Introduction

The three women of this piece each found their gardens to be a sanctuary, source of inspiration and creative medium in their lives as artists. All of them belonged to the dynamic era of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, a time of women’s liberation and revolutionary art movements that swept Europe. For Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) gardens were not merely pretty places of flower borders and pergolas, they became treasured artistic outlets and restorative havens in which to paint, sculpt, write and think away from the binds of domestic duties and social pressures. This is a journey around those gardens.

Of course there is nothing new in women gardening. This trio are not unique on that account. From the beginnings of human civilization women have shared in the creation and enjoyment of gardens. Egyptian tomb paintings from 1500 BC show women tending royal ornamental pleasure gardens. In 605 BC the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar II for a woman—his wife, Amytis, who longed for the mountain vegetation of her native Kurdistan. And much later, in the seventeenth century, British country housewives filled notebooks with their compendious knowledge on the uses of plants for food and herbal remedies. These were handed down from mother to daughter in hushed secrecy for there was a thin line between good housekeeping and accusations of sorcery. Men may have written the first gardening books but their knowledge was indebted to women’s lore.

But Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Barbara Hepworth were born into a different time. Creeping fractures began to appear across the old patriarchal world under the weight of the many suffragettes who pounded the streets wielding placards and demanding equality. By 1882 a married woman could own property, and that meant gardens too. Here, finally, was a space of security and free self-expression, somewhere private to be a woman, not just a wife or mother. A woman’s place was no longer confined to the kitchen sink.

Women’s emancipation planted the seed for a new breed of female artists who could pursue their artistic ambitions unhindered. They were now at the forefront of new art movements with their male contemporaries. As a young painter Gertrude Jekyll met William Robinson and John Ruskin and later implemented the Arts & Crafts aesthetic in her garden design. Vita Sackville-West mingled with the radical members of the Bloomsbury set (most notably her lover Virginia Woolf), and Barbara Hepworth pioneered the shift to abstraction in Modernist sculpture.

This piece visits the beautiful and diverse gardens that inspired and enabled such art: Jekyll’s quintessentially English cottage garden at Hestercombe in Somerset, Sackville-West’s romantic “many-roomed” garden in the ruins of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and Barbara Hepworth’s subtropical garden at Trewyn studio in St Ives, Cornwall.

However this is not a horticultural guide, nor does it attempt to be. It is a combination of travel and portraiture as I dig beneath the surface of these gardens, reading the language of plant and tree, path and hedge, to understand their creators more intimately. For after all, gardens are about people. A collection of plants however magnificent is nothing without a human context. Through the changing seasons, the blooming and the dying of these gardens, the presence of these three inspirational and idiosyncratic women is still tangible.

Getrude Jekyll and Hestercombe Garden