During lockdown, Julia Bagguley found solace and hope in her garden. Here, in the twenty-fifth postcard of the series, she reflects on another gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, as captured in William Nicholson’s portrait.
Gertrude Jekyll was born in Mayfair, the fifth of seven children of a prosperous family. Her younger brother, Walter Jekyll was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who borrowed the family name for his famous novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Jekyll was the first in a now distinguished line of women horticulturists and garden designers. She was also renowned as a craftswoman, photographer, artist and writer – including over 1,000 articles for journals such as Country Life. In her spare time she created exquisite shell collages, two of which she presented to Queen Mary.
The radical and innovative gardener
After early training as an artist, Jekyll moved into garden design. From 1880, for the rest of her life, she lived at Munstead Wood, Godalming, in a house designed for her by the architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. With him she laid out the garden and thus began a long and fruitful professional partnership. She created over 120 gardens with Lutyens in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. They were primarily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement with its inspiration of landscape and the traditional materials and skills of the countryside.
Jekyll in her own right oversaw a radical change in garden planning and design. Her gardens were renowned for their natural feel and use of tonal colour. She introduced radical planting of species which, heretofore, had never been grown together – there had been a strict and social divide between those planted in formal, grand gardens, cottage gardens and ‘plants from other countries’.
She promoted the need to understand and interpret plants in relation to their surroundings and she appreciated ‘wildness’. That said, she also saw the control that a wild garden needed; best described as order in a controlled and human setting enhanced with colour. In her own words ‘there is no spot of ground, however arid, bare or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight.’
The reluctant sitter
In 1920, when Jekyll was 76, Lutyens commissioned her portrait, to be painted at Mustead Wood, from the artist, Sir William Nicholson. She proved to be a most reluctant sitter. In Sir William’s words she was ‘quite difficult’ – another of Helen Lewis’ ‘difficult women’ – she would only sit for him in the late afternoon – in varying light – so during the hours, when waiting for her arrival, he whiled away the time painting this picture of her boots (see feature image above).
Odd, you may surmise, but this painting is not a conceit – portraits are often painted without their subject. The best examples are still-lifes, where the contents of cabinets of curiosities are depicted showing wealth and achievement. In 1841, shortly after her marriage, Queen Victoria commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer to paint a portrait of Prince Albert’s favourite greyhound, ‘Eos’, with her master’s silk top hat, gloves and cane – there’s no sign of The Queen’s new husband but a portrait of the Prince it is! (see the Royal Collection Trust).
Jekyll was in her 40s when she bought this pair of men’s boots and was still wearing them, much repaired, at the time of her death in 1932. She said ‘I suppose no horse likes a new collar, I am quite sure I do not like new boots‘. These words convey her practical, hands-on approach; characteristically, she commented on the painting ‘I wish it could have represented a more beautiful object‘.
I first encountered this painting when studying the history of art and architecture; I was blown away by the aesthetic and simplicity of its mise-en-scène which overrides a very complex message. The grisaille shades resonate the rus in urb tones of Jekyll’s style of gardening and woodland habitats and also reflect a person who is ‘bien dans sa peau’. Both combine to reflect her disciplined application and character; assured enough in her personal professional skills, neither wanting nor needing to follow a crowd. Such confidence and experience, without affectation or pretentiousness, is greatly to be admired.
So, Sir William’s waiting time was not wasted; it was not unusual for him as he enjoyed finding elements of the characters of his sitters in their belongings… Jekyll commented ‘I wish it could have represented a more beautiful object‘. The painting is dedicated ‘For E.L.’, and was a gift to Lutyens, whose daughter presented it to the Tate Gallery in 1933 after his death. Sir William’s seated ¾-portrait of a stern Miss Jekyll is at the National Portrait Gallery. The boots are in the care of Godalming Museum.
Gardening in the time of COVID-19
There was extra irony in pondering this painting during the beautiful but haunting Spring of 2020. Nicholson’s wife and oldest son died during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19. Like them, we live in an uncertain world, contemplating death on a grotesque scale and the ravaging of the global economy. What will it feel like to be on a crowded bus, buying a coffee in Prêt-à-manger and embracing friends we have not seen for months? What, even, about visiting the dentist? Some don’t know if their old job will exist next week or be able to pay the rent. And, worst still, the doubt is ever present whether someone we care for will contract and die from COVID-19 – disappearing alone into the night.
East Anglia has been relatively spared from the virus – London and the North West and East experienced much more challenging times at the start of the pandemic. There was relatively less stress here in Cambridge; the lockdown confined but longing for the old ‘normal’ was and is still an error. However old you are, those freedoms and opportunities that all generations took for granted only a few months ago will be very different in the future.
I am, so far, lucky not to have fallen a victim and I’m living in solo/iso in central Cambridge in a house with a south-west facing garden which I’m slowly replanting after a makeover. As Jekyll puts it ‘the lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives’. Concentrating on daily tasks of planting, pruning, weeding and watering are therapeutic and the pleasure of seeing spring turn into summer dilutes the problems beyond the front door. ‘Outdoors’ is soothing and invigorating at the same time and I’m not alone – just look at those crowds before lockdown properly eased, illegally gathered in local parks and by the seaside.
This painting of Miss Jekyll’s boots reminds me, not only of a great innovator and inspirer of gardeners over the last century. She had some strong words pertinent to our present dilemma ‘A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.’
About Julia Bagguley
Julia Bagguley is an early Lucy alumnus (m.1974). She is a former solicitor who specialised in the regulation and governance of a number of high-profile businesses in the UK and abroad. From 2002-2009 she was a Trustee of the charity Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities. In 2002 she passed the Diploma in Fine & Decorative Art at Christie’s Education. From 2002-17 she was a Cataloguer with a nationwide art collection. Follow her on Twitter @mailbagguley
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.
Feature image: Miss Jekyll’s Gardening Boots painted by Sir William Nicholson at Munstead Wood, 1920 (Tate Gallery). Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).