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Gertrude Jekyll: One of the Best Plantswomen of All Time

Gertrude Jekyll

Gertrude Jekyll’s passion and background in art set her up perfectly to make history. Born in London in 1843, Jekyll grew up on her family estate in Surrey. Once she was of age, she became one of the first female students to be accepted into Kensington’s School of Design painting program. This craft absorbed all of her focus until her vision began to fail her at the age of 48. Having always been interested in gardening, she easily translated her art skills and began to focus on this new profession. Her complete foundation in the arts, specifically including aspects such as color, perspective, and light, translated flawlessly to her work in garden design. Confident in her ability to create eye-pleasing color schemes, Jekyll utilized both hot and cool color patterns. Her mastery over designs was supported by her complete understanding of plants as their forms changed with their life cycles and the seasons, and she prioritized the display of beauty from the natural world.

Jekyll had a close relationship with the architect Sir Edward Lutyens and they began working together in 1889. One of Lutyens first designs was Gertrude’s own estate, Munstead Wood, where Jekyll would trial any plants at her garden before they received her seal of approval and were recommended for others to use. Fellow students at Kensington’s School of Design, Jekyll and Lutyens had similar influences such as Philip Webb, an architect, and J.M.W. Turner, a painter. Turner’s influence can be seen in Jekyll’s drifts of color throughout her designs. As a team, Jekyll and Lutyens designed a novel type of environment that combined Jekyll’s skills in plantsmanship and Lutyens skills in architecture to create a space through which each piece complemented the other. Both Jekyll and Lutyens supported the Arts and Crafts movement and incorporated it into their designs together, prioritizing locally sourced materials. Beginning in the late 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain was a reaction to industrialism and its damaging effects, as well as the lack of appreciation for decorative arts and craftsmanship.

Besides designing over 400 gardens, Jekyll wrote 13 books and over 1,000 articles on the subject of horticulture. Significant effort was put into each of these works, and this is illustrated by her drive to take and develop her own photographs. As she aged, she transitioned to running a nursery and breeding plants for her beloved trade.

Jekyll is most well known for her perennial borders that combine elegant lines and forms with an aspect of the natural world. Her home at Munstead Wood has been preserved and continues to welcome visitors to this day.

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