“And a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.” Gertrude Jekyll, 1899 (Wood and Garden)
In the Fota Frameyard, among the many women volunteers, there are some excellent gardeners. These women gardeners can relate easily to one Victorian woman whose vision, creativity and experience shaped much of how we garden today. Gertrude Jekyll was an extraordinary woman. (And if you’re wondering about the name, yes, there might be a connection with the famous book by Robert Louis Stephenson.)* Born in 1843, in the 6th year of Queen Victoria’s reign, she defied convention and achieved things most of the women of her generation could only dream of. She was an artist, horticulturist, garden designer and a wonderful writer.
At the age of 5, she moved with her family to Bramley House in Surrey, enjoying the large gardens there. Her father, Captain Edward Jekyll, retired young from the Grenadier Guards and Gertrude spent much time with him at home, influenced by his interest in science and art. ‘I think a shred of my father’s mantle must have fallen on his daughter, for I have always taken pleasure in working and seeing things grow under my hand’.
When she was 18, Gertrude enrolled in the South Kensington School of Art in London, where she was a disciple of John Ruskin and William Morris. Although she didn’t pursue a life as an artist, her artistic training informed her future work as a garden designer, in particular her study of colour. She continued throughout her life painting her own and other gardens and even designed objects for the house, including vases for flower arranging. (www.gertrudejekylldesigns.com)
Around 1875,she came to the attention of an up and coming Irish gardener, William Robinson. Robinson advocated a change in standard Victorian garden designs, moving towards more informal planting and the use of hardy plants, rather than seasonal bedding. Gertrude agreed with this and collaborated with him on The English Flower Garden (1883). An article in Country Life states that “She observed the way Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s mid-19th-century theories of colour combination had been applied to annual bedding schemes and applied them to the use of hardy plants, establishing an approach to garden design that remains the basis of much modern work”.
It’s possible that Gertrude knew of Fota Estate as William Robinson visited here in 1870, where he admired “the bold, jungle-type planting there” and an image from Fota Island appeared in The English Flower Garden.
In the book “Aspects of Fota. Stories from the Garden” published by the Irish Heritage Trust, it states that a 1903 reprint of this book was found at Fota.
In 1889 Gertrude jekyll began working with the young architect Edward Lutyens. He was twenty and she was in her forties but they formed a strong and lasting alliance. She introduced him to her social circle of prospective clients. One of his earliest works was Munstead Wood in Surrey, Gertrude’s own house. Gertrude had been living in Munstead House with her mother and purchased 15 acres of heath-land nearby.
She transformed the space gradually, creating a woodland garden, lawns, herbaceous beds, a plant nursery and a kitchen garden. Lutyens first designed a small house for her on the grounds in 1895, called the Hut. He completed the bigger, main house in 1897. Gertrude lived here until her death in 1932. A good description of her garden there can be found in Country Life. “The garden consisted of seasonal and colour-themed borders of hardy plants, including herbaceous perennials, shrubs, climbers and hedges, breaking out into Robinsonian informality at the woodland edge. Here, Miss Jekyll developed her ideas on colour-graded planting rooted in Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s chromatic theories of her youth, so that the long border was laid out rather like a colour wheel stretched out flat, with each colour group balanced by dots of the relevant complementary colour and steadied by groups of grey and white”
Gertrude Jekyll wrote fifteen books in all, ten of them over nine years. She wrote as many as two thousand articles for magazines. She took her own photographs to illustrate her books and processed the photographs herself. Deboraway Kellaway tells us that Gertrude was not an armchair gardener and loved using her tools in the garden, some of which she made herself as she was a “skilled metal worker and silversmith”.
Of Irish interest is Heywood Garden in Co. Laois, designed by herself and Lutyens and completed in 1912.
This consisted of 50 acres of garden, woodland, lakes and architectural features. The sunken Italian garden has charming turtle fountains and an inscription stone embedded in the wall with a quotation from Alexander Pope. The house no longer stands but the gardens can be visited on the grounds of Heywood Community School.
Gertrude’s skill as a writer shows in her books and the best way to do justice to this is to quote directly from her writings.
“Often, when I have had to do with other people’s gardens they have said: ‘I have bought a quantity of shrubs and plants, show me where to place them’; to which I can only answer ‘That is not the way in which I can help you; show me your spaces and I will tell you what plants to get for them’.” 1990
“The whole garden is singing this hymn of praise and thankfulness. It is the middle of June; no rain had fallen for nearly a month and our dry soil had become a hot dust above, a hard cake below.” 1990
“But last evening there was a gathering of grey cloud…By bedtiime rain was falling steadily…It was pleasant to wake from time to time and hear the welcome sound and to know that the clogged leaves were being washed clean, and that their pores were once more drawing in the breath of life, ad that the thirsty roots were drinking their fill.” 1990
“It is a curious thing that people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word. For instance, a blue garden, for beauty’s sake, may be hungering for a group of White Lillies, or for something of the palest lemon-yellow, but it is not allowed to have it because it is called the blue garden…Surely the business of the blue garden is to be beautiful as well as blue” 1911
Gertrude Jekyll created around 400 gardens in the U.K, Europe and America. In later life she had a garden nursery and bred new plants late into her eighties. She died in December, 1932 and her grave stone, designed by Lutyens, describes her as Artist, Gardener, Craftswoman.
She was depicted in two wonderful paintings by Sir William Nicholson. One of these is a portrait of her in her old age.
The other is a beautifully evocative but telling image of her well-worn gardening boots.
*The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson 1886. Gertrude Jekyll’s brother Walter was a good friend of the author and it is thought he “borrowed” their family name for his book.
Read more at
Aspects of Fota. Irish Heritage Trust (on sale at Fota House)
The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway. Virago Press 1995.