Smocks

Rosemary Hill

  • Gertrude Jekyll by Sally Festing
    Viking, 323 pp, £17.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 670 82788 6
  • People’s Parks by Hazel Conway
    Cambridge, 287 pp, £49.50, August 1991, ISBN 0 521 39070 2
  • The History of Garden Design: The Western Tradition from the Renaissance to the Present Day edited by Monique Mosser and Georges Teyssot
    Thames and Hudson, 543 pp, £45.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 500 01511 2

The woods around London offered some curious sights in the 1840s. To the north in Epping Forest the infant William Morris could be seen riding out in a toy suit of armour, while down in Surrey, in the Tillingbourne Valley, little Gertrude Jekyll was learning to make gunpowder. In the event it was Morris who became the political revolutionary and Gertrude Jekyll who withdrew into a secluded world of romance in the house and garden she created at Munstead Wood. Yet such extremes of public and private life were essential elements in what might be called the Arts and Crafts temperament: a mixture of idealism, sentimental fantasy and Victorian middle-class confidence.

Morris and Jekyll were life-long participants in a struggle to revitalise the relationships between the individual, the artist and society in the wake of the industrial revolution, and both saw in the applied arts and crafts a means of doing so. In so far as their struggle against industry and banality had a territorial aspect, these two children of the Home Counties had been born in the front line. Morris watched Walthamstow become ‘cocknified and choked up’ as the city expanded: Gertrude Jekyll lived to see the first waves of the tide of gentility that swept over Surrey until John Betjeman could not look at one of Miss Jekyll’s beloved rhododendrons without thinking of a stockbroker. Less intellectual, in many ways less effective than Morris, she was, nevertheless, in one sense nearer the heart of the issue. In her work as a garden designer she was occupied with the drawing and redrawing of the dividing lines between public and private space, both physical and imaginative, which is an important theme in these three books, and which posed particular problems for England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She was born in 1843 into a family that Logan Pearsall Smith described as a ‘fine old succession of country people, “quality folk” as they are called’, but with more interest in the arts than many such families. The Jekylls had a life-size cast of the Venus de Milo in the dining-room. They moved to Surrey when Gertrude was five and she began, encouraged by her father, to show a talent for an enormous range of arts and crafts, from drawing and embroidery to thatching and farriery. She turned from a boisterous little girl into an awkward, solitary adolescent, a ‘queer fish’, according to her father, and already at twenty she appears in a drawing by Mary Newton with the distinctive profile, double chin and currant-bun hairstyle by which she was ever afterwards known. She was short-sighted and therefore observant of close detail and of masses of shape and colour in the middle distance. She had an excellent sense of smell and such a morbid dislike of noise that she came down to breakfast one morning in stocking feet having thrown her boots out of the window at a nightingale. At seven she had a Ruskinesque vision of primroses in a wood – a vision, she recalled, which ‘sank deep into the childish heart’.

With so much of her character and talent established so early, the question for the biographer is why it took her so long, into her forties, to become a garden designer. Sally Festing convincingly argues that it was not as a second best to painting, as has been suggested, but on this point, as on many others, she otherwise seems to find ‘Gertrude’ (as she boldly calls her) inscrutable. Indeed her subject is often maddeningly uninformative. ‘To see Mr Ruskin,’ she writes in 1865, and in 1869 ‘to see Mr Morris’. Speculating on what passed at these meetings, Sally Festing collapses in a flurry of rhetorical questions and ‘who can knows’. Things brighten for the reader as soon as the young Edwin Lutyens appears. The collaboration between architect and gardener was central to both careers and Sally Festing adds to the growing perception that, at least to begin with, Lutyens owed more to his ‘Aunt Bumps’ than has sometimes been suggested.

Where the book fails, however, is in establishing any sense of the context in which Gertrude Jekyll developed her ideas, and her clientele. Responsive as the author is to planting schemes and landscape, she writes off the Studio as ‘an upmarket art magazine’, which is misleading, and describes ‘the bespectacled critic Roger Fry’ running ‘the celebrated Arts and Crafts Omega Workshops’, which is wrong. The Omega was always stylistically and personally at odds with the Arts and Crafts movement and though Fry tried at first to devise a link, the friend of C.R. Ashbee who described Omega products as ‘simply a crime’ gave a fair impression of the state of relations. The distinction is important because Gertrude Jekyll’s career coincided with the drift of the Arts and Crafts ideal she had espoused, from the avant-garde out to the woolly fringe, and Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 was an important indicator of that change.

Most damagingly of all, Sally Festing is embarrassed by Gertrude Jekyll’s social snobbery. The result is like a life of Byron written by someone who would rather not mention sex. Gertrude Jekyll’s sense of social distinction was as finely developed as her sense of smell, and almost as useful in her career. She never shared Morris’s enthusiasm for the working classes and accordingly never worried, as he did, that her ideas were in practice accessible only to what Sally Festing disapprovingly refers to as ‘the Edwardian plutocrat’ who could afford the labour. Her style, developed over years but never radically altered, was based on the Arts and Crafts principle of creating a harmonious way of life in which work and leisure, house and garden, nature and cultivation flowed sympathetically together. The wild garden, the planting of ‘drifts’ rather than lines or formal groups of flowers, the integration of a garden scheme with the surrounding countryside, the re-introduction of old varieties, all of this required considerable time, labour and space. By subsuming the moral contradictions at which Morris balked, it also became a kind of optical illusion, as fantastic and artificial in its way as Ranelagh. ‘Certain gardens,’ Ian Hamilton Finlay has said, ‘are described as retreats when they are really attacks,’ and Miss Jekyll’s were attacks on the old Morrisian demons of ugliness and standardisation, but also on a world where country estates were getting smaller. Her integration of the garden with the landscape might be seen less as a submission to it than as a colonisation. Her work, like her life, spanned the turn from Arts and Crafts radicalism to revivalism.

Only nine years younger than Morris, Gertrude Jekyll’s career began so much later than his and continued so long after his death that she is better seen as a successor than as a contemporary. The generation with which she worked was one that ceased to see in the past a model for a better future: they simply saw a better past, one which they sought to re-invent in a neater, more agreeable form. This, for Gertrude Jekyll, included a comfortable class system in which everyone knew their place. Her friend Helen Allingham was one of many painters of village life who cast a softening glow over rural poverty, while Miss Jekyll herself was an assiduous and sometimes interestingly inaccurate documenter of dying country crafts.

Sally Festing is confused by the entry in Gertrude Jekyll’s Old West Surrey on smocks: one design she describes has not been documented, and of the illustrations one has no smocking stitch at all but has been ‘clumsily criss-crossed on top of a photograph with a pen’. She should not be surprised. The smock controversy which raged with astonishing acrimony among amateur local historians is, from a scholarly point of view, a hopeless mass of inadequate evidence. What is interesting is how much people wanted to believe in the smock as a traditional garment with local designs and patterns reflecting the wearer’s trade. Like the kilt and the Welsh bard before it, the smock has had a longer and more eventful history in the hands of revivalists than it ever had before. Someone drew the smocking onto the photograph because it ought to have been there, whether it existed in fact or not.

As well as smock-frocked yokels and thatched cottages it was necessary to have a gentry and an aristocracy. The country-house revival of the Nineties, out of which Country Life was born, kept Gertrude Jekyll and Lutyens busy. The magazine itself employed them both. Miss Jekyll wrote, Lutyens designed the offices, they worked together on two houses and gardens for the founder of Country Life, Edward Hudson. The magazine arguably was the first ‘lifestyle’ publication, reflecting the way the staff and many of the leaders wanted to live rather than the way in which they actually did. It became the ‘keeper of the architectural conscience of the nation’, and it also enabled socially ambitious young men to stay in grand houses and carry dowagers’ handbags. A mandarin sense of social nuance was needed to keep the ‘wrong people’ out when the ‘right people’ were still so tentative. Over this scene Miss Jekyll, looking increasingly like the reassuring ghost of Queen Victoria, presided. As actual space and wild countryside grew scarcer, so the past, the England of rural crafts and country houses, was becoming the private leisure park of the artistic middle class. Now, of course, the gates have been thrown open in the name of Heritage, and chintz and mixed borders have swept down the classes. Miss Jekyll would not have been pleased.

The extent to which Gertrude Jekyll offered her clients the exact obverse of what was available to then social inferiors is made clear by Hazel Conway in her excellent People and Parks. For park designers the task was not to integrate their work with the surrounding landscape but to provide an even more illusionistic sense of escape by masking off the city and, by such devices as serpentine walks, to make the available space seem as large and varied as possible. Some of Miss Jekyll’s ideas for relieving the ‘hopeless dreariness’ of carpet bedding were adopted – in particular, the planting of bulbs in grass. But these schemes, as Dr Conway points out, were not cheaper to maintain and, of course, required the public to keep off the grass. The book deals with the period from 1833, when the Select Committee on Public Walks presented its report to Parliament, and ends at the turn of the century with the dawn of the garden city. Throughout the period the issues debated by advocates and critics of parks remain consistent: who is to have access and on what terms, the moral and social effects that the appearance of parks will have on the masses, their influence on health and public order.

In Britain as on the Continent, one of the chief motives for promoting parks was as areas in which the social classes could meet and mix, but under controlled conditions. Morris was one of those who saw in the style and very existence of the parks an attempt to ‘impress the public mind with the necessity of not being too familiar with natural objects’. There was no question of a return to the moral laxity of the 18th-century pleasure gardens. The new parks were intermediary spaces between the private estates and the ever-dwindling commons. In effect, though People’s Parks does not say so directly, their establishment was one of the last battles in the enclosure wars, with the municipal authority taking the place of the private landowners, but in a much bossier way. The Barbarians were still free to bang away at game birds and otherwise set about ‘torturing animals dependent on us for protection’, but the Philistines were able to make sure that nothing like that went on in their parks, which were devoted to ‘rational recreation’ only. When, as in Birmingham, it was discovered that slum children knew nothing of the traditional games that were ‘the brightness and gaiety of merrie England’, the Parks Committee arranged to have them taught. It is a wonder they did not make them wear smocks.

Hazel Conway is even-handed, however, in her analysis. She gives a sympathetic account and credit where it is due to the real concern for public health – though the link between this and the parks was never effectively established except in the minds of the planners – and to the generosity and philanthropy which inspired many of the designers and benefactors of parks. Among the real amenities were drinking fountains, cricket pitches (by 1898 Victoria Park in London had 32 of them), plant collections and the Crystal Palace dinosaurs which, though now known to be inaccurate, were so solidly built that they have taken their place among the earliest memories of six generations of South London children.

The book offers no analysis of the artistic development of the parks, but the story is told implicitly. Based first on Repton’s theories of landscape and on the gardens of great houses such as Chatsworth, from where Joseph Paxton came to design the Princes Park in Liverpool and later, and more influentially, Crystal Palace Park, the style of parks became in most cases debased through familiarity and through being applied to situations in which funds and tastes were inadequate to maintenance. Even the more appropriate model of French park design could not always adapt to the changing demands for different sports facilities, cycle tracks and so forth. At the same time, forms of design and architecture peculiar to the parks grew up – bandstands, pagodas and winter gardens, floral clocks and tea houses were the popular art of the parks. There were also some surprisingly early inklings of the modern theme park, including a miniature Khyber Pass at Hull and at the Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1855 a ‘Sebastopol experience’ in which visitors were shown a model of the battlefield on which Crimean veterans acted out the battle ‘aided by pyrotechnical resources peculiar to the establishment’.

All of this – especially floral clocks – was anathema to Gertrude Jekyll, the Commons Preservation Society, and others who echoed Morris’s plea for the preservation of natural wildernesses. In the end, however, the park planners and the conservationists have become the same thing. Nearly all the unbuilt land in Britain is a park of some sort, either a national park or a carefully labelled site of Special Scientific Interest or Outstanding Natural Beauty. The sight of forlorn lines of walkers queuing to climb Scaw Fell makes one nostalgic for the more reasonable and honest pleasures of the floral clock and the bandstand.

The decline of formal parks, the drift out from the centre of cities, lack of planning and, even in larger European countries, increasing pressure on space, are among the reasons given by the editors of The History of Garden Design for encouraging readers to think more deeply about landscape, parks and gardens: otherwise, they warn us, ‘the future is bleak.’ The immediate future for the reader who has just finished the introduction is, if not bleak, certainly daunting. It is hard to imagine who, if anyone, will read all of these essays, which between them cover four hundred years, most of Western and some of Eastern Europe, with reference to North Africa and the Americas, each written by an expert who assumes a knowledge of the relevant artistic and philosophical background. Probably no one, except the editors, would be qualified to review the whole work in detail.

The most rewarding approach, and it is very rewarding indeed, is to treat the book itself like some great park and plan several long tours round favourite spots, making excursions into adjacent areas and having a rest from time to time among the footnotes. One can thereby nod to such figures as Queen Hortense ‘owner of the legendary 8000 pots of hydrangeas’, even if one is not on such intimate terms with her and her legend as Georges Teyssot supposes. Non-sequential reading is made possible by the generally high standard of translation from five languages and by an important unity of approach among the sixty or so authors, all of whom take for granted that, beyond their aesthetic or botanical interest, gardens are expressions of ideas and states of mind and of social organisation. This is a concept which is only incidental to Hazel Conway’s concerns and which seems hardly to have occurred to Sally Festing.

The ideas with which Gertrude Jekyll and the park planners were more or less openly concerned, the relation of the individual to society and to nature, form a predictably strong theme. In the opening chapters the inward-looking cloister garden of the scholastics is turned inside out to embrace the world in the allegorical Humanist gardens of the Renaissance. In these, some of the most powerfully attractive artefacts ever created in the West, the mind, too, is drawn from inward meditation to the semi-visionary experience of ideas made concrete. From the intellectual and physical beauty of these gardens, via the moment in the 18th century when the language of the picturesque ceased to be widely enough understood for visitors to manage without a list of terms, the garden of ideas sets off on a long decline towards the floral clock – which the digital watch may eventually render obscure in its turn.

But though the editors comment regretfully on the increasing alienation of modern life, the contemporary parks that they include, Disneyland and the spectacular switchback at Valencia, are indications that although we may be alienated from nature and from the kind of shared symbolism that garden historians would like us to understand, most people have available to them a satisfying range of shared imagery. The Americans, as Isabelle Auricoste points out in a good essay on leisure parks, are better, perhaps less embarrassed, about creating a ‘wholehearted belief in the proposed world of fantasy’ by such devices as hidden entrances for the staff and remote changing-rooms that make it impossible to catch Mickey Mouse with his trousers down.

What has disappeared is the private garden of ideas. Not only is the space and time lacking, if George Plumtre’s essay on Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s gardens at Sutton Place is to be believed, we also seem to have lost our grip on even simple symbolism. Sir Geoffrey apparently uses stepping-stones across the pond to symbolise the hazards on the route to paradise, although stepping-stones are more often used as metaphors for aids not hazards. In Britain, possibly in Europe, it is only Ian Hamilton Finlay in his little Sparta who can claim to have created a garden of ideas. His use of symbols that are all too highly charged – submarine conning-towers, the SS thunderflash – have brought him trouble at various times from the Strathclyde Regional Council (who claimed rates on the Temple of Apollo) and the French artistic establishment, who accused him of being a fascist. One of the enjoyable connections the reader can make in this book is between him and Bernard Palissy, the Mannerist ceramist and religious dissident whose unbuilt Garden of Wisdom embodied a Protestant view of truth and the unmediated relationship with God. Ian Hamilton Finlay is unlikely to die in the Bastille as Palissy did, much as the idea might appeal to his sense of the theatrical. Nevertheless, it is at Little Sparta that a whiff of Gertrude Jekyll’s gunpowder still hangs in the air.