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.

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