Craftswoman, Local Historian and Pioneering Garden Designer

Gertrude Jekyll as a young woman at her drawing board. A drawing from Francis Jekyll's book: Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir. 1934. Image: Godalming Museum

Gertrude Jekyll as a young woman at her drawing board.
A drawing from Francis Jekyll’s book:
Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir. 1934.
Image: Godalming Museum

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was one of the greatest of all English garden designers, whose ideas and influences are still felt today. Yet though she described herself as an ‘artist-gardener’ she could as easily have laid claim to being a painter, an embroiderer, an interior designer, an author or a photographer. In retrospect, she was an early exponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement in Surrey.

Thomas in the character of Puss-in-Boots. Oil painting by Jekyll 1869. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Thomas in the character of ‘Puss-in-Boots’
Oil painting by Jekyll 1869
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

In 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. She painted her cat, Thomas, at the age of 26.

She travelled widely always noticing the plants, landscapes and customs, painting in watercolours and oil. This oil picture was one she painted after the style of Turner c.1870.

The Sun of Venice Going to Sea. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

The Sun of Venice Going to Sea
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Her circle of friends was wide and influential including John Ruskin, William Morris, G.F.Watts (who came to live at Compton) and Hercules Brabazon Brabazon – watercolour artist whose experiments with colour profoundly influence 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 fascinated Jekyll, and she loved to explore the lanes, heaths and woods.

Iris stylosa at Munstead 1882. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Iris stylosa at Munstead 1882
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

She drew flowers in pencil (Almond Blossom), in pen and ink (Lesser Trumpet Daffodil) as well as watercolour. Besides painting, drawing and sketching she became interested in embroidery, designing for friends.

Jekyll learnt 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 Godalming Museum, as is a picture made of shells mounted on panelling from old pew seats 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.

Tulips and Roses can be seen on the tracings she made preparatory to embroidery. Image: Godalming Museum Collection.

Tulips and Roses can be seen on the tracings
she made preparatory to embroidery
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

In 1889 Jekyll was introduced to the young architect, Edwin Lutyens, by Harry Mangles of Littleworth near Seale, 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 Goddards in Abinger, where the Lutyens Trust is based.

She designed 400 gardens for sites in Britain, Europe and North America.

Helen Allingham, the artist, was to be a visitor to Munstead Wood and painted this watercolour of Gertrude Jekyll’s garden.

The South Border at Munstead Wood. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

The South Border
at Munstead Wood
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Jekyll took an interest in disappearing country crafts, which led to her 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.

On holiday she drew in her sketchbook, and which is on display in the museum, 'A silly gate made of nonsense tools'. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

On holiday she drew in her sketchbook
and which is on display in the museum
‘A silly gate made of nonsense tools’
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

 

 

 

 

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.

Jekyll 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.

Three Cats. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Three Cats
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Jekyll’s reputation as a plantswoman and garden designer had been steadily growing. Her circle included William Robinson (author of the English Flower Garden), Revd. 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, colour grouping and garden design. Everything was based on her own experience and showed meticulous attention to detail.

Jekyll’s Garden Drawings and Correspondence

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. Letters between clients and Jekyll survive.

A Jekyll garden drawing. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

A Jekyll garden drawing
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Jekyll’s Notebooks

Plants often came from her nurseries at Munstead Wood. Her original planting notebooks include detailed lists of plants for particular gardens.

Jekyll's Notebook

Jekyll’s Notebook

There are three collections in the Godalming Museum Local Studies Library.

1. The Gertrude Jekyll Collection of Garden Drawings
(Gertrude Jekyll Collection (1955-1), Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley)
2. Correspondence between Gertrude Jekyll and Clients
(Gertrude Jekyll Collection (1955-1), Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley)
3. Original Plant List Notebooks
(Godalming Museum)

The collections can be seen in Godalming Museum Local Studies Library
Open Tuesday – Saturday 1pm – 4pm or by prior arrangement
Telephone 01483 426510
E-mail [email protected]

Locally Jekyll was prominent in the campaign to save the Old Town Hall 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.

Godalming Branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Godalming Branch of the
National Union of Women’s
Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

She took an interest in female suffrage, creating an embroidered banner for the Godalming Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). A photograph shows the banner being paraded on a Suffrage Pilgrimage through Guildford in July 1913.

Jekyll, as an older lady. Image: Godalming Museum Collection

Jekyll, as an older lady
Image: Godalming Museum Collection

In the Jekyll and Lutyens 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).

From a drawing by Barbara Sotheby from Francis Jekyll’s book Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir. 1934 (Available in the museum library)

Jekyll Family Grave Busbridge Church, courtesy of P Cooper, Surrey Heritage

Jekyll Family Grave Busbridge Church, courtesy of P Cooper, Surrey Heritage

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

Gertrude Jekyll
Artist
Gardener
Craftswoman

Archive sources for Gertrude Jekyll at Surrey History Centre

Campagne Maheiddin - Bougainvillaea’, painting of red bougainvillaea tree in front of white house, watercolour, c.1873-1874 (SHC ref 6521/1/2/7B)

Campagne Maheiddin – Bougainvillaea’, painting of red bougainvillaea tree in front of white house, watercolour, c.1873-1874
(SHC ref 6521/1/2/7B)

SHC ref 4113/The Halnaker Collection: plans and correspondence of Gertrude Jekyll relating to gardens designed in Surrey and elsewhere, including architectural drawings by Sir Edwin Lutyens and letters from Harold Falkner, architect, 1890-c.1925

SHC ref 6521/Old West Surrey by Gertrude Jekyll (Longmans, London, 1904): original manuscript, proofs, photographs and press reviews; and watercolour albums, c.1867-1908

SHC ref 6582/Signed first edition presentation copy of Gertrude Jekyll, A Memoir, by Francis Jekyll, her nephew, and letters from Gertrude and Francis Jekyll, 1923-1934

SHC ref 6625/The Jekyll Family of Munstead, Godalming: catalogue of books at Munstead House to be sold at auction, 1953

SHC ref 6950/Munstead Wood nursery catalogue and price list, nd [c.1904?]

SHC ref Zs309/-Gertrude Jekyll: copies of letters and draft articles, 1927-1928, from Judith B Tankard

SHC ref Zs311/- Microfilm copy of six of Gertrude Jekyll’s photograph albums, c.1885-1914, with catalogue prepared by Judith B Tankard

SHC ref Z312/– Microfilm copies of Gertrude Jekyll’s garden plans, Munstead Wood nursery catalogue and photograph albums held at the Centre for Environmental Design, University of California at Berkeley, 1883-1933

SHC ref Z321/– Catalogue for sale of contents of Munstead Wood, Godalming [Gertrude Jekyll’s home since 1890], 1948

SHC ref Z351/Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), garden designer of Godalming: photocopies and transcripts of letters, newscuttings etc, 1913-2001

Further information

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Gertrude is just one of the talented Surrey Women featured in Surrey Museums Month 2017. To find out more about the event and other celebrated Surrey Women click here.

Main text from Godalming Museum with contributions from Surrey Heritage and Guildford Museum.

3 Responses to Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932)

  1. bruce george says:

    Gertrude Jekyll painted a water colour of Eward Bowbrick farm Labourer in top hat! Eward is my 2x great uncle and i wonder why! did he work for her? or do you know anything about him. I know he lived in Bramley and in ” old cottage” Thank you. Bruce.

  2. I am a french architect and author of many books on garden design. I am now working on Gertrude Jekyll youth, when she travelled around Mediterranean sea and to Algiers. I wonder if you have her notebooks, drawings for this period.
    I live in Versailles and Saint Valery sur Somme (not far from England) and I may come to work at your Museum, if necessary.
    Michel Racine
    honorary member of the international scientific committee ICOMOS of cultural landscapes

  3. Andrea Wilder says:

    The Gertrude Jekyll (style) garden I know best is in Northeast Harbor, Maine: Thuya Garden & Lodge. It is outstanding, go visit while in Maine.

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