Jekyll, Gertrude (1843–1932)

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Jekyll, Gertrude (1843–1932)

Distinguished English garden designer and expert on plants who has had a profound and continuing influence on English and American horticulture. Name variations: (nickname) Aunt Bumps. Pronunciation: JEE-kl. Born on November 29, 1843, in London; died at her home at Munstead Wood, Surrey, on December 8, 1932; daughter of Edward Joseph Hill Jekyll (a retired military officer) and Julia (Hammersley) Jekyll (a member of a prominent banking family); educated at home and at Kensington School of Art, 1861–63; never married; no children.

Moved to Bramley, Surrey (1848); traveled in Greece, Italy, and Algeria (1863–74); family settled at Wargrave Hill, Berkshire (1868); met William Robinson (1875); family returned to West Surrey (1876); published first article in Robinson's magazine, The Garden (1881); met architect Edwin Lutyens (1889); forced to give up painting and other artistic activities because of weak eyesight (1891); moved into her permanent home of Munstead Wood and honored by Royal Horticultural Society (1897); became joint editor of The Garden (1900); designed garden in Provence, her first on foreign soil (1902); awarded Veitch Memorial Gold Medal (1922); had issue of Botanical Magazine dedicated to her and received George Robert White Medal of Honor from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (1929).

Major works:

Wood and Garden (1899); Home and Garden (1900); Wall and Water Gardens (1901); Old West Surrey (1904); Color in the Flower Garden (1908); Gardens for Small Country Houses (1912); Old English Household Life (1925).

Gertrude Jekyll was a leading horticulturist from the last decades of the 19th century through the first three decades of the 20th century. Born to an affluent and well-connected English family, she pursued a number of artistic interests until, nearly 50 years old, she was encouraged by failing eyesight to curtail such activities as painting. At that point, she joined the rising young architect Edwin Lutyens, designing gardens to enhance the country houses he was planning. Together, they produced 100 such country houses with accompanying gardens; working on her own, Jekyll designed an additional 300 gardens, many of them located in the United States.

Gardening was not a craft or even a science to her—it was an art.

—Harold Faulkner

At the same time, Jekyll's writings and activities as a consultant made her the foremost authority on gardening of her time. She presented a vast and adoring public, in both Britain and the U.S., with 15 books and 2,000 articles. In recent years, the established picture of Jekyll as a potentially great artist thwarted by poor eyesight as well as a Victorian figure with a carefully controlled personality has been challenged by biographer Sally Festing . For her, Jekyll was "far more complicated, abrasive, autocratic, impatient, fun-loving and lovable than she is made out to be."

Gertrude Jekyll took the gardening practices of her country in a new direction. In contrast to the formal style of garden design that had come to prominence in the mid-19th century—with ribbon borders, raised flower beds, and great pyramids of flowers—an alternate approach was emerging under the aegis of William Robinson, a proponent of a free and natural style of gardening. Jekyll was a crucial figure in combining and harmonizing the two styles; her designs, for example, often called for a formal garden near the house, with a more natural one emerging as the woods encroached.

Jekyll's most eloquent view of her work came in her introduction to Wood and Garden:"The best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to lift up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness." In that same spirit, she expressed her respect for modest gardens, notably the cottage gardens to be found in the English countryside. "The size of a garden has very little to do with its merit," she wrote, since such things depended upon the accident of the owner's wealth. "It is the size of his heart and brain and goodwill," according to Jekyll, "that will make his garden either delightful or dull." The small gardens planted by the owners of roadside cottages she saw as wonderful sources of horticultural lore. There, one found flowers that had been rejected from the more formal landscape gardens of the first half of the 19th century. Thus, the accidental pairing of plants, or the casual innovation practiced by a country garden's owner, brought her a wealth of practical experience.

The future horticulturist was born in London on November 29, 1843, one of six children and the second daughter of Edward Joseph Jekyll and Julia Hammersley Jekyll . Her father was an independently wealthy man who was able to serve, in his early years, as an officer in the fashionable Grenadier Guards. He married Julia Hammersley, the daughter of a banker, and the two of them spent much of their life living in the countryside. As the daughter of a privileged family, Jekyll was unusually free to pursue her interests. Noted Festing: "Gertrude was the product of a time when most of the best things in life, wealth, property and social position, belonged to those [like her] who were born to them." By her own recollection, Jekyll was interested in flowers at the age of four or so, clashing with her nurse when the older woman refused to allow Gertrude to take common dandelions home from the park.

In 1848, she found herself in West Surrey, the part of England in which she would do her most distinguished work as a gardener, when her family moved to a new home near the town of Guildford. As she later recalled, around the age of seven she first stumbled upon a copse of primroses, a flower that was later to stand at the center of her gardening. It was an experience that she remembered leaving a profound impression upon her mind. Similarly she recalled spending hours in the family home's large garden. When she was nine, the family governess provided her with a book on wildflowers, thus beginning Gertrude's process of self-education in the matter of plants.

Steeped in a family atmosphere that revered art and music—her mother was an intrepid artist as well as a serious pianist who had studied with Felix Mendelssohn, a family friend—Gertrude Jekyll at the age of 17 took the slightly daring step of enrolling at the Kensington School of Art. For a young girl of her social background, a serious pursuit of art was still considered eccentric. She divided her time between her art studies in London and her country home in Surrey. The acute sense of color that characterized her work as a garden designer may well have come from her academic study of art.

Her world also expanded as she undertook a series of trips in the company of married friends to other parts of Europe and to the eastern Mediterranean. In 1863–64, for example, her travels took her to Greece, Rhodes, and Asia Minor. She visited Paris in 1866, made an extended trip to Italy in 1868, and, in 1873–74, accompanied a friend to Algeria. Throughout her life, she traveled abroad a dozen times, mainly in Europe.

Jekyll encountered eligible men, but without romantic results. A large young woman with a receding chin who already wore spectacles for her nearsightedness, she struck her father as "a queer fish," and a taste for solitude was a large part of her personal makeup. "No one called her pretty," writes Festing, "and there are indications that she never entirely accepted her physical self." Thus, the young woman passed through the years in which her contemporaries married without attaching herself to a spouse. Instead, her energies went into her painting. Her artistic interests and her circle of friends brought her into contact with John Ruskin in the mid-1860s. Ruskin, the reigning art critic and cultural guide of the time, praised her painting, and between 1865 and 1870 she put ten of her watercolors on exhibit. Much of her life centered around the family of Jacques Blumenthal, composer and pianist to Queen Victoria . Through him, she met the painter Hercules Brabazon and Princess Louise (1848–1939), duchess of Argyle, the daughter of Victoria.

While her interests centered on painting, Gertrude Jekyll helped acquaintances with their interior decorating and plunged into a range of other activities such as gardening, wood-inlaying, and embroidering. In the mid-1880s, she took up photography. Such activities reflected her acquaintance with William Morris, who promoted the production of nobly made handcrafts to counteract the shabby goods poured out in profusion by the industrial revolution.

According to Festing, "Gertrude Jekyll did not, as legend suggests, somewhere in mid-life exchange her paintbrush for a spade." Instead, in her late 20s, "she was [already] perusing cottage gardens, returning home laden with seeds and cuttings." A new friendship with William Robinson, editor of The Garden, began in 1875 and also paved the way for what was to become the center of her life as she now began to contribute articles to his magazine.

The Jekyll family had lived in Berkshire from 1868 to 1876, returning to West Surrey after the death of Gertrude's father when the house in Berkshire went to her eldest brother. In her new family home at Munstead Heath in West Surrey, Gertrude followed the precepts of William Morris and became increasingly interested in crafts, such as designing and making ornamental dishes, with her painting taking less and less of her time. She also spent many of her hours exploring the nearby countryside in her small carriage. Jekyll's travels in the Surrey countryside, with its profusion of wild vegetation, came to play a large role in the development of her ideas about gardening. Like her mentor Robinson, she grew convinced that the best gardens did not artificially alter nature.

The intensity of Jekyll's interest in gardening grew in the 1880s. She submitted 19 articles to Robinson's The Garden in 1881 alone, and her growing reputation as a gardener led to a role as judge at the annual Horticultural Society show in London's Regent Park. Her own garden, which she often described in her articles, became a magnet for visiting horticultural experts, and she was in increasing demand as a consultant for those planning gardens. In 1883, she contributed an important chapter on color to Robinson's pioneering book The English Flower Garden.

At the close of the 1880s and the start of the following decade, as Jekyll approached the age of 50, this active, artistically minded woman found her life changed by two new elements. First came the beginning of a warm friendship with the young architect Edwin Lutyens; she met him initially in Surrey in 1889 at the home of a neighbor and fellow gardener. In 1891, after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her weak eyesight, she consulted a noted eye specialist in Germany. He gave her the crushing news that her eyesight would never improve; in order to prevent her sight from weakening further, she must, he insisted, abandon such favorite activities as painting and embroidery. In Festing's view, Jekyll was "a mediocre painter, a gifted craftswoman and a unique garden designer," and her passion for excellence made it relatively easy for her to concentrate her energies in the gardening work in which her talents had full play. Moreover, in the preceding decade, she had already moved away from other activities to concentrate on gardening.

Biographer Betty Massingham interpreted these events differently and more dramatically. She saw Jekyll's life forced to take an abrupt new turn; and she stressed how Jekyll was crushed by the news the eye specialist gave her. Nonetheless, in this view, Jekyll was saved by her ability to turn to the new activity of gardening: "She had this other string to her bow. … [S]he had not neglected the gardening side of her life, which was now to come to her aid in a practical manner." Jekyll was aided by her family's affluence and the absence of a need to earn a living. As well, Massingham points to a distaste for selfpity and a strong religious belief that also aided a shaken Gertrude Jekyll.

Lutyens' friendship with Jekyll took the form of frequent visits to Surrey in which the young man and the elderly woman explored Surrey and nearby Sussex to study the area's picturesque architecture. She was able to help the novice architect by recommending him to family friends and clients for whom she was doing garden designs. For example, she bolstered his career by introducing him to Princess Louise, now the wife of the Marquess of Lorne. She also became his firm supporter as he reached up the social scale in a successful effort to marry Lady Emily Lytton , daughter of the former viceroy of India and sister of Lady Constance Lytton .

In her initial work with Lutyens, Jekyll merely offered the young architect some advice about the garden to accompany a country house he was designing at a location near the town of Farnham. Their collaboration became an intense one in the mid-1890s: Gertrude's mother had died in 1895, Gertrude's brother took over the family home of Munstead Heath, and she pushed forward to plan with Lutyens her own house nearby, named Munstead Wood. They had already worked together in planning eight gardens and two country cottages.

In 1897, the year she moved into Munstead Wood, Jekyll received a signal honor. The Royal Horticultural Society chose her as one of 60 eminent gardeners to be awarded a Victoria Medal of Honor on the occasion of the monarch's Diamond Jubilee. In this commemoration of the queen's 60 years on the British throne, Jekyll was one of only two women to receive the distinction.

A longtime contributor to gardening journals, Gertrude Jekyll soon heightened her reputation by publishing two important books, Wood and Garden (1899) and Home and Garden (1900). As Festing notes, passages in Wood and Garden demonstrate in vivid fashion Jekyll's privilege-laden view of the English class system and the workers who aided her. The common working gardener lacked the chances to develop his mind, Jekyll insisted; thus he could bring only a limited imagination to his task. Such servants could only do as they were told; they could, she wrote, "set up the canvas and grind the colours and even set the palette, but the master alone can paint the pictures."

In the following years, Jekyll began to produce works prodigiously, and, by 1908, she had completed ten books. In 1900, she had also taken on the task of joint editor of The Garden, although her poor eyesight compelled her to serve in this post for only two years. Asked for advice on gardens from all over the world—one request came from South Africa concerning the garden of Cecil Rhodes—Jekyll continued her collaboration with Lutyens until an architectural cliché of the time became "a Lutyens house with a Jekyll garden." She expressed the spirit of their collaboration in her book Wall and Water Gardens: in order to work together well, the architect and the landscape designer with "much knowledge on both sides" must understand each other's work to some extent, but "each must regard with feelings of kindly reverence the unknown domains of the other's higher knowledge."

Jekyll wrote notably about flower arrangement. As Massingham put it, "She suggests certain flowers being used together as a painter would suggest colours to be used from his paintbox." Moreover, her travels around the countryside had made her into a storehouse of information about local crafts, and she had gathered a large collection of utensils from Surrey homes. She drew together her encyclopedic knowledge of Surrey's village society—its speech, manners, songs, and artifacts—in her book Old West Surrey, Some Notes and Memories. Consistent with her general views about class relations, Jekyll presented here an idealized view of the country village with its picturesque population satisfied to be the workers at the base of a structured society. Three years later, she donated much of her collection of village artifacts to the newly opened museum of the Surrey Archaeological Society.

What some biographers consider her greatest achievement in the development of English gardening, her book Color Scheme in the Flower Garden, appeared in 1908. Her guiding principle was simple: "Planting ground is painting a landscape with living things." Thus, she claimed, the gardener had an obligation to the garden "to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures." To this end, she recommended grouping together flowers that bloom at the same time. There should be no effort to cover an entire garden with blooming plants, since "groups of flower-beauty are all the more enjoyable … [with] stretches of intervening greenery." By now a skilled and experienced photographer, she illustrated the text with 85 of her own pictures. In 1907, one of her books was translated into German, and, but for the outbreak of war in 1914, several of her works would have appeared in French from a Belgian press.

Jekyll's burst of activity and her on-going collaboration with Lutyens took place against the background of her increasing age and fading energies. In the years before 1914 and the outbreak of World War I, she no longer tried to travel abroad, and even extended trips within England were tiring for her. She presented her schemes in the form of extensive paper drawings accompanied by detailed written instructions for the gardeners on the scene.

Despite her age, Gertrude Jekyll responded to the war by plunging into a number of new activities. She collected plants needed for the war effort, turned many of her flower beds into vegetable gardens to produce food for a nearby military hospital, and opened her home to visiting soldiers. This noted authority on flowers wrote articles in The Gardener advising British women on how to substitute parsnips and turnips for potatoes to help the country through its wartime food shortage. She also played an advisory role in the planning of the great collection of postwar British military cemeteries. Lutyens, whose reputation had already led to the honor of designing the new British capital of India at Delhi, undertook the task of the cemetery designs. His old friend and collaborator Gertrude Jekyll reviewed and approved his concepts.

Even in the postwar period, when she was in her 80s and Lutyens had now reached the pinnacle of the architectural profession, Jekyll continued their longstanding collaboration. And her activity remained prodigious. Her health was so fragile that her doctor required her to spend one day per week in bed, but she wrote numerous articles for various general-interest and gardening publications, while sending her old books out in new and revised editions. In 1923 alone, she worked on 13 projects including a memorial garden at Winchester College. The previous year, she had been honored with the Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society. She was now recognized in the United States as well as in Europe, and she received commissions—along with lavish praise in American gardening publications—from wealthy gardening connoisseurs across the Atlantic. Her books were published in the United States from 1900 onward, and, in 1929, she added the George Robert White Medal of Honor from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to her other honors.

In her last years, Jekyll was almost completely blind and largely unable to move about. She visited her garden by using a wheelchair. Although her work continued—almost to the day of her death, Jekyll wrote articles and revised her now-classic books on gardening—she was shaken by the death of her closest relative, her beloved brother Herbert, in late September 1932. On December 8, 1932, just after her 89th birthday, she too succumbed at Munstead Wood, her longtime home in Surrey.

Judith B. Tankard , an American admirer, summed up Jekyll's accomplishment in an article written on the 150th anniversary of the gardener's birth. "Her sophisticated yet practical advice for artistically grouping textural plans with coordinated color sequences has challenged gardeners for years." Jekyll "reveled in the use of green as a garden color … planting in sweeps of harmonious colors rather than stiff rows of overly bright curiosities."


Brown, Jane. Gardens of a Golden Afternoon: The Story of a Partnership: Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.

Festing, Sally. Gertrude Jekyll. London: Viking, 1991.

Massingham, Betty. Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener. London: Country Life, 1966.

Tankard, Judith B. "Celebrating Gertrude Jekyll," in Horticulture: The Magazine of American Gardening. November 29, 1993, p. 11.

suggested reading:

Bisgrove, Richard. The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1992.

Hussey, Christopher. The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Antique Collectors' Club, 1984.

Hyams, Edward. A History of Gardens and Gardening. NY: Praeger, 1971.

Tooley, Michael, ed. Gertrude Jekyll: Artist Gardener Craftswoman: A Collection of Essays to Mark the 50th Anniversary of Her Death. Witton-Le-Wear, England: Michaelmas Books, 1984.

Weideger, Paula. "A Budding Genius: The Growing Legend of Landscape Artist Gertrude Jekyll," in Ms. March 1989, pp. 48–49.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California