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Miss Jekyll, Portrait of a Great Gardener

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Gertrude Jekyll has had an influence on the gardens that we see today even though most of her work was done over a hundred years ago. She began her professional life as an artist and craftswoman in Surrey, England, in the late 19th century but her hopes for an artistic life were dashed when, at about the age of fifty, her eyesight, never good, began to fail beyond a point where she could continue her painting and other close work such as engraving and needlework. It became apparent that she would have to choose a different profession if she was going to remain occupied and fulfilled.

She came from a family which was comfortably well off and could have led a life of leisure but she was a woman with a strong moral ethic and felt that she should contribute something with her life and at this time she turned her attention to garden design; she had already done some work of this nature for friends and fellow artists and now it would be her main occupation. She moved in intellectual and artistic circles, where her work was much respected,  and had a deep love for the country life of Surrey, reflected in her paintings and craftwork.

I have read remarks by some authors who doubted her connection to the cottage gardens that she claimed to have influenced her so much, but, as can be seen in the biography Miss Jekyll, Portrait of a Great Gardener by Betty Massingham, a chapter of which is excerpted in this post, it can be seen that her connection to this (then) rural part of England was very real and that she knew the local people well and, in her visits to them, would have been exposed from an early age to these gardens.

Britain has a long and illustrious history of garden design, dating back centuries, but each successive wave of ‘new’ design concepts, ranging from the hortus conclusis of the middle ages, to the Tudor era, through the formal designs of the renaissance to the ‘landscape’ design frenzy of Capability Brown tended to sweep away the one that proceeded it. In the Victorian era, when Miss Jekyll came of age, garden design had generally been debased to the bedding out craze that might best be described as banal.

Interestingly enough, the one design concept that survived all of these successive waves was the one that perhaps was not a design at all; the cottage garden. These gardens had always been informal and they relied on plants that were, for the most part, functional and which had often arrived in these gardens as cast-offs from the ‘big house’ as it transitioned from one design craze to the next. A cottage gardener could be relied upon to recognize a good plant when the Lord and Lady could not. Miss Jekyll’s appreciation for and use of these plants and their settings was instrumental in establishing the naturalistic garden design aesthetic that reigns supreme today.

At about this time Miss Jekyll met a young architect by the name of Edwin Lutyens who was just embarking on his career and it seems as though she immediately took a liking to him and took him under her wing. She had met him at the home of a mutual acquaintance and had seen the plans for a design for a building, his first commission, and apparently liked them. She asked him to visit her at her mother’s home near Godalming in Surrey to discuss plans for a house that she was planning to build for herself across the road on a plot of 15 acres. The design of this house, Munstead Wood, and its construction, was very successful and the two of them then went on to establish a partnership that lasted for decades and was to become the epitome of high Edwardian taste; namely a Lutyens house with a Jekyll garden.

In fact Lutyens designed the general layout of the garden as well as the house, and Miss Jekyll handled the planting. Lutyens, of course, went on to become probably the most famous English architect of the modern era, if not of all time, but the debt that he owes to Gertrude Jekyll cannot be underestimated.

Miss Jekyll wrote numerous books during her life and they are as readable, and reliable, today as they were then. In future I will excerpt chapters from some of them as a taste of her wisdom, but for now, here is chapter XI from Miss Jekyll, Portrait of a Great Gardener by Betty Massingham.

Miss Jekyll, Portrait of a Great Gardener, Betty Massingham

Miss Jekyll, Portrait of a Great Gardener, Betty Massingham

Gardens of a Golden Afternoon, Jane Brown, Penguin Books, 1982

The Illustrated Gertrude Jekyll – Colour Schemes For The Flower Garden


Miss Jekyll, Portrait of a Great Gardener

Betty Massingham

David & Charles : Newton Abbot, 1973

First published in 1966 by Country Life Limited

Chapter XI, 1909 – 1919

The partnership between Lutyens and Miss Jekyll never faltered, although she was occupied to a great extent with her writing at this time and kept very much now within the confines of the Munstead Wood garden, while he was busy with even bigger commissions. They still worked together and in his letters to Lady Emily there were many affectionate references to ‘Bumps’.

There had been Millmead in 1906 – perhaps one of their joint undertakings nearest to her heart. The restoring of Great Dixter, Sussex, in 1910 and co-operation with the work on Hampstead Garden City in the same year were both matters of consultation between them. (The planning of the crematorium gardens came a few years later, about 1915.) Lindisfarne and Lambay were rescued by the vision of Lutyens and converted into something habitable. For their difficult and precipitous gardens Miss Jekyll suggested the use of shrubs with grey foliage contrasting with a few bright colours – sea buckthorn, Cineraria maritima, rosemary, along with fuchsias, pinks and campions. At Lambay excavations had revealed a wide rampart wall which provided much-needed shelter, and supports of an old farm shed were used as posts for roses.

What was the secret of this lasting relationship between Lutyens and Miss Jekyll? It is a big question but, apart from his genius, the attraction to Miss Jekyll may well have been her protege’s sense of fun. Sometimes it was irritating, but more often irresistible, and Renishaw was one of the gardens where it seemed to bubble over most. Sir George Sitwell spent hours planning and re-planning the gardens of Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire. In his imagination terraces were built, dams constructed, sweeping flights of stone steps in wide curves made to connect one lake with another, with an odd island or two added as an after-thought.

The date of Miss Jekyll’s intervention must have been about 1910, but Edwin Lutyens had been called in two or three years earlier. He wrote excitedly to Lady Emily: ‘They want me to do the garden, ball room, billiard room, great drawing room, dining room, etc. Sir George wants to build a little water palace (one room) on the lake, which would be a delightful thing to do … ‘[The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.] Sir George’s ideas of laying out pools, ponds, lakes and cascades in his gardens were inclined to lead to embarrassing financial problems and most of them had to be abandoned forthwith. If they were not impossibly expensive then they were often impracticable. One of these concerned special arrangements for the cook to have her boudoir on an island in a large stretch of water. Lutyens’s reaction to this may be guessed from Sir George’s report: ‘It was a pity,’ he said ‘that architects always raised unnecessary points against their own interest, and Lutyens … had been in one of his silly moods the other day … and had blurted out that he wondered if the cook would enjoy sculling half a mile before breakfast.’[Great Morning, by Sir Osbert Sitwell. Macmillan, 1948.]

The first visit to Renishaw was followed by many others, and Lutyens dealt with the mad-hatter schemes of Sir George with his usual charm and high spirits, in much the same manner as he was to deal later with the schemes of Lady Sackville.

‘His sense of irreverence, his spontaneity, his hatred of the pompous, made him a perfect foil to my father’, writes Sir Osbert Sitwell in Great Morning. His ‘Jack-in-the-box forms of fun’ and ‘his endless, bubbling flow of puns’ were directed against friends and clients alike with varying results, but few were able to resist his charm. An incident described in Great Morning when he was supposed to be in consultation illustrates the lightning workings of his mind. Sir George had gone to look for a drawing he had thought of for the garden, and Lutyens and Sir Osbert were left together in the room. As they were talking, the sofa they were sitting on suddenly split its covering and some of the stuffing – horsehair – came out. Without hesitation or comment Ned Lutyens pulled a bit away, got up from the sofa, tore a piece of ribbon from the edge of a curtain and tied it round the wisp. He tucked the little bundle into an envelope – all this without a word – sealed it, and wrote on it, and then placed it inside a drawer of a cabinet. He sat down again quickly, remarking: ‘Nobody’s likely to find that for a long time, and by then it will have become real.’ Years afterwards Sir Osbert was passing this cabinet one day at Renishaw and without thinking he looked into the drawer. Inside was an envelope on which was written: ‘A lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair, cut from her head ten minutes after execution.’

Lutyens brought this spirit of light-hearted spontaneity into his work and especially into his dealings with Miss Jekyll. Her part in the Renishaw gardens is observed in the same book. ‘This year [1911] … the flowers had attained a peculiar richness typical of the epoch, for Lutyens’s friend and mentor, Miss Jekyll, had been sent the plan of the garden beds by my father and had issued her decrees for them: in one part they were to be filled only with blossoms of blue and orange and lemon-yellow, in another with French eighteenth-century blues and pinks.’

She is described as a ‘friend and mentor’ and for ‘mentor’ the Oxford Dictionary gives ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’. This was indeed one side of the coin. On the other there was the enthusiasm of a younger man whose chief maxim about his work was: ‘Architecture is building with wit.’ Their relationship was a marriage of wisdom and wit. It is understandable that Miss Jekyll has been described again and again by those who can still remember her as having ‘a wonderful sense of humour’. Otherwise she would not have delighted in his sense of fun or seen underneath it the genius and serious intent of his work.

Lady Emily recalls Ned Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll dancing together in the firelight on winter evenings at Munstead Wood, and though she scolded him if she thought he was becoming too frivolous, Lady Emily says that Miss Jekyll obviously enjoyed it very much indeed.

Miss Jekyll’s forbearance with his nonsense was typical of her broadness of character and speaks, too, for the charm of his method of attack when dealing with clients who might not have the same ideas as their architect. Mr Hussey writes ‘… they were almost powerless to control or amend a design once conceived. If they had come to the office prepared to make a row, within a couple of minutes his charm had mollified them, with sketched ideas for this and that and probably a dig in the ribs and “nonsense, that won’t ruin you! but don’t tell your wife!” ‘[Life if Sir Edwin Lutyens.]

He was irresistible, but Sir Herbert Baker felt it necessary to admonish him with reference to the submission of tenders. ‘Remember’, he scolded, ‘you cannot carry off that kind of thing with a Government as you do with private clients, with a joke !’[Ibid.]

Miss Jekyll was able to deal with this irresistible charm and ‘Jack in-the-box form of fun’ in no uncertain manner, controlling it when necessary with all the firmness of her solid character, but at the same time often delighting in it. She probably also provided a feeling of security and welcome, and, in spite of the criticism, he knew she believed in his work. He loved to be with people who gave him the feeling of a home.

Miss Jekyll’s botanical knowledge – though she usually denied any expert familiarity with plant names – was being stimulated over these years by visits from various gardening friends, many of them authors. Mr E. A. Bowles, now of crocus fame, may have been working on his first two books, My Garden in Spring and My Garden in Summer (published in 1914) when he visited Munstead Wood. He had already served on the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society. Miss Ellen Willmott was another visitor and friend, and one who also brought her camera, as she contributed some of the illustrations for Children and Gardens. Her Genus Rosa was just about to be published – it came out in parts during the years 1910-14, illustrated with colour plates from drawings by Alfred Parsons, A.R.A., published by John Murray. Miss Willmott dedicated this work to Queen Alexandra. Two more visitors about this time were the Countess Von Arnim, author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and Mr H. Avray Tipping, the scholarly author of The Garden of Today and that gigantic work, English Homes.

An important friendship was growing during these years with the Keeper of the Department of Botany at the British Museum, Mr James Britten. In an earlier rather brief letter she enlists Mr Britten’s help: ‘Will you kindly name this plant for me?’ In 1910 she writes a longer and more friendly letter, this time making arrangements for Mr Britten to come to Munstead Wood in order to meet another mutual acquaintance. ‘As soon as I hear from you I will write to Dr Hyland. I will do my best about the weather although some of my efforts in that direction have, of late, not met with success …. Remember, you are coming to a cottage with the very simplest ways – no evening clothes are allowed; only your barest necessaries in a small bag. Will you look out for my roan cob at Godalming at 5.28 … .’

He was a bachelor, always ready for battle, argued about everything, a staunch Roman Catholic. He had a moustache and a beard, rather a squat-looking face with an alert expression in his eyes and wore glasses. He looked over these almost as much as through them and, though Keeper of Botany, declared that he could never see anything through a microscope.

Gardening was the original interest which brought them together, but in later years this friendship was to develop into a warm – in all senses of the word – relationship with the two of them and with Mr Logan Pearsall Smith on the use of words. The arguments were often hot and fierce. Mr Pearsall Smith wrote later: ‘Britten was an irascible fault-finding little man, and Miss Jekyll had no exaggerated disinclination for a scrimmage now and then. Their friendship, as with most of Britten’s friendships, was a kind of cat-and-dog relationship, Britten being in this case the cat, and Miss Jekyll the big, good-natured dog, who was, however, not incapable of growling when a growl was called for.’[Reperusals and Recollections. Constable.]

This was the life led by Miss Jekyll in the years immediately before the Great War. In 1911 she was sixty-eight years of age, living of necessity an even more solitary life at Munstead Wood. Some of her closest friends had died and she could not, in any case, deal with many visitors; she relied on a few that she knew well or in whom she was especially interested. In the gardening world William Robinson, now seventy-two years old, was almost entirely dependent on bathchair locomotion. Reginald Farrer was probably drawing up the outline for his book, The English Rock Garden, full of ideas which suited well the naturalistic gardening of Mr Robinson and Miss Jekyll as opposed to the formal bedding-out gospel preached in Victorian times. In China, E. H. Wilson was working for the American Professor C. S. Sargent, curator of the world-famous Arnold Arboretum. Most of Wilson’s early pioneering work had been done for the firm of Veitch of Devon and it was during September, 1911, that Miss Jekyll visited their nursery at Exeter on her return journey from a holiday in Cornwall.

1912 saw the publication of her book written in collaboration with Sir Lawrence Weaver, published by Country Life-Gardens for Small Country Houses. It is interesting that in the days of plenty before the outbreak of war there was this demand for ideas in planning for small properties. Even then the burden of the large estate was beginning to be felt, and greater interest in gardening shown by the owners of more moderate sized gardens.

The authors claim ‘that no feature has been illustrated which would not be fitting in a small garden when reduced to scale, or which it would be wrong so to reduce’.

The opening sentence of the introductory chapter proclaims the gist of the Jekyll-Lutyens

relationship: ‘It is upon the right relation of the garden to the house that its value and the enjoyment that is to be derived from it will largely depend. The connection must be intimate, and the access not only convenient, but inviting.’

Another point of major importance is made in this chapter, that of the relation between the house and garden and the surroundings in which they are located. ‘In the arrangement of any site the natural conditions of the place should first be studied. If they are emphatic or in any way distinct, they should be carefully maintained and fostered. It is grievous to see, in a place that has some well-defined natural character, that character destroyed or stultified, for it is just that quality that is most precious. Many a hillside site, such as those on wild moorland, has been vulgarised by a conventionally commonplace treatment. Such a place has possibilities that are delightful, and all the easier to accommodate because the poor soil imposes certain conditions and restricts the choice of plants. There are natural gardens in these places, and especially natural groves, that cannot be bettered in the way of consistent and harmonious planting by any choice from a nurseryman’s catalogue. Such a region is a hillside clothed with juniper, holly, birch, mountain ash, scrub oak and Scotch fir, in a delightfully spontaneous grouping with undergrowths of bracken and whortleberry, and heaths in the more open spaces, and other delights of honeysuckle, wild thyme, wood sage and dwarf scabious’ (p. XIX). Chapter I in this book on Millmead and Chapter V on Munstead Wood have already been mentioned.

Country houses are specified in the title of the book, but some small town gardens were included, that of 100, Cheyne Walk belonging to Sir Hugh Lane being one of them. It is planned round a leaning mulberry tree and ‘has a refined classical flavour without being stiff’. Professor Tonks, Wilston Steer and George Moore were frequent visitors to this house and the peace and dignity of the garden must have provided a suitable background for their many discussions. (There is a mention of Professor Tonks painting a relative of Miss Jekyll working in his garden, by Violet Hammersley: ’1907-1908 – Tonks spent the summer painting my husband working in his rock garden in the evenings – a garden he had made himself with loving care, being, like his cousin Gertrude Jekyll, of the tribe of born gardeners.’[The London Magazine, Vol. 3, No. I, January, 1958.] If only he had painted the Munstead garden what a treasure we should have.

Lutyens was also approached by Sir Hugh Lane in 1912 to produce designs for a gallery to house his famous collection of paintings. First suggested sites were in St Stephen’s Green and then in Merrion Square, Dublin, but as neither of these proved to be suitable and there seemed to be no land available, they conceived the idea of spanning the Liffey with a bridge having galleries for the pictures at either end.

There seems to be a faint Sitwellian ring about the plan, estimated to cost about £45,000, and Dublin during 1913 was not the place nor was it the time to ask for such a sum in order to house decently thirty-nine paintings. The corporation refused to co-operate and Sir Hugh Lane moved his pictures to the National Gallery in London. Lutyens must have been disappointed, but there were greater things already looming up on his horizon.

Following the transfer of the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi in 191 I, the most ambitious architectural programme of the British Empire was contemplated and an architect with vision and experience was needed. Lutyens had by now a good many well-received buildings behind him, among them the whole lay-out and design of the Hampstead Garden Suburb. Mr Christopher Hussey writes: ‘At home he was now famous as a domestic architect of supreme skill. . . . The English conception of a good-looking house set in a gracious garden among fine trees, which he had so variously realised with the help of Miss Jekyll, raised the standard of domestic design throughout the world.’[The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.]

Lutyens was now forty-two and seemed to have acquired a definite trend and ideal in his work. In January, 1912, he was invited to serve on a committee of three to advise the Government of India on the designing and lay-out of the new capital. In the autumn of the same year he travelled to Delhi and during the next two years he visited many north-western frontier towns.

While Lutyens was travelling to the East Miss Jekyll’s work was travelling to the West. This was a time of appreciation of her writings in America and of her growing correspondence with Mrs Francis King, a well-known American gardener writer.[She was awarded the George Robert White Medal of Honor by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.] Mrs King was one of the Founders and also a Vice-President of the Garden Club of America as well as an author of gardening literature. From Miss Jekyll’s letters it is obvious that there was already a school of thought in America based on Munstead ideas. Mrs King paid Miss Jekyll the compliment of asking her to write a Preface to her book being published in 1913, The Garden Day By Day. (Much later, in 1932, Mrs King contributed a chapter on American Gardens to that excellent work, The Story Of The Garden by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde.)

Miss Jekyll, meanwhile, was occupied at Munstead Wood, sending plans for other people’s gardens and working in her own. There were more days when visitors to the Munstead garden had to be turned away and there were more signs of fatigue by the end of the day. In the evenings the making of shell pictures took the place of finer work which might strain her eyes.

None of this meant, however, a lessening of her interest in the plans of gardens on which she could give advice, even if it was not possible to visit them in person. There was the case of Miss Baring, another cousin of Miss Jekyll, whose garden was in the New Forest. A friend who went to look after it found it well laid out and thoughtfully planned, with two fine Scotch pines left standing in a good position and planted underneath with ericas and azaleas.

‘Gertrude wouldn’t come here’, explained Miss Baring, ‘as she was getting old, but she made me send her a measured ground plan, which I had to get a surveyor to do, as I couldn’t make one myself. Then she arranged it all.’ Miss Baring was not herself knowledgeable about flowers, but she wanted a good garden and so she sent a list of fairly elementary questions to Miss Jekyll. These came back with some downright replies such as ‘nonsense’ or ‘don’t be silly’ or ‘do use your head and consult my chart’.[Bricks and Flowers, by Katherine Everett. Constable, 1949·]

There may have been physical fatigue and acute myopia but her mind was as lively and as alert as ever.

Two other garden designs were put in hand just before the outbreak of war, both closely connected with her home. One was for a memorial cloister erected to the memory of the heroic wireless operator Jack Phillips who went down on the Titanic in 1912, and who came from Godalming. The other was a design and lay-out of a tract of land about two miles from Munstead Wood which had been acquired by the National Trust in memory of its founder, Octavia Hill. She also had died in 1912 (Plate 52).

The first of these two schemes was undertaken by Mr Thackeray Turner, a well-known gardener, and Miss Jekyll’s advice was required in the selection of evergreen shrubs and plants suitable to the restraint of its architectural setting. The second gave her greater scope of a kind which especially appealed to her. A piece of natural, open ground, required controlling without formalising. Tracks through the plantation were needed in place of the old rabbit-runs, and she is recorded as working with a patrol of Boy Scouts in 1915 to clear away the undergrowth and arrange a system of neat paths leading to the highest point, about five hundred feet – from which there was a commanding view of the beautiful unspoilt country of West Surrey. This cleaning away of low-growing tangled bushes was a big thing to tackle over such an area at her time of life-she was now just over seventy years of age -and the work went on twice a week during the spring and summer with energy which even surprised herself.

The lights had gone out over Europe; the Lusitania, torpedoed in the Atlantic; the Dardanelles expedition; the war in Mesopotamia; these were some of the headlines splashed across the newspapers of 1915. Miss Jekyll, alert in spite of her years and her failing sight, worked with parties to collect spagnum moss which was needed at the Front, helped to supply the military hospital at Thorncombe with fruit and vegetables grown in beds usually given up to flowers, and conducted Canadian soldiers from a near-by camp round her Munstead garden.

An activity dating back from her student days came to the fore again in the spring of 1916. Miss Jekyll had often visited the Victoria and Albert Museum as a young woman to study and to paint. Then, on her travels abroad and especially to Algiers, she had begun to make a collection of materials and sometimes garments relating to local costume. On 23rd May, Lady Horner wrote to Mr Kendrick, Keeper of Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, mentioning a ‘very beautiful old quilt’ which Miss Jekyll was ready to give to the Museum if it would be suitable, and suggesting that he should go down to Munstead to see her ‘as she has lots of things put away!’

A week later Mr Kendrick visited Munstead Wood and went through her collection with her. A considerable number of articles were selected to be given to the Museum, including the quilt (seventeenth century Portuguese), several pieces of Algerian embroidery, Oriental and European details of costume and some Italian embroideries.

She writes in a letter on 14th June, 1916:

Dear Mr Kendrick,

I am glad to include the two copies of monks’ frocks in the case which I have finished packing today and which will be put on the rail for the goods train tonight. The larger, brown one I made myself in around the year 1895 from one I borrowed from one of the convents in Sussex – I do not remember which – of a Franciscan or allied order. I borrowed it for use with a model. The other, white one was given me by my old friend Mdme Bodichon – a Sussex woman and artist, and is likely to be correct.

I came upon a few other articles after your visit and ventured to include them for your consideration – but if I have sent anything that is useless it might be returned.

It is a great satisfaction to me to know that so many of the items I had to offer are acceptable to the museum.

Yours very truly

Gertrude Jekyll

This was only another sideline of all her many interests, but it was probably due to her artistic training that she was able to make a selection of these items worthy of inclusion in a collection for the Victoria and Albert Museum, in just the same way that she knew instinctively which plants to select for her garden and where to put them.

‘Few men with a remarkable sense of life run along tram lines. They are always turning off their road even if their objective stays considerably in view. Always something is intriguing them. Always that something can be put to the general account, can be added to the general unity by which they are possessed …. Parkinson and Miller were not tram-liners … they were men of appetite and curiosity. I do not believe that a great gardener was ever gardener alone, any more than the great or good poets and painters were concerned only with poems or pictures. . .’ [Gardenage, by Geoffrey Grigson. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.]

An example was Monsieur Le Notre: ‘ … but his training for Versailles was not in grafting rose-trees or layering gillyflowers. He studied first to be a painter, an enthusiasm which never left him, for he collected many fine pictures, especially by Poussin, who, as we might guess, was his favourite artist.’[Men and Gardens, by Nan Fairbrother. Hogarth Press, 1956.]  Again, Joseph Paxton advised young gardeners to study other subjects than gardening, especially poetry, the arts and literary composition. The mention of poetry reminds one that it was a poet laureate who was one of the first people to use the term ‘landscape gardening’.

‘I have used the term “landscape gardener” because, in accordance with our present-day taste, every good landscape painter is the proper designer of gardens.’[Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening, by William Shenstone (1764).]

In Miss Jekyll’s books there are quotations which show a wide variety in her reading – from George Herbert, William Cobbett, John Evelyn, William Robinson and, of course, Ruskin. Her appreciation of Ruskin had no obvious connection with gardening. It was based on his ideas about painting, about social conditions, and about Greek studies.

‘But elegance, chief grace the garden shows

And most attractive, is the fair result

Of thought, the creature of a polish’d mind.’

(William Cowper)

and, again:

‘Virgil does not speak of the beauty of ducks swimming in a river, the softness of their voices and their round black eyes so intelligent, but I should not have known how beautiful they are when swimming in a river if I had not read Virgil . . .’

Heloise and Abelard. (George Moore translation)

Miss Jekyll was no ‘tram-liner’.

A summer holiday with the Lutyens family at Folly Farm in the Kennet valley in 1916 is mentioned by Mr Hussey. ‘Even Bumps was coaxed away from Munstead Wood and, after doing a little gardening by force of habit, would take off her hob-nailed boots to play the pianola’. [Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.]

Edwin Lutyens himself had returned from Delhi in March of this year, renewing especially at this time his friendship with Lady Sackville. Her appetite for fun matched his, as well as her interest in extravagant conversions of houses – like the three adjacent houses in Sussex Square, Brighton, converted into one large dwelling with, among other commodities, a dining room capable of seating one hundred guests, ‘though she never had more than two and took all her meals in a loggia’.[Ibid.]

Lady Sackville was middle-aged and rather fat, but her face is described as having ‘an almost classical prettiness, and her expression could be extremely seductive’.[Great Morning, by Sir Osbert Sitwell.] She loved to watch his drawings as ‘with jokes pouring endlessly from his lips, he flung domes and towers into the air, decorated them with her monogram, raised fountains and pavilions … .’[Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.] She lavished gifts upon him. One of them was a Rolls Royce which had been a longed-for dream for many years. It was a pity that it was the more superficial side of his nature and his work which she encouraged. He needed sympathy and interest, but he needed much more the stern guidance of a ‘Bumps’. Unfortunately ‘Bumps’ was not at an age to be on the spot in London and it must be admitted, in any case, that when Lutyens took Lady Sackville to visit Miss Jekyll at Munstead Wood in the autumn of 1916, she was ‘immediately charmed by her’. However, sterner things lay ahead.

In 1917 Lutyens was invited to travel, with Sir Herbert Baker and Charles Aitkin, to the battlefields of France and there to decide on the form of military cemeteries and monuments to be adopted. He wrote feelingly to Lady Emily: ‘What humanity can endure, suffer, is beyond belief.’ Montreuil, Abbeville . . . miles of country where he saw ‘ribbons of little crosses each touching each across a cemetery set in a wilderness of annuals – and where one sort of flower has grown the effect is charming, easy, and oh so pathetic, that one thinks no other monument is needed’.[Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.]

Lutyens sent in a suggestion for every British cemetery to have one great stone of good proportions raised up on steps, facing towards the east with the graves lying before it, and having some ‘fine thought or words of sacred dedication’ inscribed indelibly on it. It is significant that in this he turned to Bumps for criticism or suggestions or confirmation. Mr Hussey records that ‘by mid-August Miss Jekyll had written to him at length, endorsing his Great Stone conception .. .’.[Ibid.]

Towards the end of the war Miss Jekyll submitted planting schemes for the British cemeteries in France. She was directly responsible to the chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission in her choice of flowers and plants, some of which she had cared for in her own garden. White thrift was one of the plants selected, numbers of which were packed and sent off to the Commission’s offices.

On 1st January, 1918, Edwin Lutyens received his knighthood. The day before it was announced the new knight was travelling by train, alone in his carriage, through the Pyrenees in intense cold on his way to design a house for the Duke of Penaranda. He wrote to Lady Emily in his usual ‘fooling’ style: ‘We are snowed up at Avila, three hours from Madrid, snow banks in front, a derailed train behind, our fuel for warming the carriage failed, the lights went out, and there for hours on a mountain top I waited … thoroughly be-knighted!! It snows and snows, I with a fearful cold in mysnose-it was all s’nose, as my mouchoir s’knows too well!’[Ibid.]

Miss Jekyll· must have felt gratified at this recognition for her protégé. She had greatly influenced his ideas and some of the biggest commissions had come his way either through her recommendation or on account of domestic architecture carried out in partnership with her. Smug or complacent she would never be, but on her own account, too, she had reason to feel satisfaction. She had come to the position in her life of knowing that what she set out to do would be accomplished. Much of her success was due to her artistic training and to her innate good taste but, as Mr Falkner observed, it also required ‘the energy of the ant, the perseverance of the spider, the unwavering pursuit of an idea, undeterred by a thousand failures and uninfluenced by any outward tendency she did not choose to notice’. In 1918 Garden Ornament was published – a folio book fully illustrated, and a worthy companion to Gardens for Small Country Houses. It was a forerunner of the sumptious garden books which appear today, confirming the fact that photographs educate and make suggestions.

Towards the end of the year came the Armistice, but the privations of a country at war were not over. Ration books did not disappear overnight and the cost of living was high. Writing to Mrs King in April, 1919, Miss Jekyll came the nearest to a grouse or complaint that she ever uttered. She described her altered way of life, illness, almost blindness and general lack of strength. But she characteristically expressed thanks that it was only for herself she felt this inconvenience and not for a family. ‘What happens to an old woman does not really matter and if it must be, I shall face it quite cheerfully as my way of paying for the war and its good ending. I am afraid this is rather a growl. .. .’

And then came the Cenotaph. Mr Robert Lutyens writes: ‘On July 19th, 1919, Lloyd George summoned my father and told him that the Government wished to erect a “catafalque” for the anniversary of the Armistice. He explained that it must be undenominational in character, as commemorating men of every creed, and, in the first instance, was envisaged as a temporary structure; hence, no doubt, Lloyd George’s choice of the word “catafalque” as indicating a “temporary stage or platform erected by way of honour in a church to receive a coffin or effigy … .”.’[Sir Edwin Lutyens: An Appreciation in Perspective.]

Now we must go back many years to an occasion at Munstead Wood when Miss Jekyll asked Ned Lutyens to build her a seat for the garden incorporating a large bulk of wood with supports of masonry. On its completion Charles Liddell, their friend, remarked on its similarity to the Cenotaph of Sigismunda. Lutyens did not know the word, ‘and elicited that it meant an empty tomb, “a monument erected to a deceased person whose body is buried elsewhere”‘. Shortly afterwards he jokingly explained to Herbert Jekyll that the new object in the garden was ‘a cenotaph to Bumps’.[Ibid.] Miss Jekyll refers to it in Home and Garden, mentioning that it is much appreciated by her cat Pinkieboy and his friends who liked to enjoy the full afternoon sun for the mid-day snooze or, later in the day, the alternate light of sunshine and shadow filtering through the tall silver birch branches (Plate 46).

Robert Lutyens went on: ‘Father immediately remembered the long-ago incident of the “cenotaph to Bumps” and evolved the design, not as a catafalque but, infinitely more apt, as the empty tomb-the monument of millions “buried elsewhere”. No one would connect this apparently most abstract and formal conception with a picturesque Surrey garden. Nor would anybody but my father have remembered the incident so vividly for thirty years,. assimilated its significance, and been able, when the time came, to give it seemingly spontaneous architectural form.’[Sir Edwin Lutyens: An Appreciation in Perspective.]

It is understandable that Lutyens’ reply to Lloyd George was ‘not a catafalque but a Cenotaph’. There was need for quick thinking as it was required in position in Whitehall by the end of the month for the Peace celebrations. All the same, the extraordinary speed with which the plan was conceived and delivered could hardly have been anticipated by Lloyd George when he asked for it. The design was worked out that same day, a rough drawing done that evening on the back of an advertisement to show to the Hon. Mrs Harold Nicolson with whom Lutyens was dining, and the half-inch and full-size working drawings were at 10 o’clock the next morning in the hands of the Office of Works.

Mr Christopher Hussey writes: ‘It can be said that the commissioning, conception, and rough though finite design of the Cenotaph took place within six hours; probably less.’

The story of the origin of the memorial and the train of thought which led him to suggest the name of Cenotaph was related to Mr Hussey by Lutyens himself. In order to be quite sure of all the details, Mr Hussey asked him to go over the details again. Lutyens confirmed them all, showing that his design and interpretation stemmed from the Sigismunda at Munstead Wood.

Mr Robert Lutyens enumerates further the different factors which helped to make up this composite picture of the Cenotaph: ‘His [father's] receptiveness to a fresh idea, though it may have seemed a trifling archaeological detail at the time; his immense memory for anything bearing on architecture; the peculiar cast of his mind, which would attach a clear image to any word once understood; the nature and extent of his debt to Miss Jekyll and her fastidiously civilised circle, which goes far deeper than any mere picturesque orientation ….’[Ibid.]

The work on the permanent monument was started in October, 1919, and finished in time for the second Anniversary of Peace the next year. There was one letter of appreciation, among many, which must have given him special pleasure:

My dear Lutyens,

The Cenotaph grows in beauty as one strolls down alone o’ nights to look at it, which becomes my habit. I stand cogitating how and why it is so noble a thing. It is how the war has moved you and lifted you above yourself. I think it was Milton who described poetry as ‘thoughts that voluntarily move harmonious numbers’. This is a harmonious number and I feel proud of it and you.

Yours sincerely,

J. M. Barrie.[The Life of Edwin Lutyens.]

Miss Jekyll wrote: ‘The name [Cenotaph of Sigismunda] was so undoubtedly suitable to the monumental mass of elm and to its somewhat funereal environment of weeping birch and spire-like mullein, that it took hold at once, and the Cenotaph of Sigismunda it will always be as long as I am alive to sit on it.’[Home and Garden, p. 71.] She could have had little idea then what significance this would have in later years or of how the mood of sadness and dignity of the weeping trees from a corner of her Surrey garden would help to inspire a great memorial for the nation. In a letter of appreciation to Lutyens Lloyd George wrote: ‘The Cenotaph by its very simplicity fittingly express the memory in which the people hold all those who so bravely fought and died for the country.’[The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens.]

The Cenotaph, in Whitehall, London, England, is made from Portland stone.


Written by pocogardenclub

December 3, 2010 at 5:47 pm

One Response

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  1. What to do in December for your garden and gardener…

    It’s snowing, the ground is frozen solid and it’s so frigid you dress in three or four layers of clothing.Take a winter walk around your garden; shake off the snow and ice on bushes and plants before limbs are damaged. Now is the perfect time to look…


    December 3, 2010 at 6:00 pm

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