A brief introduction to the remarkable Gertrude Jekyll

This year marks the 175th anniversary of a remarkable Victorian woman: Gertrude Jekyll.

Her prolific writing of books and articles saw her become perhaps the most influential Arts & Crafts garden designer of the early 20th century.

Having designed around 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America, Jekyll’s planting schemes, their harmonious colour palettes and use of traditional crafts, remain the quintessential essence of English-style. You may have visited a Jekyll garden, or a garden inspired by Jekyll’s work, and not even known.

View of the garden with Manor House in the background
Garden designed in 1908 by Gertrude Jekyll at the Manor House in Upton Grey, Hampshire via Flickr: Anguskirk

Life and style

Born 29 November 1843, the fifth of seven children, Jekyll was home educated before joining the Kensington School of Art aged 17. A creative mind with a keen interest in crafts and colour; Jekyll was exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts by the age of 23 and in her circle of artistic friends, she knew the likes of Ruskin, GF Watts and William Morris.

By her early 30s, Jekyll’s extensive social network saw her advising on interior design – including the furnishings for the Duke of Westminster’s enormous new house, Eaton Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse and sadly demolished in the 1960s.

Black and white image of the opulantly decorated drawing room at Eaton Hall, with various lounge chairs and writing desks
Interior of the drawing room at Eaton Hall 1870-1882, Cheshire. Painted panels by Gertrude Jekyll. Reproduced by permission of Historic England BL08272

As an unmarried woman, Jekyll’s early career in fine art and craftwork – from embroidery to blacksmithing – broke Victorian social convention. She was also well travelled; visiting Algeria, Italy and the Aegean.

Pronunciation of Jekyll

Old Celtic surname pronounced ‘Jee-kill’ to rhyme with treacle.

Gertrude’s brother Herbert was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s suggested that the title was originally intended as a play on words with the children’s game ‘Hide and Seek-all’, the Victorian name for Hide and Seek. The modern pronunciation of Jekyll (Jek-ill) is a product of 1940s Hollywood.

Jekyll pictured in typical Victorian dress and a bonnet, beside a pond in front of a country house
Gertrude Jekyll posed beside a pond at Deanery Garden, Wokingham 1901-1910.Grade II* Registered – a Lutyens/Jekyll collaboration. Reproduced by permission of Historic England OP01502

In 1877, Jekyll moved with her mother to a newly built property, Munstead House near Godalming in Surrey. Here she took charge of laying out new gardens, which attracted the attention of William Robinson; editor of journal The Garden, for which Jekyll became a contributor. Robinson, author of The Wild Garden (1870), was a leading proponent of naturalistic garden design in opposition to popular, highly formal, Victorian schemes.

Influence

After being diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition (myopia) in 1891 at the age of 50, Jekyll gave up painting and needlework and focused her energies on garden design. She struck up an informal partnership with a young architect, Edwin Lutyens, who was 26 years her junior. Munstead Wood (Grade I listed), Jekyll’s own house, was an early collaboration.

Illustration of a country house. Text reads' 18 - Miss Jekyll's House, Munstead Wood, from the South
Illustration of Munstead Wood, Godalming, Surrey in Lutyens houses and gardens (1921). via wiki commons

Lutyens’ style was strongly influenced by Jekyll, and she introduced him to many of his early clients. Lutyens & Jekyll collaborated on around 100 gardens; a Lutyens house with a Jekyll garden became the ‘must-have’ of the cultured English Edwardian.

Thirty-two of Jekyll’s gardens are protected in the ‘Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest’; including some of those she carried out in partnership with Lutyens.

Sprawling, natural-looking multi-layered garden with trees, topiary and rose bushes
Castle Drogo Gardens via geograph by Michael Garlick

The small walled garden at Lindisfarne Castle (Grade II registered) is a good example of  Jekyll’s work: including large herbaceous beds with drifts of flowering plants moving from cold whites and blues through to warm oranges and reds and back again. It is said that Jekyll’s eye condition meant that she saw colours as blurs and approached her designs like a painting, influenced from emulating the work of Turner in her youth. The wild flowers on the cliffs below the castle include the descendants of plants that were spread by Jekyll firing seed from a shotgun.

Walled Garden near Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island
Inside the Gertrude Jekyll-designed walled garden at Lindisfarne Castle. Grade II registered via geograph © Copyright Ian Capper

The gardens at Hestercombe in Somerset (Grade I registered) are generally regarded as Jekyll’s most impressive work. The Great Plat (pictured) sees geometric-shaped panels of lawn meeting a central sundial; beds planted with gladioli and delphiniums and a stone flagged walk provide views across the gardens to the house.

Hestercombe_Gardens
The Great Plat at Hestercombe Gardens (6097257589) via wiki commons

Jekyll was the first woman to be awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society, the highest award for British horticulturists, in 1897.

A plaque at Lindisfarne Castle gardens reads 'Gertrude Jekyll 1843- 1932'
A plaque at Lindisfarne Castle gardens © Alan Murray-Rust via Enriching the List

She died in 1932 and her tombstone in Busbridge Churchyard, designed by Lutyens, is inscribed:

Gertrude Jekyll
Artist
Gardener
Craftswoman

 

Further reading:

 

Contributed by Eric Branse-Instone, Listing Adviser at Historic England.

3 responses to A brief introduction to the remarkable Gertrude Jekyll

  1. Yewtree says:

    I’ve visited several of her gardens knowing that they were hers, and probably many more not knowing that. Wonderful stuff. Loved the garden at Lindisfarne.

    Like

  2. For Jekyll fans, you might like to look at any of the four books I’ve written on Gertrude Jekyll, including Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood (Pimpernel Press, 2015) and Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden: From the Archives of Country Life (Aurum, 2011).

    Like

  3. Gary Webb says:

    ‘Jee-kill’ to rhyme with treacle – Love this! A great introduction to the wonderful Jekyll. There’s a feature on the Gertrude Jekyll Lindisfarne garden on my GardeningWays blog too if anyone wants a closer look.

    Like

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