Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Gertrude Jekyll - Sedate revolutionary

By Judith Taylor

Gertrude Jekyll (1843 - 1932) was a late Victorian spinster who helped to turn English gardening on its head. She transferred the insights gained from training as a painter to designing gardens. She treated a garden as a canvas, using plant color to express her vision. Together with William Robinson she unshackled the Victorian garden from its straitjacket.

Gardening has long fashion cycles like so much else. After the naturalistic style emphasized by Capability Brown ended the Victorian garden became fussy and rigid with carpet bedding and trees dotted at random across a lawn. Carpet bedding, low growing plants in often primary colours pushed together to make geometric patterns, was possible because so many new annual flowers came on the scene in the nineteenth century. John Claudius Loudon was the apostle of this style. One extreme was the Floral Clock in Edinburgh.

Sooner or later someone was bound to rebel at this soul destroying artificiality. The first salvo was fired by William Robinson in his book “The Wild Garden”. He was as unlike Miss Jekyll as it was possible to be but they shared a vision which made them colleagues for life.

There was nothing revolutionary about Miss Jekyll’s appearance. If I might coin an expression she was beyond frumpy. It was not her fault. That was how elderly unmarried ladies dressed and did their hair at the end of the nineteenth century but behind that uncompromising gaze there lay a luminous mind.

Nicholson's portrait
This exterior was a very poor guide to what lay underneath it and her memory has not benefited from the stereotype. Once William Nicholson had painted her portrait resembling Queen Victoria in later life, the image was sealed. It concealed a restless intelligence, an original artistic imagination, vast knowledge of plants, skills of many sorts, a boundless capacity for hard work and even a wicked sense of humour.

One of her biographers believes she intentionally adopted this utterly unthreatening style as a disguise so as not frighten the horses. She could be very intimidating. It puts one in mind of Florence Nightingale, another Victorian iconoclastic spinster who conveniently claimed unspecified illness while sending poor Sidney Herbert out to do her dirty work in the legislative trenches. Both women skillfully manipulated society’s expectations.

Gertrude Jekyll wrote fifteen books, edited a major horticultural magazine and published two thousand articles. She had a hand in the design and installation of numerous gardens and influenced countless others by her writings. If she had been a man she would have had a three page entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. There was none for Miss Jekyll. Only years after her death did the publication grudgingly decide to include her in its Supplement.

The Jekylls were what used to be called the “backbone of England”, upper middle class families which supplied professional men, soldiers and servants of the Crown generation after generation. The first Jekylls to be recorded were in Lincolnshire in the early sixteenth century. They pronounced the name “Jeekyll”, like Jeep.

Her father, Captain Edward Jekyll, had been in the Guards but retired early and devoted himself to his family and many amateur craft and engineering pursuits all carried out with considerable skill and efficiency. There was nothing amateurish about his approach. He had this leisure because of money in his mother’s family. When he first married he and his wife Julia, née Hammersley, lived in Mayfair where all of their six children were born. Gertrude was the fourth. Although they had a key to the garden in Berkeley Square London was still a very dirty and unhealthy place and if at all possible it was better to take children out into the country.

Captain Jekyll purchased Bramley House south of Guilford in Surrey. Gertrude was allowed to run freely in their grounds. As she grew older she could explore the countryside around them. A series of governesses taught the children but her father also showed her how to use his tools and make things with him. When she asked for her own little garden he made sure it was in a part of the property where plants would grow for her. Her lifelong fascination with plants began in her childhood.

These were all powerful formative influences and quite rare for a young girl of the period. Instead of adopting the rather vacuous existence of a young lady of good family Gertrude developed into an independent minded person, devoted to art, nature, music, books and crafts. The Jekylls moved among artistic circles and followed cultural movements and thought closely. It was at the time when John Ruskin was publishing his epoch making work on the nature and meaning of art. In the Jekyll household he had almost god- like status.

One of the corollaries was that she chose to go to art school in 1861, very soon after the Central School of Art and Design had opened on the land left vacant by the Great Exhibition of 1851 in South Kensington. That too was quite unusual for women in her era though there were precedents in their acquaintance.

Gertrude was exceptionally conscientious in spite of the dry and grueling curriculum. The professor of anatomy, John Marshall used material from her class notebooks as part of a book he was writing but gave her no credit. In addition to anatomy there were essential classes in botany which held her attention. The students also learned about the science and meaning of color. The most effective use of color was to be a principal tenet of her work in garden design. Chevreul’s observation that as soon as one color is placed next to another, it seems to change imprinted itself on her.

Chevreul colour wheel

The switch in emphasis from painting to gardening came slowly. While Gertrude was  preoccupied by many of the other decorative arts she was steadily working on the family garden which she had laid out when they moved from Surrey to Berkshire. She also came to realize that she lacked some of the gifts needed for a career in painting in spite of her dogged application. She had been myopic all her life and used spectacles to correct her vision. The face saving explanation that her eyes were letting her down allowed her to give up painting very honorably.

The Jekylls’ social position was a major factor in her knowing vast numbers of wealthy and influential people. Although she had no need to earn a living she worked just as hard at networking as if she did. The world had to take her on her own terms and somewhat surprisingly it did. Several decades later the impoverished socialite gardener Norah Lindsay did the same thing only she desperately needed the income from her rich friends.
By the 1880s Gertrude Jekyll became synonymous with gardens and garden writing.

Some of this was enhanced by her collaboration with horticultural leaders already at work.
It was not long before Dean Hole and William Robinson realized how skillful she was . She slid into horticultural journalism very gently. The first year she contributed a dozen short unsigned articles to Robinson’s weekly magazine “The Garden”, mainly about arranging flowers to the best advantage. She wrote only of what she herself was doing. Gradually she broadened her focus, writing about plants in depth and how to put them in the right place in the garden. Nothing horticultural escaped her attention and she wrote it all down.

Miss Jekyll met Edwin (“Ned”) Lutyens, (1869 – 1944) when he was nineteen years old, still very dreamy and inexperienced but with a spark she recognized. She took him under her wing and watched him grow and prosper with her guidance. Her wide social connections meant she would hear of a need for an architect very early and be able to secure him the commissions. That could only happen because he was so good at his job. His very first commission was for a small house in rural Surrey.

After her parents’ death Miss Jekyll commissioned him to design and build her house, Munstead Wood, in a quiet part of Surrey, near Godalming. Gertrude had owned the wooded property adjacent to her mother’s land for fifteen year before deciding to build. That had given her time to establish a phenomenal garden. One of her lasting insights was that a garden can start out by being quite “civilized” with strong colour and symmetry near a building and gradually soften its focus until its boundary vanished into the vista beyond.

The garden at Munstead Wood in 2009, showing a
nuanced use of colour

Today we call that a “borrowed landscape”. Within the actual garden she always liked to build a pergola, to have broad color coordinated borders and tree lined grassy avenues, very often using nut trees for this purpose. Miss Jekyll was also an alpine enthusiast. There was almost always a rock garden somewhere. If there were a dearth of natural rock outcroppings she knew a masonry firm which could manufacture a very satisfactory substitute. Munstead Wood is on the National Registry and is open to the public.

Munstead Wood, designed by Edwin Lutyens

Lutyens is mainly remembered today for building much of the imperial centre of New Delhi and for that uncomfortable signature bench still found in so many gardens. (Did he ever try sitting in one?) In his day he was considered the greatest British architect since Christopher Wren.

He combined the English vernacular style with some classical characteristics, producing a hybrid style. In my personal opinion the residential applications have not worn well though major public structures like the massive arch in New Delhi still command considerable respect.

To anyone who has read John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” Lutyens seems like a good candidate for the character of Philip Bosinney, the radical young architect who causes so much  disruption in the stuffy Forsyte family. Lutyens’ first commission for a house in Surrey, Crooksbury in Farnham, even forms part of the story.

Gertrude Jekyll has worn better. We are still in her debt for theories of garden colour and patterns. It was her view of colours being either ”hot” or “cool” which stimulated Vita Sackville-West’s imagination when she redid Sissinghurst Castle’s garden with its celebrated “rooms” and white garden. Miss Jekyll’s artistic style and attitudes were also strongly influenced by William Morris and the arts and craft movement, developed in protest against soulless machine production.

A big drawback to the Jekyll garden is its need for many gardeners. Once she set a colour framework for a border she had to change the actual plants as the seasons changed to maintain the scheme, ie if she used salvias for scarlet in the spring then she had to find other scarlet flowers for the summer and fall to take their place. There was an enormous amount of work to keep flower covered pergolas in shape and complex walkways clipped.

Miss Jekyll working in her garden, by
Lionel Besson

Gertrude Jekyll continued to work into very old age. She finally died on December 8, 1932, aged 89. Not long before that a seven year old boy visited her with his mother. Miss Jekyll put her hand on his head and as it were, blessed him. That was Christopher Lloyd, one of England’s most innovative and prominent gardeners and garden writers.

The foregoing can only be considered an exceedingly superficial sketch of an amazing life. It is fitting to close with my favourite Jekyll aphorism: ”There are no bad plants. There is only a poor sort of gardening which makes it seem that way.”

Gertrude Jekyll’s books

Wood and Garden 1899
Home and Garden 1900
Lilies for English Gardens 1901
Wall and Water Gardens 1901
Roses for English Gardens (with Edward Mawley) 1902
Old West Surrey  1904
Some English Gardens; After Drawings by George S. Elgood 1904
Flower Decoration in the House 1907
Colour in the Flower Garden 1908
Children and Gardens 1908
Gardens for Small Country Houses (with Lawrence Weaver) 1912
Annuals and Biennials 1916
Garden Ornament 1918
Old English Household Life 1925
A Gardener’s Testament 1937 (posthumous)


Elliott, Brent  1986  “Victorian Gardens”
London  Batsford

Festing, Sally  1991   “Gertrude Jekyll”

Massingham, Betty  1966   “Miss Jekyll”
London   David and Charles

Robinson, William  1895  “The English Flower Garden”
London   Murray

Info/images at


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.


Dr Taylor’s  books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant
tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and “An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past” (Ohio University Press  2018).
         In 2019 she published “A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989”.
        Dr Taylor’s web site is:


  1. I enjoyed this interesting article on Gertrude Jekyll, Judith. I'm not a gardener, but I really appreciate the skill, thought, and sheer hard work that goes into producing an attractive one.

  2. Fascinating post on an inspiring lady. I'm also not a gardener - the shame - but my family have been for a few generations, and my great-grandfather created Borde Hill Garden - and there must have been some Gertrude Jekyll influence.


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