Gertrude Jekyll and Hestercombe Garden

‘the duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in gardens is so to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures’ – Gertrude Jekyll.

It is 3 o’clock. The day is slipping away in a golden glow and the garden into the senescence of late summer. As the sun arcs across the southern side of the manor house the lolling flower borders yawn. Their breath is the musky fragrance of old fashioned damask roses, the deep waft of lavender and rosemary, and the heady, pungent scent of white lilies whose pure fluted petals bear the dark red stains of their erect stamens. Irritable bees bounce from flower to flower of the drifting cumulus banks of cottage garden herbaceous perennials, seeking the remnants of this year’s nectar. Through the tinkle of the classical fountains and rills you can almost hear the laughter from high tea taken on the terrace, gramophone music floating from the drawing room windows or the putt of croquet bats. This is the landscape of Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. This is England, timeless and eternal. More specifically this is Hestercombe Gardens in Somerset, the pinnacle achievement of Gertrude Jekyll in partnership with architect Edwin Lutyens.

Like so many gardeners, Gertrude Jekyll came to gardening late in life. A plump, bespectacled Victorian lady in a practical above-the-ankle skirt and stout leather boots, she had already spent more than two decades as an artist and craftswoman. Even in her twenties her talents stretched way beyond the conventional embroidery and drawing of her debutante counterparts. As one friend put it: ‘there is hardly any useful handicraft the mysteries of which she has not mastered — carving, modelling, housepainting, carpentry, smith’s work, repoussé work, gilding, wood-inlaying, embroidery, gardening, and all manner of herb and culture.’ Among a breadth of pursuits, painting and embroidery were her real passion. However at age 48 there is no doubt that Jekyll finally found the medium with which she was to truly excel. When doctors diagnosed her with progressive myopia and instructed that she must save her eyes from the intricate work of her much loved painting and embroidery, gardens became her canvas and plants her pigments. It was a mixed blessing. She was to become the most influential garden designer and plantswoman of the twentieth century.

Still, we must not ignore the shy, bumbling architect who co-created Hestercombe with Jekyll. It is the unique combination of Jekyll’s naturalised planting within Lutyens’s formal landscaping that became the hallmark of the Edwardian garden and set the precedent for modern garden design. The pair happened to meet in 1889 over tea at a Surrey neighbour of Jekyll’s, only a short dog-cart ride from her home at Munstead Wood. She took an instant liking to the nineteen year old Lutyens. Indeed he was the only man the unmarried Jekyll could abide. Theirs was a truly affectionate friendship and a harmonious working partnership. Lutyens provided the structural drawings and Jekyll created beautiful planting plans. Garden design at that time was mired in a deep rift between Reginald Blomfield and John Sedding in one corner, who believed that a garden should be dictated by the architecture of the house, and Jekyll’s old acquaintance William Robinson (1) who despised formal gardening and favoured horticultural principles. The gardens of Jekyll and Lutyens seamlessly synthesised these polarised philosophies and between them they forged a way forward.

Look down from the balustrade of the original Victorian terrace nearest the house and you can see this harmony. First the comforting symmetry of Lutyens’s geometric stone terraces. The Great Plat, a sunken 125ft square parterre, bordered on either side by raised Rill or Water Gardens; two water channels leading the eye straight out to the Taunton Vale beyond, and then a long pagoda linking the two at the base of the garden. From this hard landscaping springs forth Jekyll’s rebellious, feminine planting. Voluptuous drifts of herbaceous flowers fill the Water Garden borders and tranquil blue bearded irises spurt out of the scroll detailing along the rills. The edges of the triangular beds in the Great Plat are softened by the flopping elephant’s ears of Bergenia cordifolia and sprawling rosemary and polka-dot Erigeron karvinskianus erupt mischievously from crevices in the stone walls.

As an artist Jekyll had been influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement which reacted to the brutality of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. She shared its founder William Morris’s (2) advocacy of old vernacular craftsmanship and natural materials, and the movement’s reverence for nature. When it came to gardening, her naturalised planting schemes were another expression of this nostalgic vision of the bucolic and picturesque England of yesteryear. The tumbling China rose (Rosa chinensis) with its heavy heads of pink curled petals which runs riot through the pagoda, twisting with woodbine and vine, has something of a William Morris print about it. Nothing is tightly clipped, nature takes its course. Inspired by the rural Surrey idyll of her childhood Jekyll felt sure that ‘some of the most delightful of all gardens are the little strips in front of the roadside cottages’. In her painting she had striven to represent ‘truth to nature’ in line with the writings of John Ruskin and now she translated this to gardening, basing her planting on nature’s lessons. She favoured the ‘wild’ planting of William Robinson who in his book, The English Garden (1883), promoted hardy native perennials planted in conditions as close to nature as possible. Gone were the hot housed annuals of Victorian gardens. At Hestercombe in went white columbine, foxgloves, rock pinks, catnip and woodland varieties like Pulmonaria (lungwort). Rather than ordered rows of flowers, Jekyll liked to place her plants in long drifts. She believed ‘It is not only a more pictorial effect, but a thin long planting does not leave an unsightly empty space when the flowers are done and the leaves have perhaps died down’. It was her gift to have such an intimate knowledge of plants’ flowering periods that the borders might look magnificent throughout the seasons. On cue shrubby Choisya ternata and the late flowering everlasting sweet pea and clematis elegantly steal the limelight as the high summer bloomers bow off stage right, collapsing unseen into an untidy mess in the wings.

Now we take the steps down into the garden. Go through a Palladian arch next to a clear round pool where water shoots from the mouth of a classical mask. Follow the water as it moves between blue water forget-me-not (Myosotis palustris) along the stone rill, passing the borders filled with clusters of pale pink Rosa celeste, waist-high mounds of phlox and soaring spires of gladioli and delphiniums. Here, up close and personal with the flowers you can see that Jekyll’s genius is to pair her encyclopaedic knowledge of plant varieties, conditions and flowering periods with an artist’s eye for colour and composition. As she humbly puts forward: ‘To plant and maintain a flower border, with a good scheme for colour, is by no means the easy thing that it is commonly supposed’. Having studied the works of the Impressionists (and particularly the late paintings of J.M.W. Turner) as a young woman, Jekyll was intensely alive to balanced colour combinations in her borders. Utilising the teachings of her watercolourist friend Hercules Brabazon, she liked to ‘use colour as a general rule in harmonies rather than contrasts’. The borders at Hestercombe speak of Impressionist colour theory; the placing of different colours next to one another so that they may strengthen the viewer’s appetite for its complementary colour, thus intensifying its effect. In some places there is a subtle nuance of like colours. Silver-leafed Strachys (lamb’s ears) and Santolina provide a gentle backdrop for the deep blue of globe thistles, broken by plumes of white Gypsophila paniculata. In others, like the triangular beds of the Great Plat, bright white cannas neighbour red hot gladioli making each colour more brilliantly pure when juxtaposed with the other.

The French Impressionists of the late eighteenth century may have established the figure of the “artist-gardener” but Jekyll saw its rebirth. At his famous garden Giverny, in Normandy, Claude Monet planted mounded ‘paint box’ beds of flowers to mimic his palette, which he then painted onto canvas. Jekyll would have politely refuted such an idea. For her ‘the possession of a quantity of plants, however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection’. Whereas the Impressionists planted to provide inspiration for their paintings, Jekyll valued the garden as a piece of art in and of itself. By planting with a mind ‘to form beautiful pictures’ and applying all she knew from her life as an artist and craftswoman, in her words, she marked ‘the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening that may rightly claim to rank as fine art’.

The sun drops lower now, blushing pink-purple behind the trees on the western side of the garden. The slatted shadows that fall between the pagoda pillars and onto the paved pathway begin to fade. A blackbird scoots low along the bank of lavender bushes sounding her staccato alarm call, and there is a soft wind – the garden’s last expiration. Once the visitors have left and all is quiet, Hestercombe takes on a timeless quality. In the twilight the weathered local pink stone terraces clothed in a tangle of established plants could be an antiquated Elizabethan formal garden, now long overgrown. Built in an era of great flux with dramatic social reforms following the Liberal Landslide Victory of 1906, even on its completion, the great country house garden at Hestercombe already seemed a distant relic of a bygone aristocratic England. Of course Jekyll belonged to this old world. She was undoubtedly unusual for her time, having travelled Europe as a young woman, attended art school and ran a nursery business into her late eighties but nonetheless she lived most of her life under the reign of Queen Victoria and held Victorian values. Far more Lady Bracknell than Emmeline Pankhurst, she would not have considered herself a feminist. Yet somehow Hestercombe Gardens and Jekyll were just as much a part of a new dawn to come. She was a true artist when creating her gardens, and like all great art Hestercombe was not subject to a passing fad or fashion and so endures the test of time. Standing on the axis between the traditional England of the nobility and the modernity that followed the Great War, Jekyll used her artistic talent to conjure an eternal ideal of the quintessential ‘English Cottage Garden’ that still lies at the heart of gardening today.

(1) Jekyll first met William Robinson in 1875 at the office of his magazine, The Garden. From 1881 she wrote countless articles for the magazine. They were close friends and collaborated on one another’s gardens.

Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst Castle