The speaker at our June meeting was Dr Twigs Way, garden historian and author of several books on garden history. The title of Dr Way’s talk is taken from Gertrude Jekyll’s tombstone, designed by the man who is most frequently associated with a Jekyll garden, the architect Edwyn Lutyens. It’s simplicity belies the multi-facetted range of her great abilities and the pioneering nature of her achievements. Gertrude Jekyll is thought of as the most important figure in modern garden history but the aim of Dr Way’s talk was to show that she was so much more than that.
Jekyll was born in 1843 and died in 1932 so that she lived through the greater part of the reign of Queen Victoria and saw the transformation of Britain to something very much closer to our own society; a transformation which include making us a nation of gardeners for which Gertrude Jekyll was very much responsible. Dr Way spoke about Jekyll’s early life and the influences that shaped her and then talked about each of the phases of her life as artist, craftswoman and gardener.
Gertrude Jekyll was born into an upper middle class family in the centre of London. Although lacking much in the way of a family garden she found early inspiration in London’s parks and open spaces. The current style of gardening was very much based on formal displays of annual bedding plants but Jekyll found inspiration in the book “ Flowers of the field” by a popular writer, the Rev C A Johns which introduced her to wild flowers and cottage garden plants. She used this book so intensively that she wore out three copies.
Gertrude’s paternal grandfather was a professional artist and she showed sufficient talent in painting and drawing to be given a place at South Kensington School of Art. By this time her family had moved near Guilford in Surrey so that taking up her place involved daily commuting to London; an unusual thing at the time for a young woman which showed her independent nature. Although she did not become by any means a great artist her talent was noted at the time by well-known figures in the arts world such as Edward Burne-Jones.
This degree of recognition introduced her to the Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris became for her a particular source of inspiration. She followed in Morris’s footsteps by developing a high degree of skill in a many crafts. She was noted for her designs of wallpaper, ceramic tiles, jewellery and embroidery and she obtained important commissions as an interior decorator.
Between 1875 and 1890 Gertrude developed her twin interests in gardening and arts and crafts simultaneously but gradually the balance shifted in favour of gardening. Her training as an artist was, however, of huge importance in the novelty of her approach to gardening. She said that she aimed to produce living pictures with land trees and flowers and her use of drifts of plants with graduated colour combinations flowing from cool to hot colours was one of her most significant contributions to modern gardening.
The concentration on gardening was associated with her mother’s move of house to Munstead in Surrey, where she developed the garden, and her correspondence with William Robinson, a renowned campaigner for gardening with hardy plants, who became for her a gardening father figure. Tensions with her mother (clumping through the living rooms in her muddy gardening boots) led to her setting up home on her own and the birth of the prototype Jekyll garden at Munstead Wood. By then she had met Edwyn Lutyens and he designed her house at Munstead Wood, thus beginning the unlikely partnership which characterised so many country house and garden combinations, with the familiar features of herbaceous borders, sunken gardens, planted stone steps, stone edgings to borders and stone bordered formal rills. In 1897 her enormous contribution to gardening was recognised by the award of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal for Horticulture.
At Munstead Wood Jekyll established a nursery from which she supplied nearly all the plants for her garden design commissions; not charging for her designs but charging heavily for the plants. She also became a prolific garden writer with many press articles and hugely successful books such as ”Wood and Garden” and “Colour in the Flower Garden”. After the First World War her partnership with Lutyens ended as he became heavily engaged with war memorial commissions and Gertrude Jekyll declined into something approaching genteel poverty. The famous portrait of her gardening boots symbolises the decline from affluence to hardship.
This was the first meeting where we had the use of the new projector and we are grateful to the Village Hall committee for this splendid addition to the facilities.
Our next meeting will be the AGM on Tuesday 30th July. Please note the change of date from our advertised programme.
[images by kind permission of Twigs Way]