Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

Sector: Household Goods

Gertrude Jekyll is renowned for the impact she has had on garden design in Britain and beyond. She subverted many Victorian horticultural conventions, combining her painter’s feel for composition, perspective and colour with her practical experience of breeding and growing plants to create a radically different look.  In her thoughtful plans, formal gardens around the house transitioned seamlessly into more naturalistic woodlands and vistas.  She dug deep borders, punctuating drifts of colour with dabs of complementary shades, paying as much attention to the grey and green of the foliage as the pinks, golds and mauves of the flowers.  She chose flowers and shrubs that could play their part in her colour symphony and last the winter in situ, indifferent as to whether they were normally seen in the hedgerow or a brick-layer’s front garden.  Her truly original designs were no less labour-intensive than those of her peers but they were more in tune with nature.   

With so much to say about Gertrude’s gardening, it is easy to forget how radical she was in the approach she took to her life and career.

I am also not sure how helpful this iconic image of her by William Nicholson has been to how she has been perceived.

If you were faced with this in a gallery, would you be thinking ‘commercially-savvy and innovative professional who embraced new media and virtual working’? or ‘genteel Victorian lady who probably liked cats?’

They might sound at odds with one another but they are both true.

Gertrude Jekyll by William Nicholson. Oil on canvas, 1920
NPG 3334. © National Portrait Gallery, London

So here are some lesser-known sides to Gertrude Jekyll, which show why she deserves a place in the FT-She 100.

1. Gardening was her second career, one she only really embraced in her 40s.
Gertrude was an extraordinarily talented woman who could turn her hand to anything: embroidery, gilding, carpentry, carving and metalwork. She made many of the tools she used in garden, repaired her own boots and even knocked up a few pub signs. But her first and true love was painting.  She later remarked that ‘in setting a garden we are painting a picture, only it is a picture of hundreds of feet..instead of so many inches, painted with living flowers.’

In 1861, aged 17, she persuaded her parents to let her enrol in the National Art Training School where she studied under Christopher Dresser, arguably Britain’s first industrial designer, who used botanical drawings of plants to teach 3-D structure.  One of Gertrude’s drawings was later included a teaching manual, literally assessed as textbook.

Gertrude carried on painting through the 1860s, exhibiting alongside James McNeill Whistler at the Royal Academy in 1865 and often travelled to London, meeting with leading artists and critics including G.F. Watts, William Morris and John Ruskin.  She sold her art and also took paid commissions for embroidery work from her mid-20s, designing a 7ft square tablecloth for Frederic Leighton in early 1870 and later making quilts for him and Edward Burne-Jones. She oversaw and contributed to decorating projects for clients including the Duke of Westminster. In 1880 the Royal School of Art included two of her cushion covers in its embroidery catalogue.

2. She spent a lot of time with progressive women from her early 20s onwards.
One of Gertrude’s first trips abroad was in the summer of 1863, when she went on a four-month painting and sketching tour of Italy, Constantinople, Smyrna, Athens and Rhodes with family friends, Mary Newton, one of the few women during this period earning her living from painting, and her husband, Charles.  Gertrude later travelled to Italy with Susan Muir Mackenzie, a fellow alumni of the Royal School of Art and model for John Everett Millais.  

Esther by John Everett Millais, model Susan Muir Mackenzie
‘Esther’ by John Everett Millais (1865), for which Susan Muir Mackenzie modelled
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1861)
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon
after Samuel Laurence. collotype, (1861)
NPG D31926 © National Portrait Gallery, London

In her 30s, her circle expanded to include H.R.H. Princess Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and, unlike her mother, pro-women’s suffrage, and the artist and feminist activist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon.

In 1873, Barbara invited Gertrude to join her on her annual journey to Algiers, where she spent the winters with her husband, Eugene Bodichon.  Here Gertrude struck up long-lasting relationships with key horticulturists and discovered plants including the fragrant Algerian iris that would appear in her garden designs for the rest of her life.  When she came to write her first article, for The Garden in 1881, it was on ‘Some Plants from Algiers’. Barbara, a fervent believer in a woman’s right to work, championed Gertrude, asking her to design a garden and a library for her house, Scalands, in Sussex and consulting her on decorative schemes for Girton College. 

3. She was the original lifestyle influencer.
Gertrude’s fifteen acres of garden at Munstead Wood just outside Godalming played a number of roles.  They were a laboratory, where she propagated new species of roses, poppies, primroses and asters.  They showed off her skill to the many visitors who made the trek to Munstead, excited to see the famous borders they had read about or seen in black and white photographs in all their colourful glory.  And they provided her with an additional source of plants to sell to clients.

Border in Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood
A section of border in Gertrude’s restored gardens in Munstead Wood. (c) Lizzie Broadbent

Gertrude had a multi-channel strategy for publicising her horticultural work and generating income from it.   She was a prolific writer, publishing her first article in 1881 and writing roughly one a fortnight for nearly fifty years, contributing to a number of different publications and editing one for a brief period. Country Life, launched in 1897, quickly became the unofficial Jekyll & Lutyens “fanzine’, with several articles on Gertrude in 1899 and then a slew of multi-page features on Jekyll / Lutyens collaborations between 1900 and 1902. A Lutyens house with a Jekyll garden became the ultimate status symbol, equally sought after by Surrey stockbrokers and the landed gentry.

She also wrote a number of best-selling books, mainly illustrated with photographs from over 2,000 that she took and developed herself.   They are still read today: Derek Jarman had a copy of her book ‘Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden’.

As her fame grew, Gertrude was quick to spot merchandising opportunities.  In 1906 she wrote a book on flower arranging and couldn’t find a vase she liked, so she designed and commissioned her own Munstead line.  The container she sourced from the local ceramics works was quickly marketed as the ‘Jekyll’ pot and the proprietors worried about her endorsing other makers. If she were working today, she would have a regular blog, an active Instagram account and a five-star rating on Etsy. 

4. She ran a commercial plant nursery.
By 1897, Gertrude was selling ‘surplus plants’, creating another stream of revenue to fund her gardening team.  Only one catalogue exists, listing 324 shrubs, herbs and alpine plants, a relatively small selection compared to commercial nurseries but enough to provide the majority of plants for Gertrude’s garden design commissions.  Plant sales generated far more income than the design work so the bigger the project, the more she earned. Additional income was generated by sales of seeds ‘to the trade’ and cut flowers to Godalming florists.  Her patnership with her Swiss head gardener, Albert Zumbach, was just as important as her far more famous one with Edwin Lutyens.

The size of her commissions varied greatly but even smaller scale designs were still large and she would be dispatching orders of anything from 600 plants to 3000 plants.  Between 1903 and 1929 she carefully wrote the details of her client commissions, delivery and payment status of orders, prices and costs in 41 notebooks.  

Gertrude Jekyll's notebooks - Godalming Museum
A selection of Gertrude Jekyll’s notebooks where she kept track of her accounts.
Image courtesy of Godalming Museum.

5. She was both mentor and sponsor to Edwin Lutyens, the first star of 20th century British architecture.
Gertrude met Edwin Lutyens in the summer of 1889, right at the start of his career when he was just 20 and in the middle of his first major architectural commission after two years of formal schooling and one year of on-the-job training.

Gertrude was then 45 years old and looking for an architect herself.  She took Lutyens out and about in Surrey in her horse and cart, exploring the materials and craftsmanship of local villages and houses. These road trips gave Lutyens gained valuable insight into traditional building methods and Gertrude later drew on these trips to write another book. They also told her that she had found the man for her job.

Gertrude was a demanding client: when Lutyens showed her his initial designs for her future home, she told him to do them again without the ‘architectolic inutility’.

Munstead Wood, Gertrude Jekyll's home
Munstead Wood, Gertrude’s home from 1897 until her death in 1932, designed by Edwin Lutyens.
(c) Lizzie Broadbent

However, this did not stop her using her network to accelerate Lutyens’ rise to prominence. Susan Muir Mackenzie, now a cousin by marriage, was one of the first of Gertrude’s gang to give Lutyens a commission.  Next came a high-profile job for Princess Louise.  This was quickly followed by work for her neighbours, William and Julia Chance.  In 1897, Gertrude’s brother, Herbert was appointed to the Commission for the 1900 Paris Exhibition and Lutyens was asked to design the British Pavilion, just one of many jobs that came his way via Gertrude’s extended family.  She also introduced him to one of his most important clients, Edward Hudson, owner of Country Life.

Sir Edwin Lutyens (1927)
Sir Edwin Lutyens. by Bernard Partridge
ink and wash, study for drawing published in Punch 20 July 1927. NPG 3672
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Although Lutyens’ direct access to high net worth individuals improved significantly after he married Lady Emily Lytton in 1897, Lutyens’ biographer, Christopher Hussey, later assessed that for every one commission due to Emily’s connections, ten were down to Gertrude’s.

Of the 400 or so garden designs Gertrude completed during her career, over 100 involved some form of collaboration with Lutyens.  The gardens she designed with him tended to be large-scale and attention-grabbing because a Lutyens house or renovation was usually a major project and it was undoubtedly her single most important partnership.  But without him, she would still have been a lauded horticulturist.  Who knows what would have happened to Lutyens without the woman who helped him formulate his style, learn his craft, secure his commissions and establish his brand.

6. She was an early adopter of remote working.
Although Gertrude journeyed as far south as Algeria, she rarely made it north of Watford and in her sixties she reduced her range of travel even further.  She might visit clients nearby in Surrey but she worked on any further-flung projects without seeing the locations.  She asked her clients to send a surveyor’s plan of the land indicating where there was a vista; she asked about any flowers they particularly liked; and she enquired about the type of soil and the colour of the housing materials.  She then developed the garden design, sent it off for comment and re-worked it as needed.  Most of the 200 designs she completed after 1906 were done like this, including three in the United States.  In situations where she was less familiar with the climate and the plants, she explained the intended effect and suggested consulting with a local nursery.

7. Her garden inspired the Cenotaph.
In 1917, Lutyens was appointed the Principal Architect of the Imperial War Graves Commission and designed 140 cemeteries in France and Belgium for the millions of British soldiers who died on foreign soil.  When he was asked to create a war memorial for London he thought back to the monumental seat he had designed for Gertrude’s garden: when Charles Liddell, a librarian at the British Museum saw it, he christened it ‘the Cenotaph to Sigismunda.’  Lutyens asked what he meant and learned that a Cenotaph was an empty tomb, erected in memory of a body buried elsewhere.  This was the image that came to him now and so a quiet, private space beneath a birch tree in Surrey inspired a symbol of national mourning and commemoration.

8. She was active in the suffrage movement.
Gertrude was already a supporter of the fight for suffrage when her friend, Mary Watts, a designer and potter, became president of the newly-formed Godalming branch of the NUWSS in 1909.

On 29th October 1910 Gertrude joined Mary at an event in Guildford where speakers included Philippa Strachey and Lady Frances Balfour and 400 suffragists march past with their banners.   

Gertrude later designed a banner for Godalming’s NUWSS, with shamrocks, roses and thistles symbolising support from women across the land and sent plants from her nursery to be sold at local fund-raiser events.   

Banner designed by Gertrude Jekyll for the Godalming NUWSS
Banner worked by Gertrude Jekyll for the Godalming Branch of the NUWSS nd [c.1913] (Godalming Museum Collection)

Gertrude was not a supporter of the more militant tactics of the WSPU but was well-aware of the effects of the increasing violence of the suffragettes and their regular imprisonment. Lady Constance Lytton, Lutyens’ sister-in-law, was imprisoned and force-fed in Liverpool in January 1910, her health never fully recovering.  Reginald McKenna, the husband of Gertrude’s niece, Pamela, was the Home Secretary who introduced the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, better known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913.  Under this controversial bill hunger-striking suffragettes were released from prison when they became particularly ill so the government could avoid any potentially disastrous publicity if one of them happened to die. They were then re-arrested as soon as they had recovered, prolonging their sentence. 

9. She supported other women in their career development.
Gertrude was one of the patrons of the Glynde School for Lady Gardeners, started by Lady Frances Wolseley in 1902.   During one visit that a group of students made to her garden several years later, they were questioned by the local police on suspicion of being suffragettes aiming to attack Reginald McKenna, who was staying with his parents across the lane from Gertrude’s house.

10. She was tall.
Gertrude is often unflatteringly and unfairly described by later writers as one of the Seven Dwarfs’ lesser-known siblings, stumpy, dumpy or lumpy.  In fact, she was 5’ 10”, an able rider when she was younger and active well into her 60s, happy to jump a ditch and climb a gate as long as no-one was watching. Her commanding physical presence, wide-ranging accomplishments, brains, wit and independence seemed to deter male suitors but nearly all of her personal papers were destroyed by her family after her death, so although we know she never married, we have little further insight into her romantic life.

Edwin Lutyens designed Gertrude’s tombstone, on which are inscribed the words ‘Artist, Gardener, Craftswoman’. On the 1911 census Gertrude described her occupation as ‘writer and garden designer’. They are both accurate but are both also partial: Gertrude defies easy categorisation.

When the Dictionary of National Biography for the decade 1930-1939 came to be written, she was described as… nothing: she wasn’t included. This is a recurring theme among many of the the women you will meet here: they succeeded in a range of fields and ended up being forgotten in all of them. It just goes to show how important it is that we keep looking back, re-examining the evidence and creating a fuller picture of women’s lives that enable us to challenge the biases that have crept into our narratives.

Godalming Museum and the Surrey History Centre in Woking both hold archives related to Gertrude Jekyll’s work. If you want to get a feel for Gertrude’s gardening talents, all being well you should soon once more be able to visit Munstead Wood. Several of Gertrude’s gardens have been restored by the National Trust and Rosamund Wallinger has restored her garden at Upton Grey.

Sources include:
‘Colour in the Flower Garden’ by Gertrude Jekyll in The English Flower Garden by William Robinson (1883); ‘Children and Gardens’ (1908) by Gertrude Jekyll

‘Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir’ by Francis Jekyll (1934); ‘Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener’ by Betty Massingham (1966); ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ by Sally Festing (1991); ‘Gertrude Jekyll: Essays on the life of a working amateur’ ed. Michael Tooley and Primrose Arnander (1995); ‘Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood’ by Judith B Tankard and Martin Wood (2015)

‘Art and Design: 100 years at the Royal College of Art’ by Christopher Frayling (1999); ‘The Diary of Mary Watts 1887-1904’ ed. Desna Greenhow; ‘Gardens of a Golden Afternoon’ by Jane Brown (1982); ‘The Letters of Edwin Lutyens to his wife Emily’ ed. Clayre Percy and Jane Ridley (1985); ‘The Life of Lutyens’ by Christopher Hussey (1950); ‘Our River’ by GD Leslie (1888); ‘Pot-pourri from a Surrey Garden’ by C.W.Earle (1897); Interview with Sir Peter Shepheard in National Life Stories Collection, British Library

1 thought on “Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)”

  1. LOVED this post! I’ve been a Jekyll fan since reading one of her books, which led to a purchase of “The Lost Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll.” by Fenja Gunn; which led to a visit to the Glebe House garden in Connecticut. That changed my entire view of garden design and plant usage! Later on, I was fortunate to visit Munstead and its gardens. A life highlight!


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