Following are the two prefaces from two of Gertrude Jekyll’s books, Wood & Garden and Wall & Water Gardens, from the Ayer Co. publications of 1983, written by Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003). Thomas is perhaps the most famous of Britain’s twentieth century gardeners that follow from the era of Miss Jekyll and William Robinson. He was Gardens Adviser and Consultant with the National Trust, the custodians of Britain’s heritage buildings and gardens, since early in its acquisition phase, and is one of the world’s most respected authorities on plants and culture. His book Perennial Garden Plants, or The Modern Florilegium is my own personal ‘bible’ for researching perennial plants; it covers only perennial plants above 24 or 36 inches or so – see his Plants for Ground Cover for information on lower growing plants.
His depth of knowledge was perhaps most impressive regarding roses, particularly the antique and old garden roses that are such a feature of the gardens of Jekyll’s and Robinson’s day. He has also received many honours and awards for his paintings and drawings and is responsible for rescuing The Genus Rosa, a book of watercolours by Alfred Parsons that were commissioned by Miss Ellen Willmott at the turn of the twentieth century. Through circumstances, the reproduction of the paintings in the original book was sub-standard and Thomas, on seeing the original watercolours in the The Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley library, orchestrated their accurate reproduction in his 1983 publication of A Garden of Roses.
Here, Graham Thomas discusses the influence and character of Gertrude Jekyll in these introductions; his admiration for her is apparent.
photo – fkikr user RasMarley
Wood and garden
Jekyll, Gertrude, 1843-1932
Foreword to the 1983 edition by Graham Stuart Thomas
It was at the age of four and a half years that Gertrude Jekyll, who was born in 1843, went with her parents to live at Bramley in Surrey. The family lived there for some fourteen years, leaving for an inherited property at Wargrave, near Henley-on-Thames, in 1868. Meanwhile Miss Jekyll had absorbed much of Surrey’s beauty, which influenced her whole life. She had already shown a great liking for the arts, and a love of country things and ways, which were interrupted by the move to chalky land at Wargrave. However, here she started some of her gardening but concentrated more on her earlier chosen indoor arts: drawing, painting, embroidery, carving, and gilding, coupled with a love of music. Her advice on interior decoration was sought in several famous houses while she was living at Wargrave.
In 1 876 her father died and she, her mother, her sister, and her four brothers returned to Surrey, building a house at Munstead, near Godalming. They pronounced their name to rhyme with “treacle.”
There is no doubt that this part of Surrey, south of Guildford, contains a rich and varied scenery and it was with great relief that Miss Jekyll returned to its delights, to remain there for the rest of her fifty-four years of life.
From small beginnings her aptitude for study and eager mastery of a most varied assembly of arts and crafts brought her into contact with many leading figures of the day. She traveled abroad drawing, painting, and exploring countries of the eastern Mediterranean. Her mother’s home, Munstead House, bears much evidence of her interests and energy, which between them resulted in her purchasing some fifteen acres across the road, where she built “The Hut” to contain her workrooms.
Both properties are thinly wooded, with a predominance of oak and pine, birch, and sweet chestnut, with a sprinkling of rowan, juniper, beech, and thorn. The whole district in those days was noted for several firms that specialised in coppicing: periodically cutting down the undergrowth of woodlands to produce poles, walking sticks, fencing, cooperage, and allied commodities. It was her delight to watch much of this being done and to acquire some of the skills, or at least an understanding of the techniques.
Her essays in garden design may be said to have started at Munstead House, where she designed a fair-sized terrace, formal walks, and borders, and also planted the fringes of woodland glades with azaleas, carefully assorted to colour, with the opposing colours of rhododendrons elsewhere. William Robinson came to see her, and she met many famous gardeners, including G. F. Wilson, who started the garden at Wisley. In 1885, as if her other abilities did not satisfy her, she took up photography and it is to her prowess at this that we owe almost all the records of her plantings and the beauty of plants and flowers in her books. But at the same time she was suffering from increasing myopia. For this reason she no longer concentrated on art that would strain her eyes, and gradually pursued the art of gardening, bringing to it all her experience and ability. Few people at the age of about forty can be said to have brought so many skills to bear on gardening. The success she achieved can be judged by the great quantity of gardens she designed or planted all over the country and abroad and her profuse writings on all aspects of ornamental gardening.
In 1897 she moved into a new house at Munstead Wood built for her by Edwin Lutyens; she devoted the rest of her life to the design and embellishment of its garden. Here were developed several flowers that she made famous, such as the dark purple Munstead strain of Honesty (Lunaria annua), ‘Miss Jekyll’ Love-in-a-mist (Nigella), white columbines, and foxgloves; we may add to these the Lenten Hellebores she selected and from which many modern strains are descended. Then there were the famous Munstead ‘Bunch Primroses’ (Polyanthus) whose cool yellows and whites originated from a seedling picked up in a cottage garden.
Her first book Wood and Garden appeared in 1899 and no fewer than ten more titles appeared within as many years, a remarkable achievement, especially in view of all her other activities and her failing sight. Her advice was sought by the National Trust in making serviceable tracks and arranging planting at Hydon Heath, a plot of land purchased in memory of Octavia Hill, one of the Trust’s founders.
There is no doubt that by her examples and writing she opened peoples’ eyes to the beauty that lay in the countryside or could be conjured out of the garden. William Robinson had already sounded the trumpet against the then prevalent fashion for “bedding out” upon the lawn, and between them and their advocacy for looking anew at plants much of today’s gardening has developed. Miss Jekyll’s writings were directed at owner-gardeners, not their head gardeners, and I think she set an example at just the right time, for the Great War was soon upon us with its strictures and shortage of labour. A new era began after it was over, with owners not only designing their gardens but also doing some of the work. To her, the garden had to be designed well, with firm lines especially around the house, but then to develop however the terrain dictated, formally or informally. In Wood and Garden we are treated to her thoughts on all aspects of the craft of gardening, with much of its art as well.
To wander through her borders of designed colour effects, to see the courts and their attendant plantings and groupings of plants set around in pots and tubs, was a great experience. So I thought when on September 6th, 1931 I paid my first and only visit. I was shown into the big room, and remember so well the seemingly small, plump figure in the chair, whose character Sir William Nicholson had so aptly portrayed ten years earlier; was bidden to go round the garden and pick a piece of anything I wished to talk about and to come back and have some tea. So off Iwandered through the borders and doorways, up into the wooded area with glimpses back, here and there, of the already mellow gabled house and its tall chimney, dreaming away in its wooded glen. I have ever been thankful for having been so privileged for the introduction given by the Superintendent at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. I had but recently left there after two and a half years as a student and, having arrived in Surrey to work in June, had lost little time in making my visit; Miss Jekyll died on December 8th, 1932, full of experience and love for her chosen way of life, and honoured by all.
Wood and Garden, her first essay, will always remain a classic, combining as it does her appreciation of the skills of gardening and allied pursuits and her delight at giving us of her experiences. For fuller details of her life and work we are fortunate to have Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir, by her nephew Francis Jekyll (Jonathan Cape, 1934) and Betty Massingham’s absorbing Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener (Country Life, 1966). The story of her partnership with Edwin Lutyens, Gardens of a Golden Afternoon by Jane Brown, has been published recently by Allen Lane.
Published in 1983 by The Ayer Company 99 Main Street
Salem, New Hampshire 03079
Originally published in 1899 by Longmans, Green, and Co., London.
Sections first appeared in 1896 and 1897 in the Guardian as “Notes from Garden and Woodland.”
Jekyll, Gertrude, 1843-1932.
Wood and garden.
“A Ngaere Macray book.”
Originally published: London: Longmans, Green, 1899.
Wall & Water Gardens
Jekyll, Gertrude, 1843-1932
Foreword to the 1983 edition by Graham Stuart Thomas
My only criticism of this book is in its title, which does not indicate that it is concerned with rock gardens as well as wall and water gardens. It is the outcome of much study, the product of a mature mind, and is as apposite in its precepts today as when it was first written. It seems to me that in 1901 this book had few if any rivals and must have burst upon the gardening public with a salutary effect. There is little in it that deals with just the flat, dug plot; but it seeks to explain and direct how to make use of every possible variant of terrain, the pond, the slope and mound, and also the vertical wall. And it uses all these variants as a means to employ plants to decorate every possible corner. Nobody with a virgin plot to tackle could read it without gaining a profound respect for the author; and the precepts and ideas Miss Jekyll puts forth would be equally valuable in assessing any established garden. I think the main message of the book is just this, to make us all aware of the fact that we have in this country enough different plants to make beautiful every portion of a garden, however daunting the conditions. Miss Jekyll was well qualified to instruct us.
Gertrude Jekyll was born in London in 1843. About four years later her parents moved to Bramley, not far from Godalming, Surrey. I am sure that this part of Surrey, so rich in its wooded, hilly terrain, took a hold on her that never palled. In the grounds of the house at Bramley was one of the string of stream-fed ponds that spill down the valley from Hascombe to where the stream eventually joins the River Wey. Here she lived her impressionable years, until 1868, savouring the delights of rural life, interspersed with holidays on the south coast and travels to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. She sketched and painted and studied classical architecture with some of the leading figures of the day. At the age of eighteen she studied at the School of Art at Kensington.
It was at this moment that her family moved to Wargrave, near Henley-on- Thames, a move that did not appeal to her. The house was on a chalky eminence, far removed in every way from the lush, lime-free valley in Surrey. She became absorbed in her artistic pursuits, to which she added music, embroidery, and house decoration, while also devoting some time to the growing of flowers. After eight years, on the death of her father, the family moved back to Surrey, building a house at Munstead, also near Godalming.
It was now that Gertrude ]ekyll – which, she would say, should be pronounced to rhyme with “treacle”- came fully alive, and for the rest of her life devoted herself more and more to gardening and garden design. This was partly because her sight began to fail, making the close pursuit of other arts a strain. How lucky for us all that, first designing her mother’s garden and then her own, she brought all her apprenticeship to art in general to bear upon garden design and the embellishment of the garden with plants! Moreover, she had the ability to communicate her experiences through her direct, lucid prose, and so influence a very large public. Just at the time when crafts were seen to be on the wane she sought to master them, or at least to understand them. And the same may be said of Edwin Lutyens, the young architect to whom she entrusted the task of building a house for herself just across the road from her mother’s. She moved into the new house, Munstead Wood, in 1897 and lived there for thirty-five years. Few people at the age of about forty – when she gradually gave up so many of her other occupations – can be said to have brought so many skills to bear upon gardening.
It was at Munstead Wood in 1931 that I visited her, fresh from two and a half years as a student at the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge. I arrived in Surrey in June and by early September had managed to engineer a visit to her garden. I had been inspired to do so by having read her Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden. I have never ceased to be thankful for this visit, when she was not really receiving fresh visitors. I was shown into the big room, and remember so well the seemingly small, plump figure in the chair, whose character Sir William Nicholson had so aptly portrayed ten years earlier; was bidden to go round the garden and pick a piece of anything I wished to talk about and to come back and have a cup of tea with her. My desire led me straight to the glorious colour borders, but after all these years I remember not only their perfection but the fact that, though the garden was fifteen acres in extent, the house never seemed far distant. I was already mellowing and appeared to be dreaming away in its wooded glen, its tall chimney and gable dominating so many views. The ground was sloping, and full use had been made of its different levels, from the neat terrace walls and tank by the house, to the wooded areas reached by straight or curved paths, as dictated by the terrain and design, with retaining walls and steps here and there. And everywhere good plants were growing in contentment. This is another of her messages: that plants must be suitable for the conditions available so that they grow well and look “at home.”
Miss Jekyll played a considerable part in contemporary art and also in gardening. Among her friends she numbered William Robinson whose remarkable book The English Flower Garden had appeared in 1883, and G. F. Wilson whose gardens at Weybridge and Wisley impressed her. In 1903 the Wisley garden became the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden, which has of course had so enormous an influence on horticulture. It is pleasant to see some early photographs of it in this book.
In the Godalming district are outcrops and quarries of Bargate stone, a hard, rough sandstone that is much used for building throughout the area and beyond. Lutyens used it for several of his houses, including Miss Jekyll’s. It was there, easily to hand, for use in her sloping garden and I often think this must have influenced her in her delight of dry-walling, so useful for providing homes for plants. She worked a lot with Sir Edwin Lutyens and other architects, collaborating with them in designing gardens around the houses they were to build. In spite of her failing eyesight she continued to serve us all through drawing plans and indicating planting. This book shows how wide her range of plants was. Her long life was devoted to the promotion of beauty and is revealed in Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir by her nephew, Francis Jekyll (Jonathan Cape, 1934), which tells much about her, and Betty Massingham’s Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener (Country Life, 1966), which is an absorbing and sympathetic biography. Also, the story of her partnership with Edwin Lutyens, Gardens of a Golden Afternoon by Jane Brown, has been published recently by Allen Lane. Gertrude Jekyll died in 1932, full of experience, love for her chosen way of life, and honoured by all.