English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932) taught the world the art and craft of gardening through her books, photographs, and garden arrangements. One of the most influential horticulturists of the 20th century, Jekyll applied artistic principles to garden design. Her approach to color and form still influenced garden layouts almost a century after her death.
While Gertrude Jekyll trained as an artist, she chose horticulture as her medium. Over the course of her lifetime, Jekyll worked on some 400 gardens, drawing up more than 2,000 plans. She designed natural-looking gardens inspired by the work of Impressionist painters, marking a clear departure from the formal Victorian bedding schemes that were then common. Jekyll's gardens featured billowy flower borders and hardy perennials rather than colorful but short-lived annuals. She considered texture and followed color theory, favoring alternating hot and cool color blocks.
For Jekyll, order and purpose were imperative to garden design. As she wrote in her 1911 classic, Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden, “I am strongly of [the] opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection. Having got the plants, the great thing is to use them with careful selection and definite intention.”
Jekyll was born on November 29, 1843, in London, England, the daughter of Edward Joseph Hill Jekyll and Julia Hammersley Jekyll (pronounced “JEE-kyll”). Edward Jekyll served as a captain with the Grenadier Guards, an infantry regiment of the British Army, and due to poor health, he retired early. Jekyll spent her first years in London, playing with her siblings at Green Park. Located next to Buckingham Palace, Green Park offered her a glimpse at how trees, flowers, and grasslands could blend into a cohesive whole.
When Jekyll was five, the family moved to Bramley House, a countryside home near Guildford, England. Built in the early 1800s, the home was stately with plenty of land to roam. As collected in Gertrude Jekyll: The Making of a Garden, Jekyll wrote about her childhood and the fact that her place in the sibling order was in the midst of four boys. “I had no girl companions, for my only sister was seven years older, so that we were not much together,” she was quoted as noting. “It was therefore natural that I should be more of a boy than a girl in my ideas and activities, delighting to go up trees, and to play cricket, and take wasps' nests after dark, and do dreadful deeds with gunpowder and all the boy sort of things.”
When Jekyll's brothers were away at school, she occupied herself by wandering the woods and garden paths with Toby, the family pony, and a dog named Crim. Bramley House had a garden, shrubbery, two ponds and several streams. Early on, Jekyll recalled being fascinated with the vegetation on the property. The paths led through groves of wildflowers, the pond was ringed with ferns, and the streams were lined with blue-and-white water forget-menots. Jekyll's parents eventually allotted her a small plot of land for her own garden.
In 1861, 18-year-old Jekyll moved to London to take classes at the South Kensington School of Art, studying painters such as J.M.W. Turner and Diego Velázquez. As she learned about the artists' compositional practices—particularly their use of light and color—she became increasingly interested in using gardening as an expressive art form. After attending art school, Jekyll traveled through Europe to study and practice art. She befriended British impressionist artist Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, whose work was also heavily inspired by Turner and Velázquez, and they painted together while visiting Algiers and Switzerland. At this point, Jekyll's main passions included painting, needlework, and fine crafts.
When Jekyll's father died in 1876, she moved back to Surrey and moved with her mother to a newly constructed home at Munstead Heath, near Godalming. This return to country living renewed her interest in horticulture and she began gardening in earnest. Jekyll's gardening career was sparked when she received a copy of Flowers of the Field, an 1853 work by Rev. C.A. Johns that includes detailed illustrations, descriptions, and scientific information about different plant varieties.
Jekyll used Flowers of the Field to educate herself, collecting flowers on her walks and then flipping through the book until she found a match. She also started collecting perennial plants from the cottage gardens in the area. Hardy plants, perennials survive through the winter and return year after year. By building her own collection of plants, Jekyll could compare bloom cycles and note unique characteristics as the plants changed throughout the year.
Jekyll used Munstead Heath as a base for her horticultural experiments, laying out gardens and lawns and experimented with terraces, brick-pillared pergolas, and hardy flower borders. She built a rock garden and planted rhododendrons and azaleas amongst the shade trees to create a woodland garden. Jekyll also began breeding plants, sending samples to the Royal Horticultural Society's monthly London shows. The Gertrude Jekyll shrub rose was still sold at nurseries 85 years after her death.
Around this time, Jekyll met Irish gardener and journalist William Robinson, who shared her interest in natural gardening. Robinson spread his visions by publishing books and periodicals, and she became a regular contributor to his magazines Country Life and Garden. Jekyll's first article, “Some Plants from Algeria,” appeared in Garden in 1881. That year, she would contribute some 20 articles to this magazine, her topics ranging among spring flowers and the frost, an October nosegay, and hints for growing flowers and plants in the house.
In the early 1880s, Jekyll realized that when her mother died, her brother would inherit Munstead Heath and she would lose her gardens. To establish a permanent garden space, she acquired 15 acres nearby and began implementing gardens that were inspired by the natural surroundings. Calling her new property Munstead Wood, Jekyll added birch seedlings and pines to the woodlands. She put in flower borders, a nursery, an orchard, and a vegetable garden.
Jekyll worked on the landscaping for several years before building a home on her property. In 1889, she hired architect Edwin Lutyens, a 20-year-old architect who was starting his career. In the years after being hired by the 46-year-old Jekyll, Lutyens would be known as an English country house architect who incorporated elements of the Arts & Crafts movement promoted by artist/writer/philosopher William Morris. Begun in England during the 1880s and spreading to the United States, this broad social and artistic movement developed in response to the factory-made, massproduced goods that had become popular during the late Victorian era. Arts & Crafts practitioners—whether furniture makers, tapestry designers, or architects—promoted the work of craftsmen in creating beautiful products that pleased both the maker and the user.
For Jekyll, Lutyens designed a modest house to be set within the woods and gardens she had already established at Munstead Wood. It was essential to her that house and garden functioned as a cohesive unit and she was particularly interested in the home's orientation. Jekyll documented the design process of the house and garden in two books: Wood & Garden (1899) and Home & Garden (1900). She also designed gardens for clients.
For the next 20 years, Lutyens and Jekyll collaborated on home-and-garden designs. Lutyens would send her the surveyor's plans, as well as photographs and descriptions of the subject property, and she would create garden designs and chose appropriate plantings based on the client's preferences. In his designs, Lutyens included canals, steps, and terraces, all created using local stone and other materials. Jekyll received soil and stone samples to help with her designs, and she was often able to provide plants, selling them to the customer directly from her Munstead Wood nursery. It soon became fashionable among the English country set to have Lutyens and Jekyll design one's home and garden, and the couple were instrumental in popularizing the Arts & Crafts movement.
By the early 1900s, as myopia restricted her vision, Jekyll was forced to give up painting and needlecrafts. Fortunately, her diminishing eyesight did not slow her writing, and she taught multitudes of gardeners through her written word. Over her lifetime, Jekyll published more than 1,000 articles along with numerous books, including Wall and Water Gardens (1901), Some English Gardens (1904), Children and Gardens (1908), and Annuals and Biennials: The Best Annual and Biennial Plants and Their Uses in the Garden (1916).
An avid photographer, Jekyll owned a folding camera and built a studio in her home so that she could develop the film and make prints. In this way, she was able to provide images for her articles and books, and she also took photographs to accompany articles written by others. It was estimated that between 1885 and 1888, Jekyll produced some 900 photos intended for publication. Her 1904 book Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories included more than 300 photographs within its pages, providing readers a detailed look at 19th-century country life.
In 1908, Jekyll published Colour in the Flower Garden, which became one of the most influential gardening books of the 20th century. Reprinted in 1911 as Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden, this work explains color to the average gardener, using techniques the author learned during her art studies. For example, Jekyll discusses how placing certain colors in a particular order gives the eye an impression of distance: dark colors recede while light colors appear closer. In this way, she taught readers to use color for perspective and to “paint” plant colors onto the canvas of their gardens. In addition to photographs, Colour in the Flower Garden included illustrations, garden designs for each season, and a chapter on grouping plants in pots.
Instead of placing single specimens of different plants together in an area, Jekyll advocated gardening in “drifts,” featuring mass groupings of a single plant species. As she wrote in Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden: “Many years ago I came to the conclusion that in all flower borders it is better to plant in long rather than block-shaped patches. It not only has a more pictorial effect, but a thin long planting does not leave an unsightly empty space when the flowers are done and the leaves have perhaps died down. The word ‘drift’ conveniently describes the shape I have in mind and I commonly use it in speaking of these long-shaped plantings.”
Jekyll continued her work right up to the end of her life. In 1930, then age 86, she produced more than 40 articles for Gardening Illustrated. She died on December 8, 1932, at her home in Munstead Wood, and was buried at the Busbridge Church near Godalming. Lutyens designed her gravestone, inscribing it with the words “Artist, gardener, craftswoman.”
Although most of Jekyll's gardens have been lost to time, a few have been restored, including one at Hestercombe House, a Lutyens-Jekyll collaboration in Somerset, England, that was designed between 1904 and 1907. In the 1980s, the owners of Manor House at Upton Grey, England, restored the five-acre garden Jekyll designed in 1908–09 for the home's original owner, British art critic Charles Holme. In addition, her garden at Munstead Wood was revived; although in private ownership by 2017, these gardens were available for public viewings.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in the United States, Jekyll designed three gardens. Visitors to Glebe House in Woodbury, Connecticut, are treated to a restoration of gardens she designed in 1926; these gardens were not fully executed until the 1970s. The Glebe House gardens are the only present-day Jekyll gardens available for viewing in the United States.
Fortunately for garden designers, many of Jekyll's books remain in print, keeping her ideas in circulation around the globe. As London Guardian contributor Jill Sinclair noted, “Her ideas and techniques continue to be taught and discussed much as if she were a green-fingered equivalent of Shakespeare.”
In the 1940s, Jekyll's family sold her estate—including her photo albums, artwork, and garden plans—to raise money for the Red Cross in support of the war effort. U.S. gardener Beatrix Farrand purchased a portion of the collection and after her death it became the property of the University of California at Berkeley. The collection includes photos, correspondence, and the ink-and-watercolor blueprints for hundreds of gardens Jekyll designed. These preserved plans have helped many gardeners with their Jekyll restoration efforts.
The Jekyll family name also lived on in literature. Jekyll's brother was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, who borrowed the family name for his famed novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Jekyll, Gertrude, Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden, Country Life Library, 1911.
Lewis, Cherry, Gertrude Jekyll: The Making of a Garden: An Anthology, Garden Art Press, 1984.
Taylor, Kristina, Women Garden Designers: 1900 to the Present, Garden Art Press, 2015.
Wallinger, Rosamund, Gertrude Jekyll's Lost Garden: The Restoration of an Edwardian Masterpiece, Garden Art Press, 2000.
Guardian (London, England), June 17, 2006, Jill Sinclair, “Queen of the Mixed Border.”
Horticulture, October 1993, Judith B. Tankard, “Celebrating Gertrude Jekyll,” p. 11.