A collection of new research by Sussex Gardens Trust explores the artist gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, through her drawings, correspondence and garden notebooks to reveal a fascinating picture of her commissions in Sussex.
In 2019 a significant project was initiated by Surrey and Sussex Gardens Trusts, with the help of the conservation architect Michael Edwards, to fund the digitisation of the Jekyll archive relating to her commissions in Surrey and Sussex. This unique collection of plans and drawings, correspondence and photographs, which is held at the Environmental Design Archives at the University of Berkeley, has recently been examined by Sussex Gardens Trust, to showcase some of the less familiar Jekyll gardens in the county, now reimagined through in-depth research.
The commissions for Sussex span Jekyll’s working life from 1887 until 1931, a year before her death. One of the most ambitious planting schemes was for the King Edward VII Sanatorium at Midhurst, where Jekyll supplied many of the plants from her own nursery for seven different planting areas. There are fifty-three drawings and plans for the sanatorium in the EDA collection but smaller, private commissions are also documented in the archive, and it is these lesser-known sites that have been the focus for SGT’s research.
Although her later years were centred around Munstead Wood and the neighbourhood of rural Surrey, influential connections were formed in Sussex. Several of the commissions in the county were for women, many of whom were artists and involved in the suffrage movement, such as Barbara Bodichon, for whom Jekyll designed a reading room for her home near Robertsbridge in East Sussex.
Delving into the archive a picture has emerged of a highly creative and distinctly modern woman, whose ideas about natural planting, and creating a harmony of colour in the flower border, continues to influence garden designers of today. Piecing together the drawings, notes for her architects and letters and photographs from clients has thrown a spotlight on the working practice of this renowned plantswoman. The designs and planting schemes drawn in sepia ink, sometimes coloured, annotated roughly in crayon or blue pencil with revisions and reminders, the plant names signified by a letter or symbols of crosses and circles, convey an intriguing visual narrative of the gardens.
By investigating a number of sites previously undocumented innumerable questions and exciting opportunities for further study have arisen. It would be a fitting tribute to her legacy, and to the late Michael Edwards, if this project encourages other county garden trusts to have their EDA collections digitised, eventually creating a complete online archive.
By Sally Ingram, editor of Gertrude Jekyll in Sussex, to be published in July 2021 and available from www.sussexgardenstrust.org.uk