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New exhibition on Gertrude Jekyll – A craftswoman of exceptional talent

— May 2013

Associated media

The garden at Munstead Wood, designed by Gertrude Jekyll © Country Life

Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932) was one of the most influential garden designers of all time. Her impact on the art of gardening is still evident around the world today. From 15 May to 8 September 2013 a free exhibition at The Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking, Surrey explores the long and remarkable life of Gertrude Jekyll, delving into her many talents as a writer, interior and applied arts designer, embroiderer, artist, silversmith/blacksmith, botanist, herbalist, garden designer and gardener.

The exhibition is supported by Squire’s Garden Centres and the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. 

Gertrude Jekyll was born into an upper-middle-class family in 1843. Her parents, Edward and Julia Jekyll, played host in their home, Bramley House, near Guildford, to a steady flow of eminent visitors from the worlds of art and science. It was in this cultured environment that Jekyll grew up, attending art school in South Kensington from 1861.

The late 1860s saw Jekyll develop an increasing interest in interior design: besides painting, drawing and sketching, she began to develop her skills as a designer. Through her wide and influential circle of friends, Jekyll began to receive commissions for designing the interiors of houses in London and elsewhere and by the mid-1870s she was considered to be one of the most accomplished artist-craftswomen of her day.

Despite her increasing success as an interior designer, Jekyll continued to reside in rural Surrey, developing her interest in plants and gardens. As early as 1868, Jekyll began designing gardens and by 1889 she had designed or advised on planting over 20 gardens, ranging in size from a window box to a small estate.

Further success followed and by 1900 Jekyll was one of the most famous garden designers in Britain. In all, Jekyll designed over 400 gardens, many in partnership with the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, but also with others such as Harold Falkner, Oliver Hill, Sir Robert Lorimer and C.F.A. Voysey. She is credited with moving garden design away from the highly formal Victorian garden towards a greater freedom of planting, following William Robinson's principles. At the same time, she reintroduced classical features and traditional cottage garden elements, all frequently and seamlessly integrated to create her own style of garden design. Characteristic of her designs were gardens that balanced woodland, shrubbery and herbaceous plantings with terraces, paths and water features. This combination of formal and informal was seen to herald a new, more natural approach to garden design and her use of colour remains still the seminal work on the subject.

From the scientific study of perfumes and the remedial qualities of plants, to the design of arts and crafts interiors, drawing-room furniture and textile hangings, Jekyll enjoyed the company of some of the greatest creative minds of late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe. These included Lutyens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lord Leighton, Hercules Brabazon, John Ruskin and Sir Edward Poynter. Through letters, notebooks and photographs, the exhibition at The Lightbox will document these encounters and provide a rich background to Jekyll’s vision and achievement.

Experience the ‘rooms’ of the ‘Dutch Garden’
The exhibition is designed by renowned architect Michael Edwards, who specializes in the restoration of Edwin Lutyens houses and Gertrude Jekyll gardens. Edwards has based the exhibition design on a garden that Jekyll created with Lutyens, at Orchards in Munstead, Surrey called the ‘Dutch Garden’. Together they designed the ‘Dutch Garden’ as one of a series of outside spaces that Edwards replicates in the exhibition design, creating a three-dimensional enclosure within the gallery, using three-metre-high topiary. Each room will relate to different aspects of her life.

Highlights in the exhibition will include:

· Early watercolours – shown for the first time, these were produced between the early 1860s and 1874 and depict scenes from Jekyll’s travels in Britain and abroad, as well as at home in Surrey. These will be shown alongside a unique series of portrait sketches of Jekyll on her trip to Italy and Greece in 1863, by her friend Mary Newton, who accompanied her. Through her travels Jekyll discovered a wide variety of new plants, which later helped to inform her garden designs.

· Planting plans –Jekyll’s planting plans formed the basis of her gardens; those on show will include plans for the Pergola border at Hestercombe and for the Great House at Hambledon.
· Handwritten copy of Old West Surrey– published in 1904, this book, written by Jekyll, united her photographic skills with her appreciation of the vernacular architecture and style of rural Surrey. Jekyll was a prolific writer and in all wrote over 1000 articles and a number of books which became best-sellers, cementing her authority on garden design.
· Personal artefacts – for the first time this exhibition will bring together Jekyll’s gardening boots alongside William Nicholson’s painting of the boots; her desk and tools will also feature in the exhibition.
· Embroidery commissioned by Lord Leighton– the only known examples of these will be shown for the first time. Work for the Duke of Westminster's home will also be on display.
· Miniature potsfrom Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House – Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, situated in Windsor Castle, is thought to be the largest and most beautiful doll’s house in the world. Jekyll was commissioned to design its garden, which includes a set of miniature pots; a duplicate set will feature in the exhibition.

Squire’s bring Jekyll’s designs to life in The Lightbox Courtyard
Squire’s Garden Centres will be providing a Jekyll-inspired floral display in The Lightbox’s courtyard, which pays homage to the range of plants and flowers used in her designs, including the Rosa ‘Mermaid’, an old fashioned rose with large single yellow fragrant flowers and the Lavandula ‘Munstead’, a reliable hardy lavender with blue flowers, which was named after Jekyll’s garden at Munstead Wood. The bright, textured and fragrant display will show the traditional plants that Jekyll used within her garden designs, reflecting what was popular in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Sarah Squire, Deputy Chairman of Squire’s Garden Centres commented:

We are delighted to support this very exciting project at The Lightbox by creating a floral display in the courtyard of the gallery, to compliment the exhibition and evoke the world of Gertrude Jekyll in a living and tangible way. Tall specimen roses trained on a post and chain construction together with large architectural pots are very much in the style of Jekyll, whose designs still have a timeless attraction to the modern gardener and whose influence is still manifested in gardens the world over.

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