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Around the galleries

The adventurous, imaginative and subversive Gertrude Jekyll

— June 2013

Associated media

The herbaceous borders at The Manor House, Upton Grey designed by Gertrude Jekyll in 1908 © Country Life

Katie Campbell is charmed and impressed by the numerous talents of the noted garden designer

This summer, Woking’s Lightbox Museum and Gallery is celebrating Gertrude Jekyll.  Though remembered today as a garden designer, Jekyll began life as an artist; indeed before she started to suffer myopia in middle age, Jekyll was known as a painter, photographer, interior designer, embroiderer, iron worker and silversmith.  Along with many poignant photographs, watercolours and sketchbooks, the exhibition features some rare treasures, including Jekyll’s student copies of oil paintings by such mentors as Turner and Stubbs, the embroidery panels commissioned from her by Lord Leighton and the Duke of Westminster, duplicates of the miniature flower vases and plant pots created for the garden she designed for Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, and some early watercolours she made on her travels to France, Italy and North Africa.  There are also some fascinating sketches of Jekyll made by her travelling companion, Mary Newton. 

What these objects demonstrate is the extraordinary adventurousness and imagination of the woman who is most often depicted as a stout and redoubtable English spinster.  Indeed one of the revelations of this exhibition is the subversive humour which infused her life and work – from the affectionate cartoons of her created by family and friends, to the tutelary deity she crafted for her workroom: a mysterious seated voodoo doll, complete with pearl eyes and cowrie-shell necklace, to which all visitors had to pay obeisance. 

Nonetheless, it is as a garden designer that Jekyll achieved lasting fame and the exhibition, rightly, focuses on her horticultural achievements.  While displaying plans and models of some of her most important designs, the museum has also commissioned films of two recently restored gardens to demonstrate the full glory of her vision.  Ingeniously, one exhibition room is laid out in the form of the Dutch Garden Jekyll created at Orchards in Munstead with her early collaborator Edwin Lutyens. 

Jekyll famously discovered the young Lutyens and taught him to value vernacular styles by leading him round her beloved Surrey in a horse and trap so that he could appreciate the old buildings, materials and construction techniques that were, even then, being obliterated by suburban development.  The exhibition also demonstrates Jekyll’s precocious interest in conservation and preservation, featuring many of her newspaper articles on the subject, charmingly displayed alongside the rural artefacts she collected, preserved and promoted in her journalism. 

While Jekyll is known as the inventor of that quintessentially English feature, the deep, richly planted herbaceous border, it is only when one sees her order-books laid out with all their meticulous jottings that one realizes the reason she planted in such profusion was that she could invoice her clients for each and every plant.  As an upper-middle-class woman it would have been considered improper for Jekyll to charge for her services as a designer, but she had no qualms about charging for the plants she provided from the nursery she ran at the back of her garden; indeed various letters on display reveal that Jekyll maintained a diligent relationship with her clients, contacting them regularly to solicit new orders.    

Gertrude Jekyll has been well represented in recent scholarship and while this exhibition will provide few surprises for Jekyll aficionados, it does offer a wonderful introduction to those unaware of her many achievements, while reminding her fans of the full range of her talents.  The curators have gathered together some remarkable artefacts, and displayed them in novel and dramatic ways.  The exhibition is enhanced by the planting round the museum’s courtyard, which sets the scene with its elegant, subtle Jekyllesque combinations of colour, texture and form.


Katie Campbell
Institute of Humanities, Buckingham University
Garden historian

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