mayfair at the time of her birth.

When she was nearly five, the Jekyll family moved to a sprawling country house near Guildford in Surrey, called Bramley House.  Situated just off the Horsham Road, in the fertile Wey Valley, the house was surrounding by lush green meadows where cattle grazed in fields edged and speckled with cow parsley and buttercups.

And there, with her many siblings, Gertrude was encouraged to wander first in the garden and latterly, farther afield, exploring the park with its streams, woods and mill-ponds, climbing trees, playing cricket with her brothers, and learning first-hand all about plants, flowers and the landscape--studying the outcrops of sandstone, eroded by time, the heaths, the tree roots.  She also had the benefit of good governesses who taught her languages, music and art and in this 'age of liberal indulgence' her parents elected for her to continue to study all three.

As she matured into young womanhood, her greatest desire was to be an artist, so in 1861, her parents enrolled her at the South Kensington School of Art to study painting.  Jekyll was among the first handful of women to be taught at art school--where she studied the works of great artists, but most especially the work of J.M.W. Turner and studying his use of colour.

In the autumn of 1863, she travelled to Corfu, Crete, Rhodes, Athens and Constantinople--drawing and sketching.

Upon her return home, she met John Ruskin, and through him came into contact with that new wave of British artistry, the Arts and Crafts Movement.  She visited William Morris, went to lectures by Ruskin, met Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Through Morris's influence, she began design and embroidery, as well as beginning to work in metal and wood.  Indeed, her diary for these years mentions frequent meetings with the greats of Victorian art such as Frederick Leighton and G.W. Watts.

And year after year, she travelled abroad--to France, Italy or Spain.  She spent a winter in Algiers.  She visited the great gardens of Europe and the Near East.

By the time she was thirty, she had gained a reputation for 'carving, modelling, house-painting, carpentry, smith's work, repousse work, gilding, wood-inlaying, embroidery, gardening and all manner of herb and flower knowledge and culture'.

In 1868, the family had left Bramley Park to move to a house in Berkshire that Edward Jekyll had inherited.  But when he died in 1876, the family members who remained at home decided to return to Surrey.  They bought land high on Munstead Heath, near Godalming and the Wey valley and hired an architect to build them a house there.

And it was there that Gertrude Jekyll really began to come into her own as she spent more and more of her time creating the garden there at Munstead.  Indeed, within four years, the garden was already sufficiently famous to merit a visit from the first President of the National Rose Society, Dean Hole, and from William Robinson, the editor of The Garden.

Jekyll then bought a plot on the other side of the lane from Munstead Heath, and there developed the ideas that would transform the gardening culture of Victorian England--from one of formality and carpet bedding as she called it to a marriage of colour and contrast, of cool to balance hot, of shape and scent, and year-round beauty.

Over the course of her life, she wrote thirteen books on gardens and gardening, and made plans for or helped to make the plans for some 350 gardens.

Her advice often flew in the face of what had been accepted practice for decades and replaced it with a hands-on love of gardening, of the processes of creating a garden, from double-digging the beds to arranging leaf-shapes to compliment each other, to planting herbaceous perennials in naturalistic drifts of colour as a painter--indeed painting a picture with plants--and using all that she had gleaned from her years studying art.  

Among her favourite colour dynamics was the creation of a long and deep border of graduated harmonies that set pink against grey foliage at each end then fused into white flowering plants which bled into pale yellow into pale blue, then into darker blues punctuated by stronger yellows, oranges and vibrant reds back into the oranges, yellows and on until the softened misty edges of palest pink against the silvery greys of catmint, stachys and artemisia.  It was a blending and use and understanding of colour worthy of Turner himself.

Jekyll was 46 when she first met the young architect Edwin Lutyens, and their collaboration of house and garden design and decoration is one of the significant partnerships of the early 20th century.   Though whilst many of their houses and gardens remain, some to be ruined and then restored, many of them have disappeared, so it is through her prolific and delightful writings and garden plans that she is best known to us today.

Always blunt-spoken, never shying from controversy, her writings are practical and witty, honest, engaging and wry.  (She used to refer to the smell of one plant as "housemaid's armpit".)    And through them all there runs a theme of looking deeply and well at everything, of learning to look and to see as an artist.  Whether it's the shape of a leaf or the vivid contrast of colours or the spill of foliage against crumbling stone, she encourages one to see what's really there, not what habit tells us is there.  Is the bark of a tree really brown?  Or is it black and tan and crumbling mould and mottled moss?

"To learn how to perceive the difference and how to do right is to apprehend gardening as a fine art.  In practice is is to place every plant or group of plants with such thoughtful care and definite intention that they shall form a part of the harmonious whole, and that successive portions, or in some cases even single details, shall show a series of pictures.  It is so to regulate the trees and undergrowth of the wood that their lines and masses come into beautiful form and harmonious proportion; it is to be always watching, noting and doing, and putting oneself meanwhile into closest acquaintance and sympathy with growing things." 

And that seeing, for Miss Jekyll, was the beginning of the magic, the art and the process that is a garden...

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British history and the Napoleonic wars (quite keen on gardens too)  as well as the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at


  1. I am a Guildford girl, although transplanted to the South West. My family owned properties in Wonersh - Lutyens designed a remodel of the house & Gertrude worked on the gardens. Sometime in the early 1990s there was an exhibition of her work a the Royal Horticultural Society in London & I course visited, I still gave the programme details in my genealogical folder.

  2. One of my favourite gardens is up in Yorkshire at Beningbrough where a Jekyll plan was followed for the colour schemes. The long borders are just breathtaking in high summer. There are those who say she most particularly took the colour-use of Turner's painting, The Fighting Temeraire and used it for her template...

    And although she's very much associated with gardens in Surrey, she really got about. The picture above with the yellow flowers in the foreground and the castle-looking building in the distance is Lindisfarne, the gardens of which she planned.

    She's just splendid, isn't she?

    1. I am much inclined to agree: Gertrude Jekyll was indeed splendid. Her use of colors that blend together is just one example of her natural eye: the way the plants are placed, so as to be pleasant to the onlooker's eye, is simply wonderful. The paths are designed to be peaceful and secluded, and let the viewer enjoy nature in quiet. I am satisfied that she is now immortalized in today's Google Doodle (on November 29, 2017).


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