It’s no secret that I do enjoy visiting exhibitions at smaller, regional museums and galleries. One of the reasons for this is that very often I come away with an interesting ‘nugget’ of information or have seen something unique and inspiring that all to often can be lacking in the “blockbuster” shows at the major institutions. Thus it was when on the spur of the moment I decided to go over to Woking to The Lightbox (www.thelightbox.org) to have a look at their summer offering celebrating the life and work of Gertrude Jekyll, the well known landscape gardener.
Flyer advertising the Gertrude Jekyll exhibition
The first thing I found out by over-hearing another visitor ask the room steward was the name is pronounced “jee-kill” and not “jek-ill”; the reason for this he said was that “jek-ill” was too much like the alter-ego of Mr Hyde in the famous story by Robert Louis Stevenson; and interestingly Stevenson was a friend of Gertrude’s brother, Walter and borrowed the family name for the novel! Wow, I knew it was to be a good visit!
The exhibition fills the main first floor gallery and is divided into 3 distinct sections; her early life which explains about her ambitions as a child to become an Artist, how she became a proficient watercolourist and her time at the Kensington School of Art where she learned about botany, anatomy, optics and the science of colour. she embraced these studies vigorously and took part in several exhibitions, to which critics were generally favourable, but not overwhelmingly so. This caused her to come to the conclusion that she was not quite good enough to make it as an artist and instead turned to crafts and design. What a good decision that was, because while her paintings of landscapes in watercolour were charming and of their time, they were a little pedestrian and lacking that extra ‘something’. Hanging on the back wall of the first room is a vast goldwork embroidered silk panel which was commissioned by the Duke of Westminster about 1874-77. This panel is quite breathtaking in size and design and workmanship, although Jekyll designed the panel she only worked on part of the stitching which for the most part was carried out by the Royal School of Needlework (Sadly no photographs were allowed, but I did make some on-the-spot sketches which I have scanned from my notebook to reproduce here.) She did however design and stitch two smaller panels in brown silk twill for Frederic, Lord Leighton; and her designs show clear influence by the arts and crafts movement and William Morris.
Although a skilled craftswoman in many disciplines, Jekyll worked closely with manufacturers to make her designs accessible to the wider public and her ‘Munstead’ Flower Glass (vase) is a particular case in point. This came about after she was unable to find a suitable shaped vase for her cut flowers, (she felt “it is not enough to cultivate plants well: they must also be used well“) that her solution was to design her own which was subsequently made up at the Whitefriars Glass Factory and sold by James Green and Nephew at a cost between 6d and 10s. As the original catalogue sheet states: “These vases are specially designed to meet a growing demand for glasses of various useful shapes and sizes that shall be strong, low in price and capable of holding a large quantity of water.” Reproductions of these vases have been commissioned by Jekyll’s great-great niece Christina Freyburg and can be found at www.gertrudejekylldesigns.com.
The middle room concentrates on her work for which she is bast known, as a garden designer and her partnership with the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. There are two scale models of well-known gardens she has designed as well as many original design ideas, plans and planting scheme notes. some of her best-known gardens open to the public include Durmast House, Burley in Hampshire (privately own but opens under the National Gardens Scheme); Hestercombe Gardens near Taunton, Somerset; Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey; and Vann Garden near Goldalming, Surrey also in private hands but open through the National Gardens Scheme (www.NGS.org).
The final room contains artefacts she owned, used and collected. Her garden writing desk is on display, together with a collection of ironwork tools and implements including a pair of fire dogs. Around the walls hang several collages she made from cutting out images from old seed catalogues and gardening magazines, as well as various drawings, sketches and a glass case of her early photographs of the ironwork she collected. Gertrude took to photography in her 40’s when her eyesight began to fail and she became an accomplished photographer using many of her own photographs in her 1904 book “Old West Surrey”.
left: postcard image of “Three Cats Drinking from a Bowl of Milk” by Gertrude Jekyll (described by Sir Edwin Lutyens as an EquiCATeral triangle)
right: my notebook sketch of Gertrude Jekyll’s personal monogrammed garden fork
Of course no exhibition about Gertrude Jekyll would be complete without her garden boots (these are normally on display at Godalming Museum (www.waverley.gov.uk/godalmingmuseum), but are on loan to The Lightbox for this show; and naturally where the actual boots are, it is only fitting that the famous painting by Sir William Nicholson “Miss Jekyll’s Garden Boots” (owned by the Tate) should be hanging on the wall beside them – and guess what… they were!
left: Miss Jekyll’s Garden Boots by William Nicholson (scanned from a fridge magnet)
right: Sir William Nicholson’s portrait of Gertrude Jekyll (from book of the same name by Twigs Way)