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Gertrude Jekyll on the Inseparability of Life, Gardening and Art

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“It is just in the way it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening that may rightly claim to rank as fine art.”

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There are rich connections between art and gardening: Agatha Christie’s relaxed garden at Greenway; Tolkien, architect of Middle Earth, paid painstaking attention to its botany as well as its civilizations; Edith Wharton was a successful landscape designer well before she wrote House of Mirth or Ethan Frome. A foray into nature—real or conceptual—calms the soul and allows one to reach that somnambulist state of relaxed conscious necessary for creation.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932)—a writer, painter, and gardener who, with a small set of determined and formidable gardeners, developed what we consider the “English garden,” a deceptively meticulous chaos verging on beauty—goes further. Gardens, if done right, are not a muse, they are art itself. Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden (1914), a humble book written towards the end of her life, is full of gentle prose and practical advice that often mask Jekyll’s substantive thesis of a garden’s dormant potential:

“Possession of a quantity of plants, however good they may be themselves, and however amply their number, does not make it a garden: it only makes a collection.”

Although she wrote eighteen books on gardening, Colour Schemes is Jekyll’s most influential because it reveals the beauty of a garden in its entirety, parts comprising a whole, like a canvas. And like a canvas, Jekyll’s vision for beauty is not just something to be achieved but something to be perfected through a trained, critical eye.

“The duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in our gardens is to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes they should be always training those eyes to a more exalted criticism; to a state of mind and artistic conscience that will not tolerate bad or careless combination or any sort of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honour to be always striving for the best.”

Similar to novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s belief that beauty lies in the dialogue between shadow and light, Jekyll views beauty, at its most cohesive and sublime, as a flat, visual palate comprised of swaths of color (achieved in the garden by planting in rifts).

“There is one item of colouring that strikes the trained eyes specifically delightful. … [T]he colouring, both of the parts in light and even more of the mysterious shadows, is in the highest degree satisfactory and makes me long for the appreciative presence of those few friends who are artists both on canvas and in their gardens.”

Jekyll’s view of beauty in terms of light and color—not objects, per se—is not surprising. She was trained as a painter at the South Kensington School of Art and became enamored with the light and color of Turner’s canvases. She copied his bold and unexpected harmonies, especially the light around sunset and sunrise, in her paintings and even in her garden designs.

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Gertrude Jekyll’s design for a garden of summer flowers.

Perfecting her garden palette was something at which Jekyll worked consistently and tirelessly. Colour Schemes is the culmination of a knowledge gleaned from a life assessing and respecting color and plants. “For years I have been working at these problems in my own garden, and, having come to certain conclusions, can venture to put them forth with some confidence.”

Though she need not be so humble, Jekyll was a well-known gardener by the time Colour Schemes was published. She enjoyed the friendship of William Robinson (1838–1935), whose seminal work The English Flower Garden in 1883 set the wheels in motion for a widespread rejection of tidy French formality (pristine boxwood parterres fitted with undignified bedding) and championed natural English plantings.

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William Robinson’s garden at Gravetye Manor.

Enjoy Colour Schemes for its beautiful, personal narrative and for how it describes in gentle detail what her eyes took in as she journeyed through the garden she painstakingly created to reach that rank of fine art.

“Coming down towards the garden by another broad grassy way, that goes westward through the chestnuts and then turns towards the down-hill north, there comes yet another deviation through the rhododendrons and birches to the main lawn … a pleasant mass of colour showing in the wood-edge on the dead-leaf carpet. It is a straggling group of Daphne mezereum, with clumps of red Lent hellebores, and, to the front, half-connected patches of common dog-toothed violet. The nearly related combination of colour is a delight to the trained colour-eye … It is a perfect picture.

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The Godalming Museum, in the Surrey Hills south of London, has many of Jekyll’s early paintings, including The Sun of Venice Going to Sea, in the style of Turner as well as her notebooks, sketches, and numerous drawings of her cats, which were published in a chapter “Pussies in the Garden” in her book Children and Gardens. Unfortunately, Jekyll’s garden Munsted is privately owned and selectively open, but William Robinson’s garden at Gravetye Manor is open and well worth a visit, perhaps a tea.

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