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Gertrude Jekyll, Garden Designer

Submitted by on March 14, 2010 – 11:58 pmNo Comment
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jekyll_gertrudeOne of the best known English garden designers is Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). (At left is a photo showing a model of Gertrude Jekyll of in front of an enlarged copy of Helen Allingham’s painting of Jekyll’s garden at Munstead.)

At Godalming Museum Library, 109a Godalming High Street, Godalming, Surrey, England, researchers can consult a wide range of published works on and by Gertrude Jekyll, as well as her original notebooks and copies of the garden plans in the Reef Point Collection at the University of California. The Museum Collection includes paintings, drawings and other work by Gertrude Jekyll, as well as memorabilia. Many of these items are on display in the Arts and Crafts Gallery. The Museum Garden is a living exhibit: a copy of a border designed by Jekyll for a house called Millmead in Bramley. The following is adapted from information in the Godalming Museum Library.

jekyll_pussnbootsIn 1848, the Jekyll family (Gertrude was the fifth of seven children) came to Bramley where they lived for 20 years. In 1861 Jekyll went to the South Kensington School of Art, studying the writings of Ruskin and the paintings of Turner. At the age of 26, she painted her cat, Thomas, in the character of Puss in Boots (at right).

She traveled widely always noticing the plants, landscapes and customs, painting in watercolors and oil. Gertrude Jekyll’s circle of friends was wide and influential including John Ruskin, William Morris, G.F.Watts (who came to live at Compton) and Hercules Brabazon, a watercolor artist whose experiments with color profoundly influenced her.

The family moved to Wargrave, Berkshire, but returned to Surrey to live at Munstead in 1878. Jekyll and her widowed mother moved to a newly built house, and it was here that she found her love of creating gardens. In 1882 her mother gave her some land across the road, which she had bought, and which she hoped would be a home for her daughter after her death.

From her childhood, plants and flowers and their relationship with each other had fascinated Jekyll, as did the lanes, heaths and woods she loved to explore. Besides painting, drawing and sketching Gertrude Jekyll became interested in embroidery, designing for friends.

Jekyll learned the country crafts: mastering thatching, fencing, walling, carpentry and metalworking, and became a designer craftswoman. She made herself proficient in carving, gilding and inlaying; working in silver decorated by embossing. Witley Church has a paten with a monogram and inscription commissioned from her in 1888 (currently on display in the museum, as is a picture Jekyll made out of shells mounted on panelling from old pews taken out of Bramley Church)

She took up photography, which eventually enabled her to capture images when her eyes could no longer see clearly. Her extreme short-sightedness caused her to give up art and crafts, and further deterioration meant she concentrated on gardens.

Jekyll took an interest in disappearing crafts, collecting old household implements and recording their use. Her book Old West Surrey includes her photographs of illustrations and the old crafts and cottages she had seen in her travels around Surrey.

luytens_edwinIn 1899 Jekyll was introduced to the young architect, Edwin Lutyens (pictured, at left), by Harry Mangles of Littleworth near Seale. Mangles was a pioneer rhododendron grower for whom Lutyens had designed a gardener’s cottage. She asked Lutyens to design a house for her in her garden. Jekyll and Lutyens explored the landscape and architecture of southwest Surrey in her pony cart. Lutyens designed Munstead Wood Hut in 1894 as a place where she could live until her own house was built. Her house, Munstead Wood, one of Lutyens’ early masterpieces, was begun in 1896.

Jekyll became increasingly involved in the gardens Lutyens was designing for his houses, advising him on the materials to be used and supplying detailed planting plans. An example of their work together is Orchards in Munstead built entirely of local material: other examples of the partnership are at Tigbourne Court, Witley, and Goddard’s in Abinger, where the Lutyens Trust is based.

england_surrey_munsteadOn holiday Jekyll drew ‘A silly gate made of nonsense tools’ in her sketchbook. Jekyll and Lutyens had the same sense of humour. Lutyens drew sketches – of Jekyll whom he affectionately called ‘Bumps’ – ‘the mother of all the bulbs’ referring to her figure.

She enjoyed sketching especially her cats, which were published in a chapter ‘Pussies in the Garden’ in her book, Children and Gardens. Lutyens described her picture of three cats drinking from a bowl of milk as an “equicateral” triangle.

Jekyll’s reputation as a plantswoman and garden designer had been steadily growing. Her circle included William Robinson (author of the English Flower Garden), Rev. Reynolds Hole (who wrote A Book about Roses) and G.F. Wilson, owner of the gardens at Wisley.

Jekyll wrote many articles for magazines and newspapers such as Robinson’s periodical, The Garden, and Gardening Illustrated and Country Life. Her books, often illustrated by her own photographs and drawings, had a profound influence, direct or indirect, on garden design through the British Isles, in France, and particularly in the United States. Her books were concerned with garden ornaments and flower decoration in the home as well as the principles of planting, color grouping and garden design. Everything was based on her own experience and showed meticulous attention to detail.

Her drawings give some insight into how she carefully planned her gardens. They are listed under house name of the garden, and also under various types of planting schemes e.g. peony borders, kitchen gardens, herb gardens, spring planting.

Copies of many of Gertrude Jekyll’s Garden Plans can be studied in the Godalming Museum Local Studies Library, by courtesy of the Reef Point Collection, University of California. Her original planting notebooks can also be seen and include detailed lists of plants for particular gardens. Plants often came from her nurseries at Munstead Wood.

Locally Jekyll was prominent in the campaign to save the Old Town Hall (the Pepperpot) in Godalming from demolition. She designed the garden for the Jack Phillips Memorial Cloister in Godalming, and supervised the transformation of Hydon Heath into an accessible public memorial for Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust.

In the Arts and Crafts Gallery at Godalming Museum one can see her personal memorabilia, including a garden fork and shears, Gladstone bag, travelling desk and gardening boots (kindly lent by Guildford Museum).

Gertrude Jekyll’s tombstone in Busbridge Churchyard, designed by Lutyens, is inscribed:Gertrude Jekyll, Artist , Gardener, Craftswoman

More information: The official website of the Jekyll Estate; The Museum of Garden History; Surrey Gardens Trust. The Godalming Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays thru Saturdays April to October, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through saturdays November to March. The Local Studies Library is open 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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