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Gertrude Jekyll

Biography

Author: Sally Festing

Originally published: 1991

 

Gertrude Jekyll ( London 1843 – 1932)

This grand dame of gardening was born in the time when British industrial and imperialistic growth reached its top. Her ideas about horticulture and planting trees are still very influential today. She had an ingenious way to soften the hard lines of formal gardens with original plant combinations, which resulted in gardens that were attractive during every season. She also knew how to make the most shadowy parts or difficult corners of a garden beautiful.

 

Gertrude Jekyll did not just study botany, but also learned about colours, painting, and architecture. She spent many hours in the National Gallery, where she studied the impressionist works of William Turner, and was inspired by his use of colour. She went on multiple trips to Italy, Greece, Northern Africa, and discovered the value of traditional crafts. She learned how to knot carpets and studied embroidery, wood crafting, painting, and the technique of photography.

When she finally decided to focus on the garden, she was able to turn it into a form of expressive art. She never spoke of herself as a garden architect, or designer; she thought of gardening as a wide range of activities (designing, knowledge of plants, growing plants) that would led to a beautiful garden. Just like a painter needs to know about pigments, canvas, colours, and has to be skilled in applying this knowledge to a canvas.

 

She was also a fierce supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement, that wanted to unite all types of art, and she admired William Robinson, who made name with his ‘Wild garden’ and natural garden look. Robinson loved wild gardens with perennial flowers, in which nature presented itself as perfect harmony, and where plants were the protagonists that gave gardens their right to exist.

This was in stark contrast to the ideas of a number of prominent architects and garden architects (such as Reginald Blomfield), who were convinced that gardening was a necessary evil. The gardener had to be in service of the architect, and plants needed to be placed in the created (formal, abstract) design.

 

This duel between architecture and gardening would end with a successful cooperation between Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. Like Gertrude, this driven architect admired traditional craftsmanship, old skills, and a special eye for detail. They formed a close friendship and cooperation, which resulted in numerous houses and gardens joined together as complex, creative projects. Nowadays, in the 21st century, we are used to house and garden being parts of the same puzzle. However, that was certainly not the case in the 19th century.

After she died, Mrs. Jekyll left behind over 2,000 designs for approximately 250 gardens. This Reef Point collection is a testament to her versatility and attention to detail. It also shows how hard she had to work to create these ‘spontaneous’ luscious gardens.

 

Over the course of her career, Gertrude Jekyll also started to get more interested in combinations of plants from the same biotope; if the right plants are put in the right position, borders can be maintained more easily. Another grand dame of gardening, Beth Chatto, adopted this idea almost a century later.

 

Her special style of gardening with large, natural, colourful borders was later also copied by Lawrence Johnston (Hidcote Manor), Vita Sackville-West (Sissinghurst), and Christophe Lloyd (Great Dixter), among others.

Gertrude Jekyll’s favourite plants were plants with grey and silvery leafs.

 

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