An American Perspective on Gertrude Jekyll’s Legacy
Reprinted from the Journal of the New England Garden History Society, Vol. 6, Fall 1998
JUDITH B. TANKARD
IN 1929, WHEN GERTRUDE JEKYLL WAS AWARDED the George Robert White Medal of Honor by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, she was considered the most influential gardening writer in the English-speaking world. She was then in her late eighties (she would die three years later) and far too sedentary to travel to Boston to receive the award. By that date Jekyll had an awesome number of accomplishments to her credit, including a dozen books and designs for nearly four hundred gardens. In receiving this prestigious award, Jekyll was in the company of two other distinguished writers who were her personal friends: William Robinson, the British gardening author and editor; and the American author Mrs. Francis King. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society award applauded Jekyll for having "changed the whole tone of horticultural writing" by writing books that were not "dry-as-dust tomes, full of rules and lists of plants," but written with "deep sympathy and keen understanding" to be enjoyed by specialists and beginners alike.1 The fact that these books are still in print attests to Jekyll's ability to speak to audiences across time.
There's scarcely a twentieth-century gardening writer who has not invoked Gertrude Jekyll's name in one way or another. "I can think of few English gardens made in the last fifty years which do not bear the mark of her teaching," Russell Page wrote, but "the repercussions of her influence have been differently and indifferently understood."2 Today it sometimes seems that every pretty bit of planting is traced to Jekyll's ideas, rightly or not. She is frequently given credit for things she did not do, such as inventing the herbaceous border and using hardy plants in soft pastel color harmonies exclusively, and she is often accused of having accomplished all she did because she had fourteen gardeners and a vast income at her disposal. None of these claims is true, but these and other myths are slow to die. 3
|Fig. 1. George Robert White Medal of Honor, awarded to Gertrude Jekyll by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society; 1929.
In the years since her death, Gertrude Jekyll's reputation has run the gamut from idolization to utter rejection. In her lifetime she was more or less canonized by horticulturists, gardeners, landscape architects, and writers, but a recent journalist eager to pinpoint blame for all the ills of contemporary garden design, decided to condemn her: " to debunk the goddess:'4 Perhaps it's time to appraise the goddess's influence from a historical perspective and to consider the pivotal roles Americans have played in preserving her legacy.
Most of Gertrude Jekyll's gardens have disappeared, and of the handful that still do exist, some are in altered condition. Among the best examples of her gardens are Hestercombe in Somerset (a collaboration with the architect Edwin Lutyens) and the Manor House at Upton Grey in Hampshire, both of which are open to the public.5 Although a number of Jekyll's garden plans have been reproduced in recent books, most reside in an American archive that is not readily accessible.6 Until recently it has been Gertrude Jekyll's books, rather than her design work, that has formed the nucleus of her legacy. Although her books are widely read today in Britain and the United States, it is not so well known that during the author's lifetime these books were enjoyed by legions of American readers, especially garden club women. Mrs. Francis King, a founder of the Garden Club of America and an accomplished author herself, was one of the first to sing the praises of Jekyll's books to fellow garden club members in her lectures and articles.
|Fig. 2. Gertrude Jekyll in her spring garden, September 1923. Author’s Collection.
After 1900 most of Jekyll's books were distributed in the United States by Scribner's, which ensured their availability in bookstores throughout the country, at least through the 1930's. There is scarcely a horticultural library in the country that does not include several or all of the original editions on its shelves. By contrast, books by Jekyll's colleagues-William Robinson, S. Reynolds Hole (Dean Hole), Mrs. C. W. Earle, and others-were not nearly as popular or as widely distributed in this country.7 The key to JekylVs success as a writer is that not only are her books steeped in solid principles, but they are written with unusual clarity-"practical wisdom in combination with poetical thought," to quote Dean Hole.8
Jekyll's books are important because they awakened interests in the finer points of gardening, and also in the essential relationship of house and garden, which is so well expressed in her writings about Munstead Wood, Jekyll's idyllic home in Surrey. Frank Lloyd Wright praised her book Home and Garden (1900), which relates the conception and building of Munstead Wood, recommending that the book (should be in every library."9
Gertrude Jekyll's books also held great appeal for fledgling landscape architects and garden designers from Britain, such as Russell Page, Brenda Colvin, and Sylvia Crowe, as well as Mien Ruys from Holland, and the pilgrimages that they made to Munstead Wood in the 1920s would influence their work. The eminent British plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas, who saw the Munstead Wood garden in 1931 just before Jekyll's death, speaks for many when he recalled: "I was spellbound; it was a new world to me, though I had been a little prepared for it by her book. The gradation of tints [in the long border] testified to…her ideas, developed from the deep study of various arts. I think that though she obviously loved plants they were to her the means to an end." 12
Marian Coffin and Beatrix Farrand (then Miss Jones) are perhaps the best known American landscape architects who visited Munstead Wood- there may have been others, but no records remain of their impressions. Coffin accompanied family friend Henry Francis du Pont in 1904, when Jekyll's gardens were in full maturity and well known from her books. The circumstances surrounding Beatrix Jones's visit on July 3, 1895, are somewhat unclear; her journal simply lists the visit, followed by one to William Robinson's Gravetye Manor in West Sussex shortly afterward.13 While one wishes that Jones's notations about the Munstead Wood visit had been more explicit, it is obvious that it sparked in her a lifelong admiration for Gertrude Jekyll and her accomplishments.14
More information is available about Nellie B. Allen's visit in 1921, shortly after she had graduated from the Lowthorpe School for Women in Landscape Architecture, in Groton, Massachusetts. Having a letter of introduction from Lawrence Weaver, the architectural writer who was Jekyll's coauthor for Gardens for Small Countiy Houses (1912), helped secure Mrs. Allen an invitation to Munstead Wood at a time when Gertrude Jekyll was inundated with such requests. Mrs. Allen returned to Munstead Wood in 1938 after Jekyll's death, only to find it in decline. During that visit Francis Jekyll (Gertrude Jekyll's nephew and biographer) gave his aunt's gardening boots to Mrs. Allen because he considered her "among all American visitors [the one who] loved her the most."15
Jekyll had a wide correspondence with Americans, gladly exchanging seeds, plants, gifts, and, in general, the pleasures of gardening. 16 In some cases the news she shared was not so good. A letter to Mrs. King in 1919 offers a rare glimpse of the precarious nature of her finances: "The War has brought me an altered life. The cost of labour is ruinous" she wrote.17 Louise du Pont Crowninshield, upon learning that the upkeep of Munstead Wood was so threatened in the aftermath of World War I, stepped in. At her instigation, the Garden Club of America made Jekyll a gift of $10,000, "in token of appreciation of her work and friendship?"18 At the same time, Jekyll was also invited to write several articles for the club's Bulletin, the fees from which ($100 each) helped defray garden expenses.19
Inspired by Jekyll's books, especially Colour in the Flower Gàrden (1908) waves of American gardeners were inspired to write about their own gardening experiences. The subject matter often revolved around their lack of success in precisely replicating Jekyll's planting schemes. As Julia Cummins explained in her book My Garden Comes of Age (1926), there were problems in finding satisfactory substitutes for Jekyll's plants, because some plants were not always available or suited to American climates, and other plants, such as cannas, were considered "distasteful" by Americans. Cummins bemoaned, "I am afraid that the likeness between the English border and mine begins and ends with a slight similarity in length and cross path."20
Louise Beebe Wilder was the most popular American writer to chronicle the trials and tribulations of following Gertrude Jekyll's advice. Her many books-especially Colour in My Garden (1918)- are now gardening classics. In eloquent prose Wilder wrestled with the reality that American bloom-times lasted for days rather than weeks and that there was nothing appropriate to fill the inevitable gaps that developed in the border after short-lived flowers had gone by. In addition to differing climates and plant palettes, another factor (which was probably not perceived by most Americans) was how the difference in the quality of light between North American and English skies affected the planting compositions that Jekyll described. But more important than coaxing specific plants to work the way Jekyll recommended, Wilder observed that Jekyll "made us believe ourselves artists in embryo with a color box to our hands and a canvas ready stretched before us … she opened up to us a new delight in gardening and new possibilities in ourselves and set us a most radiant and enticing example."21
Few dispute that Gertrude Jekyll's books and ideas made a profound impact on attitudes about gardening in the early years of this century. The gardening style promoted by Gertrude Jekyll had developed during an era when trained gardeners were available to maintain copious flower borders, but by the early 1930S modernism had rendered such ideas outdated. Even Jekyll's house in its woodland setting harked back to another era. To the end of her life no motor car ever graced the entrance of Munstead Wood-it was approached on foot through "a woodsey lane.'' After Jekyll's death in 1932, her heirs were forced to clear the overgrown shrubberies enveloping the house and put in a drive to help bring the house into the modern age. Francis Jekyll lived at Munstead Wood surrounded by his aunt's lifetime's worth of possessions until 1948, when they were auctioned and the house was sold. At that time Gertrude Jekyll's personal effects, including priceless notebooks, sketch-books, books, and photograph albums - deemed of sentimental value only - were dispersed.
It is fortunate that Beatrix Farrand was able to recognize the enormity of Jekyll's contribution to garden design and had an opportunity to act on it. In 1948, the same year that the house and its contents were sold, Farrand purchased "the entire output of Gertrude Jekyll's long and distinguished career, together with her own manuscript plans, many letters from and to her clients," for an undisclosed, but modest sum. In a letter to Mildred Bliss (Farrand's longtime client at Dumbarton Oaks), Farrand wrote that the story of the purchase is a "rather long one" but that the material was included in "a list of duplicate books of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society."22
Unfortunately, the long story is no longer known, and the paper trail on both sides of the
Atlantic fails to elucidate how or why the collection turned up in Boston. Francis Jekyll originally offered the plans to the Royal Horticultural Society's Red Cross Sale in September 1940, but under circumstances that are still unclear today, the collection was withdrawn from sale. 23 In 1955, sixty years after her initial visit to Munstead Wood, Farrand donated her prized Jekyll papers to the University of California at Berkeléy but since few people knew of her gift, the details of Gertrude Jekyll's garden design career would languish for years.24
The 1960s saw a renewal of interest in the principles promoted by Gertrude Jekyll. In 1964, by which time most of her books were long out of print, the firm of Charles Scribner's Sons issued an excellent anthology of her writings, with an introduction by the Southern garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence, a gardener whose knowledge of horticulture rivaled Jekyll's. When Lawrence visited Munstead Wood several years later,she was chagrined to find "wide lawns and grown-up shrubs?' As she wrote to a friend, "Miss Jekyll would die at the turn-about at the entrance, and the garages built at the side, so you look right into the service area."25 Betty Massingham's 1966 biography of Gertrude Jekyll, the first since Francis Jekyll's in 1934, was aimed at a popular audience, and although the book offered few new insights, its kindly tone ensured Jekyll a place in the pantheon of great British gardeners.26
An era of scholarly interest in Gertrude Jekyll dawned in 1978 when Mrs. Massingham was invited to catalogue the Jekyll collection, which had lain dormant at the University of California since 1955, known only to a few academics associated with the university. As word of the Jekyll archive became more widespread, Jekyll's role as a garden designer began to be seriously evaluated for the first time by a new generation of students of landscape architecture who were intrigued by Jekyll's design collaboration with architect Edwin Lutyens (whose own reputation had suffered a similar eclipse in the 1960s). In the late 19705, for instance, Phyllis Andersen, a Radcliffe Seminars student, found plans for American commissions among the Jekyll papers. These subsequently became the subject of a graduate student's master's thesis, thereby opening up a new chapter in Jekyll studies by American scholars.27
Contemporary landscape architects Susan Child and Michael Van Valkenburgh were drawn to Jekyll's photograph albums, which were part of Farrand's gift to the University of California, although their acquisition was separate from the donation of the plans. These albums, filled with several thousand prints, attested to the many hours Jekyll spent in the darkroom. And offered firsthand information about the development of Munstead Wood. The present author, who learned about the albums from a student at Berkeley, subsequently catalogued them with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.28
Despite the existence of Jekyll's archives, recognition of her achievements as a garden designer has been slow in coming-for many years she was often dismissed as merely a gardener. The tide began to turn when new editions of Jekyll's books were issued in 1982 by both British and American publishers (Antique Collectors' Club and Ngaere Macray for the
Ayer Company), serving to introduce Jekyll to new readers. Books by garden writers Penelope Hobhouse and Jane :Brown, as well as scholarly studies by Michael Too1ey addressed Jekyll's contribution to garden design, but not until the early 1990s, nearly sixty years after Jekyll's death, did popular books appear that took full advantage of the material in the Jekyll archives.29 Richard Bisgrove's The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (1992) and Fenja Gunn's Lost Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (1991) carefully analyzed Jekyll's design capabilities and provided attractive visual presentations, resulting in the restoration of several private gardens.
Visitors (including the present author) who flocked once again to Munstead Wood found slumbering gardens, but the storybook setting familiar from Jekyll's books, with Lutyens's magnificent house as the centerpiece, was still inspiring. After Munstead Wood lost a number of historic trees and plants during a storm in 1987, a group of scholars and preservationists banded together under the auspices of the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies Centre for the Conservation of Historic Parks and Gardens at the University of York.30 Their goal was to initiate a field survey of Munstead Wood, including some of the adjoining properties that had been split off after Jekyll's death. 31 The Royal Commission for the Historic Monuments of England's survey and report-their first of a twentieth-century garden in England-inventoried the surviving original plants and also yielded a wealth of information about Jekyll's design intent. The advisory committee, working with Jekyll's extensive photographic documentation, found outlines of long-vanished borders, remains of trees that had once served as focal points, and other critical evidence on the grounds.32 The present owners took advantage of the survey findings in their subsequent restoration of the gardens surrounding the house.33
As the result of recent articles, books, and exhibitions devoted to Gertrude Jekyll, albums of watercolors, sketchbooks, notebooks, garden plans, and correspondence (but no diaries) are beginning to resurface and to be treated with scholarly discipline.34 A long-awaited new biography that appeared in 1991 was flawed by an unsympathetic viewpoint and dubious scholarship. The author's failure to address Jekyll's overwhelming contribution to garden history and her relentless probing for Jekyll's hidden personal agenda caused one reviewer to write that the biographer's pen was dipped "in a bottle of poison."35
Like most idols, Gertrude Jekyll has not escaped the perversity of writers who are shortsighted and equipped with little solid information. One journalist searching for a new angle to an old story began a recent piece, "The frumpy bespectacled figure of Gertrude Jekyll has been the presiding genius of twentieth century gardening," and another declared that gardens have labored under the yoke of the "old bag" for far too long. 36 Even Michael Pollan in a recent book review lauds "a rising star of English horticultural circles" for being "willing to declare in public that Gertrude Jekyll is not God."37
Is the goddess still relevant today? Judging by the number of students, gardeners, design professionals, historians and writers who continue to discover her books and draw upon her ideas, the answer seems to be yes, although not everyone likes her literary style.
It is fortunate that Gertrude Jekyll's archives have been preserved, her writings are available for all to read, and a handful of her gardens (including her own) have been restored. In the words of the late Henry Mitchell, who, like Gertrude Jekyll, had a gift for making a point prosaically: "millions… . . can talk a fine garden, but few can create one.. . If it were not for her books, and the unanswerable proof of photographs of her work, I would be the first to doubt such a gardener ever lived."38
I would like to thank all the archivists, librarians, and colleagues who, over the years, have shared information and helped me on my numerous fact-finding missions for various articles, books, and lectures about Gertrude Jekyll . In particular I would like to acknowledge Virginia Lopez Begg who has generously shared with me her vast knowledge of American garden writers. Part of this article appeared in Hortus 38 (Summer 1996).
1.George Robert White Medal Award in 1919. 1930 Yearbook of the Massachusettss Horticultural Society, 59.
2. Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener (New York: Random House, 1983), 93-94.
3. Jekyll, of course, did not invent the herbaceous border nor use it exclusivelyas a design device. In the long border at Munstead Wood, for instance, she used a mixture of perenni als, biennials, and annuals to produce the precise color scheme she sought. As for the number of gardeners she employed, she-had a head gardener and two under-gardeners (all that she could afford), whose wages were paid by nursery sales.
4. Nigel Colborn, "Time To Debunk the Goddess," The Times (London), 8 June 1996, 4; letter to editor, 15 June 1996.
5. Other gardens with limited access or less integrity are Folly Farm (Berkshire), Goddards (Surrey), and Lindisfarne Castle (Northumberland).
6. College of Environmental Design Documents Collection, University of California, Berkeley offers limited access to outside researchers due to lack of funding. A microfilm of the Jekyll archives is held at the Frances Loeb Library. Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Mass.
7. Jekyll's books were available in German and French translation, which was not generally the case with books by her colleagues. Robinson's English publisher, John Murray, for - instance, expressed doubt that there was much of a market in America for The English Flower Garden, now considered one of the top gardening dassics of all time. See Judith B. Tankard, "A Perennial Favourite: 'The English Flower Garden:" Hortus 17 (Spring 1991): 78.
8. S. Reynolds Hole, Our Gardens (London: J. M. Dent,1899), 233-34.
9. "A charming book by an English woman, Gertrude Jekyll, called Home and Garden, shows very well this attitude toward our sub~ject, and it should be in every library." Cited in Concerning Landscape Architecture:Frank Lloyd Wright Collected. Writings 1, 1874-1930
10. Martha Houghton, "Impressions of English Gardens in 1928," Bulletin of the Garden Club of America, November 1928, 35
11. Henry Francis du Pont notebook, 1910, Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur Archives.
12. Graham Stuart Thomas, foreword to Judith B. Tankard and Martin A. Wood, Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood (New York: Sagapress, 1996), xii.
13. Beatrix Jones, "Book of Gardening," 1895, Reef Point Collection, College of Environmental Design Documents Collection, University of California, Berkeley.
14. In 1895, Jekyll had just laid out her famous perennial borders, but her house would not be built until the following year. Although Jekyll's first book was not published until 1899, Beatrix Jones would have been familiar with her gardening articles which appeared in The Garden.
15. Letter, Guildford Museum Archives, Guildford, Surrey. In 1956 Allen donated the boots to the Guildford Museum after the Garden Club of America and the Tate Gallery, London, had rejected her gift.
16. Jekyll's correspondence with Americans included authors Alice Morse Earle, Mrs. Francis King, and other writers or gardeners.
17. Letter, Jekyll to Mrs. King, 21 April 1919, cited in Francis Jekyll, Gertrude Jekyll (London: Jonathan Cape, 1934), 179-80.
18. The Garden Club of America History 1913-1938 (New York,1935 161. $10,000 was a staggering amount of money.worth approximately $125,000 today. Minutes, North Shore Garden Club, Beverly, Mass., 27 August - 10 September 1919, courtesy of Hilary Creighton.
19. "Some Aims of Gardening" (November 1919), "A Garden of Spring Flowers" (January 1920), "The Flower Border" (March 1920), "Wild Gardening" (May 1920), "Ways and Means in the Garden" (September 1920), "The Conservatory or Winter Garden" (January 1921), "Grey Foliage in the Flower Garden" (November 1926 ). The manuscripts for these articles are preserved in the Garden Club of America Archives in New York.
20. Julia H. Cummins, My Garden Comes of Age (New York: Macmillan, 1926), 39.
21. Louise Beebe Wilder, Adventures in a Suburban Garden (New York: Doubleday, 1931), 53.
22. Letter, Beatrix Farrand to Mildred Bliss, 21 May 1948, Dunlbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Thanks to Diane Kostial McGuire for bringing this letter to my attention many years ago.
23. Letter, Dr. 'WIlliam T. Steam (librarian at the Lindley Library at the time of the sale) to author, 19 September 1991. See Tankard and Wood, Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood, 161-63.
24. Farrand offered the Jekyll collection to Mildred Bliss for her Dumbarton Oaks Library. Mrs. Bliss gladly accepted the offer, but for some unknown reason nothing came of it, so the collection was subsequently donated to the University of California, Berkeley (telegram, Farrand to Mildred Bliss, September 1955, Dumbarton Oaks Library, Washington, D.C.).
25. Letter, Elizabeth Lawrence to Linda Lamm, 1968, cited in A Garden of One's Own: Writings of Elizabeth Lawrence (Chapel Mill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 238.
26. Betty Massingham, Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener (London: Country Life, 1966).
27. Interview with Phyllis Andersen, 30 July 1997; Susan E. Schnare and Rudy J. Favretti, "Gertrude Jekyll's American Gardens' Garden History to (Autumn 1982):149-67. The three commissions are Old Glebe House, Woodbury, Conn. (recently planted and open to the public); the Stanley Resor garden, Greenwich, Conn. (privately owned); and the Glendinning Groesbeck garden, Perintown, Ohio (never built).
28. Judith Tankard and Michael R. Van Valkcnburgh, Gertrude Jekyll: A Vision of Garden and Wood (New York: Abrams/Sagapress, 1989).
29. In an unfortunate irony, the authors, both of whom are British, had to resort to using the cumbersome microfilm of the plans, the originals for which were not available in their country.
30. The Munstead Wood Working Group consisted of representatives of English Heritage, bASS, RCHME, and the Surrey County Council as well as Stephen King (thengardener at Munstead Wood), and independent scholars Susan Schnare, Judith Tankard, Michael Tooley and Martin Wood.
31. In the years after Jekyll's death, the original 15-acre property was subdivided. The principal segu~ent contains the house~ formal gardens 1 and surrounding woodland the ~othér'divithons are the Hut, the Quadrangle (including some of the kitchen gardens) the kitchen garden and nurs ery (now the site of new house) and the gardeners cottage and orchard. Not all these parcels could be surveyed.
32 Munstead Wood Survey SU 94 SE 24, NationalMonuments Record, Kesnble Drive, Swindon. For a synopsisof findings1 see Paul Everson, "The MunsteadWood Survey," in Gertrude Jekyll: Essays on the Life of aWorking Amateur edited by Michael Tooley andPrimrose Arnander (Witton Le Wear Michaelmas Books, 1995), 71-82.
33. Stephen King, "Restoring Miss Jekyll," Garden Design, June-July 1997,54-63.
34. See Fenja Gunn, "Gertrude Jekyll's Workbook:' The Garden, June 1994, 250-51, for a discussion of Jekyll's "Furnishings and Carvings" album at the Lindley Library; Judith B. Tankard, "Where Flowers Bloom in the Sands," Country Life, 12 March 1998, 82-85, for a discussion of Jekyll's long-lost watercolors of her youthful Mediterranean travels.
35. Dawn Macleod, review of Gertrude Jekyll by Sally Festing, Hortus 21 (Spring 1992), 109-12.
36. Ann Evans, "In Giant Footsteps," The English Garden, August-September 1997, 68; Colborn, "Time To Debunk the Goddess," 4.
37. Michael Pollan, review of The Sensuous Garden by Montagu Don, The New York Times Book Review, 7 December 1997, 20
38. Henry Mitchell, "Beyond Beds and Borders: The Perfect Partnership, Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens' House and Garden, undated clipping in file.