Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden (Book Review)
Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden

Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden: from the archives of Country Life (Rizzoli, 2011), by Judith B. Tankard

Review by Maureen Horn, Mass Hort Librarian

Conventional wisdom says that when it comes to conveying the essence of a garden, pictures ought to trump words every time. And, a quick look at most 'lifestyle' magazines today show pages of glorious gardens interrupted by a few desultory paragraphs of explanatory text.

But once upon a time there was a garden writer and designer named Gertrude Jekyll (1848-1932), who shone as an English garden planter at the turn of the 20th century. What set Jekyll above her contemporaries, who, like her, created beautiful gardens and photographed them before they disappeared, is that she wrote with literary style to describe her favorite gardens and to illuminate her thoughts about them. Her descriptions of those gardens graced the pages of Country Life.

Now, landscape historian, Judith Tankard has brought those words back to life and, with them, the gardens that Jekyll both wrote about and designed. In Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House, Tankard documents the one hundred articles Jekyll wrote, showing her embrace of the relatively new technology of photography and quotes her insightful comments about the best-designed gardens she observed.

Jekyll was a lifelong artist and idealist who promoted an unbreakable connection between buildings and their planted surroundings. Tankard divides her book according to Jekyll's interests - "Colour in the Flower Garden" (a montage of lusciously colored landscapes), "Home and Garden", Gardens Old and New", "Gardens for Small Country Houses", and "Garden Ornament". An introduction constitutes a valuable seminar on Tankard's subject and Jekyll's place in gardening history. In the process, we come to understand why Jekyll's influence persists nearly 80 years after her death, and why it has outlasted transitory gardening fads.

In middle age, Jekyll settled in Munstead Wood and lived a successful life perfecting her surroundings. That would have been enough for many people, but working from her home and with plants from her home garden, Jekyll created landscapes in many corners of England. She did it by collaborating with architects, especially Sir Edwin Lutyens, as they constructed estates for influential members of society. She was able to avoid visiting the locations by asking for site plans and using her vivid imagination to make plant lists.

It is a beautiful book, both for its words and its pictures. Gertrude Jekyll and the Country Home belongs in every public library and private place where people go to seek beauty.

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