Colour Schemes for the Garden

A classic English spinster, severe in appearance, beyond frumpy, and fiercely dedicated to art and beauty, Gertrude Jekyll was born in 1843 and died in 1932. She left us an undying legacy of gardening. She taught us how to look and how to see.

Miss Jekyll could be a very intimidating presence for the careless or slovenly gardener. The great Graham Stuart Thomas recalled going to tea with her when he was about 17 and just starting his gardening career. Class was still very important in England at the time. Miss Jekyll was definitely upper class and young Thomas was only lower middle or upper working class. His employer recommended him to Miss Jekyll as a very likely lad.

It was still winter and she sent him out into the garden to bring in some twigs and branches. At first he felt constrained and tongue tied but gradually lost his nervousness as they pored over the specimens together in the big drawing room in front of the wood fire like two old comrades.

jekyll-frontispiece.thumbnailIn Colour Schemes Gertrude Jekyll laid out her philosophy of gardening. Color was the focus but as she described the arrangement of plants in various borders their habit and other important characteristics were of necessity invoked. The irony is that she took up gardening after a long career in fine arts and needlework because her eyes gave her a lot of trouble. Miss Jekyll translated the fundamental concepts of painting to her garden. We really owe the concept of the long border to her. She did not like untidy clumps of plants with no rhyme or reason yet everything had to be a harmonious whole in tune with nature.

After fifty years of carpet bedding and unnatural designs Miss Jekyll and William Robinson led the revolt against the artificial style of gardening so prevalent at the time. Robinson knew what he liked when he saw it. Gertrude Jekyll gave this attitude a theoretical framework. The other person with whom she worked for many years was Sir Edwin Lutyens, an up and coming architect when they started out and an English GOM (Grand Old Man) at the end.

As you read her book she tells you how placing certain colors in a particular order give the eye an impression of distance. The MHS Library has the 1983 edition, which was revised with many color photographs. She structures her narrative around the seasons, like so many other garden books.

I have not seen it said anywhere else but I feel very sure that Vita Sackville West, the creator of Sissinghurst in Sussex, owed a great deal to Miss Jekyll’s insights. The coherent color schemes at Sissinghurst are lineal descendants of the Jekyll theories taken to a logical conclusion.

The Royal Horticultural Society in London has grappled very successfully with the problem of color appearing so different to different people’s eyes. What you call puce I call cerise. A series of high level committees came up with a definitive color wheel. This is extremely important when prizes and awards for new flowers depend on subtle differentiation of color in their development. The candidate can now describe the flower’s color very precisely by number and everyone can agree that this is the correct color. It no longer matters what any one individual calls it.

Miss Jekyll’s contributions will always be relevant as long as there are gardeners. There are not many people about whom this can be said.

Copyright © Judith M. Taylor MD 2010

Colour Schemes for the Garden
Jekyll, Gertrude
Introduced and Revised by Graham Stuart Thomas
Salem, NH
Ayer Company 1983

Review by Judith M. Taylor, M. D.
The San Francisco Garden Club
Member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society