Gertrude Jekyll was a great gardener, second only, if indeed she was second, to her friend William Robinson, of Gravetye. To these two, more than to any others, are due, not only the complete transformation of English horticultural method and design, but also that wide diffusion of knowledge and taste which has made us almost a nation of gardeners. Miss Jekyll was also a true artist with an exquisite sense of colour.
She was born on November 29, 1843, at 2, Grafton Street, the fourth child and second daughter of Edward Jekyll, captain in the Grenadier Guards, and Julia, née Hammersley. In 1848 the family moved to Bramley House, Surrey, and there she developed a strong interest in botany and gardening, in horses and all country pursuits, and especially in painting. About 1861 she began to study in the art schools in South Kensington, and in 1866 she worked in Paris. Later the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Louvre, the Brera, and the galleries of Venice and Rome offered her invaluable opportunity and experience.
A succession of German and French governesses of the early Victorian type left no more than a resentful impression on her independent mind and character. A brief incursion into boarding school life only deepened her sense of aloofness, and yet no one had a kinder heart, a more truly helpful and sympathetic spirit, a readier sense of humour and good comradeship. Not that her home circle was narrow, or wanting in intellectual or artistic opportunity. Her mother was a good musician, and Mendelssohn was a constant visitor at her London home. Leighton, Watts, and Poynter, among many others, gave help and encouragement to the young artist.
An early acquaintance with Charles Newton, then Keeper of the Greek and Roman collections in the British Museum, led to a fruitful friendship with him and his wife, Mary Severn, with whom, in 1863, she visited Rhodes, Constantinople, and Athens and acquired a knowledge of Greek art. While in Italy she obtained practical instruction in several handicrafts, such as the use of gesso, watergilding, inlaying, repoussé work, and wood-carving. Indeed, there was little her skilful fingers could not bring to perfection, from a piece of finely wrought decorative silver down to the making of her gardening boots. She could toss an omelette and brew Turkish coffee or elderberry wine, compose a liqueur, or manufacture her own incomporable pot-pourri. Embroideries designed by herself, repairs to ancient church work so skilful that they amounted to creation, patchworks of intricate pattern, quilting of medieval fineness, shell pictures such as only a real artist could conceive, banner-making for philanthropic friends, village-inn signs for Surrey neighbours – all were achieved with equal skill and enjoyment.
In 1871 Miss Jekyll formed an enduring frienship with Jacques Blumenthal and his wife, he a musician of distinction, she unusually gifted in all manner of minor arts. Their famous hospitalities in London and at their lovely chalet above Montreux brought her into happy relations with many artists, musicians and social notabilities. Another inspiring friend of the seventies was Hercules Brabazon, who profoundly impressed a small circle in those days, but whose wide recognition only came after he had laid down his brush. He introduced Miss Jekyll to Mme. Bodichon (Barbara Leigh Smith), a gifted painter, but better known in connexion with Girton College. Together they spent a happy winter in 1873-74 in Algiers and there making friends with the artist Frederick Walker.
Her father’s death in 1876 at Wargrave Hill, Henley, led to the return of the family to West Surrey, and there Miss Jekyll settled with her mother in a house they built on Munstead Hill, above Godalming, in 1878. This soon became a meeting ground for a group of enthusiastic gardeners, amateur and professional, who helped her in the pursuit which henceforward was to be her main employment and delight. House decoration and furnishing, of which her most extensive work was done at Eaton Hall in 1882, had already for some years occupied and interested her, but these activities waned as her horticultural knowledge and taste developed.
In 1882 Canon Hole, afterwards Dean of Rochester, for ever pre-eminent among rose growers, brought with him on a visit to Munstead House Mr. William Robinson, who in his championship of hardy flowers versus the prevailing bedding-out system, found in Miss Jekyll an enthusiastic fellow-worker. Their activities were soon shared by a remarkable group of ardent amateurs, all busy re-discovering neglected plants and popularising better ways of gardening. The disability of restricted sight, which had prevented Miss Jekyll from painting pictures with brushes, was by the law of compensation turned into an unexpected development of painting living pictures with growing plants. The late Mr. Lathbury first induced her to write for his paper, the Guardian, and she expanded her articles into a book, “Wood and Garden,” published in 1899. This was followed in 1900 by “Home and Garden,” and in the ensuing years by other books on “Lilies,” “Wall and Water Gardens,” “Children’s Gardening,” “Colour Schemes for the Garden,” and “Flower Arrangements,” besides one entitled “Old West Surrey,” embodying recollections of bygone country ways, to be re-issued, with amplification, in 1925, under the title of “Old English Household Life.” All these books were copiously illustrated with photographs, taken and developed by Miss Jekyll’s own hand.
From the beginning of 1900, when the Garden newspaper became the property of Country Life, Miss Jekyll undertook its co-editorship with Mr. Ernest Cook, and only relinquished it after 2½ years owing to the strain on her eyesight. But her interest in garden schemes, her own horticultural work including the distribution through the trade of improved strains of some of her favourite flowers, the recapture of many sweet and almost vanished climbing roses and garden plants, and the planning and beautifying of gardens of all sorts and sizes, went on to the end of her life.
From 1895, when her mother died, onwards, this work was carried out from her own home at Munstead Wood, where she had made herself, with the help of Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had begun his professional career in her workshop in the early eighties, the home of her delight, surrounded by some 15 acres of typical Surrey woodland. In that year she was gratified to receive from the Royal Horticultural Society the Victorian medal of honour, just then instituted, and again in February, 1929, the Veitchian gold cup and 50 guineas prize. In later years she kept in touch by correspondence with her numerous clients and private friends, and with a widening circle at home and oversea, attracted by her writings. To her correspondents, enthusiastic, but often horticulturally inexperienced, she owed many a humorous twinkle and quiet chuckle. “Could you spare me some of those lovely flowers I saw in your garden last time I came; I think you called them Peacocks?” Some moments of hard thinking ensued, and a parcel of Narcissus Pallidus Praecox was presently dispatched with an informative postscript. “What is the aspect of the flower border you asked me to plan?” inquired Miss Jekyll of an enthusiastic correspondent, who baffled her by replying, “Most of the day it faces south-east, but due north all the morning.”
In the House of Nature there are many mansions, inhabited by widely divergent spirits. Darwin and Wallace took continents and oceans as their laboratories wherein to study strange and living creations; Wordsworth and Tennyson, lifting their eyes to the hills and the sky, discoursed of religion and philosophy. Gertrude Jekyll, to whom we now bid a grateful “Hail and Farewell,” sought ever for practical knowledge allied to beauty, and in that quest, whereby she may truly be said to have transfigured the gardens of England, she never grew old at heart or wearied in mind, was never discouraged by difficulty or defeated by failure, neither did she cease to share widely the fruits of her long and loving apprenticeship to Nature.
- An Obituary from The Times, 10th December, 1932