Category Archives: Gertrude Jekyll

Exploring the RHS Digital Collections

Page’s Champion Auricula from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol l by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832) Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.  All images from RHS Digital Collections

In April this year, the Royal Horticultural Society launched its new Digital Collections platform, with thousands of items from the Libraries and Herbarium now available online to the public for the first time.  From an accounts book belonging to landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to historic nursery catalogues from locations across the UK, many items are unique to the RHS Collections.

Funded by the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund, this is the beginning of a major project that will see further content from the Society’s collection uploaded in the coming months and years.  Currently divided into sections for archive, artworks, bookplates, Herbarium specimens, nursery catalogues, photographs and books, there’s already a wealth of material to view.

In the books section, the RHS has been strategic in their choice of material to digitise, prioritising those books not already available on other platforms.  One of these is The City Gardener (1722) by Thomas Fairchild, a nursery owner in Hoxton, London.  Fairchild’s record of plants in cultivation, popular garden styles, and the challenges of growing in the polluted atmosphere caused by sea coal, gives an invaluable insight into the capital and its gardens during this period.

The City Gardener (1722) by Thomas Fairchild

As the name suggests, the bookplates section is comprised of illustrations taken from books in the RHS’s collection.  The dislocation of these images from their context does present something of an issue (for me, at least), as some of their meaning is lost.  However, the plates are full of interest, and hopefully the books from which they were taken are on the RHS’s list to be digitised in the near future.

This set of bookplates from The Orchard and the Garden, printed by Adam Islip (1602), shows a range of knot garden designs and instructions for laying them out.  These delightful, detailed woodcuts remind us of the enthusiasm for pattern, symmetry, and symbolism in the Tudor period.  The book must have found a ready audience, as this example is a third edition, the first being published in 1594.

The Orchard and the Garden printed by Adam Islip (1602)

These coloured engravings from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vols I and ll by Robert Sweet invite us into the world of the florist in the early 19th century.

At this time, the term ‘florist’ was given to those engaged in cultivating flowers for pleasure, or for show, rather than for the cut flower trade.  The favoured blooms were carnations and pinks, ranunculus, tulips, hyacinths, polyanthus and auriculas – although Sweet’s Directory also includes dahlias (then called georginas) and roses.  Double flowers were prized, as were the striped and flecked patterns of the tulips and carnations.  Engravings by S Watts (after original paintings by Edwin Dalton Smith) allow us to understand what these choice plants must have looked like.

The plants and bulbs discussed in the Directory were for sale from a network of growers and Sweet’s use of high quality coloured images to promote them demonstrates his talent for horticultural marketing.

Albion Tulip from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol ll by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832). Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

Hogg’s Queen Adelaide Dianthus from The Florist’s Guide, and Cultivator’s Directory Vol ll by Robert Sweet (1827 – 1832).
Engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

‘Porcelaine Sceptre Hyacinth’, Hyacinthus orientalis var. sceptrifirmis, engraved by S. Watts after an original by Edwin Dalton Smith.

The popularity of florist’s flowers is echoed in the historic nursery catalogues dating from the mid to late 18th century that have been added to the Digital Collection, containing pages of auricula, hyacinth and tulip varieties.  An 1890 catalogue listing over 1,400 fern varieties for sale from a company based near Manchester shows how horticultural tastes had changed by the late 19th century, when the craze for ferns had taken hold.

Fine double hyacinth and other curious flower roots, and seeds, imported chiefly from Holland, France, America, Italy, Botany Bay, &c. by John Mason, at the Orange Tree, 152, Fleet Street, London c. 1790

Catalogue of over 1.400 species and varieties of ferns and selaginellas cultivated by W. & J. Birkenhead, Fern Nursery, Sale; 17 and 19, Washway Road, Sale; and Park Road Nursery, Ashton-on-Mersey, near Manchester. Our principal nursery is five minutes’ walk and our Park Road Nursery eight minutes’ walk from Sale Station, on the Manchester, South Junction, and Altrincham Railway, five minutes from Manchester. First-class Queen’s Jubilee Gold Medal, 1887

A sketchbook belonging to Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) is one highlight of the archive section.  Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Jekyll studied painting, embroidery, gilding, carving and photography, before focusing her attention on a career in landscape and garden design.

These wide ranging interests are evident in her sketchbook, containing a profusion of Jekyll’s sketches of flowers, leaves, architectural details, designs for jewellery, fragments of geometric pattern, swags, and places of cultural interest.  These have been individually cut out and assembled into a scrapbook of visual references.  Some projects must have taken considerable time to complete – four separate tile designs using studies of hawthorn combine cleverly to form a larger repeat pattern, and there are intricate designs for floral wallpaper.

Insights provided by the sketchbook demonstrate how Jekyll’s interest in decorative arts enriched her planting designs.

Floral swags, geometric design and a jug
Gertrude Jekyll

Floral patterns, architectural details and lettering
Gertrude Jekyll

Tile Pattern by Gertrude Jekyll

Floral Wallpaper pattern

Wallpaper, Blue Vine Design
Gertrude Jekyll

Jekyll’s interest in vernacular design is also clear, in her records of stitching designs from smocks worn by agricultural workers.  Jekyll has made these impressions by using pencil and paper, in the manner of a brass rubbing.  Her book Old West Surrey (1904) features houses, furniture, tools and clothes used by working people in the late 19th century, including smocks like these.

Stitching on Country Smocks
Gertrude Jekyll

The photography section records the history of the RHS as an organisation, with images showing the construction of RHS Kensington Gardens in the 1860s and the development of the gardens at RHS Wisley in the 1930s.  The delicate beauty of fern species in New Zealand is captured in a series of cyanotypes by Herbert B Dobbie, published in 1880, and a series of autochromes by William Van Sommer provide glimpses of English gardens from the early 20th century .

Cyanotype of Hypolepis distans, from the book ‘New Zealand Ferns’ Herbert B Dobbie, 1880

Autochrome of calceolarias, Barton Nurseries, by William Van Sommer 1913

Although it could be said that the RHS is rather late to the digitisation party – most major museums and libraries started to share their content online more than a decade ago – now that it has arrived, the RHS Digital Collection is undeniably full of wonder.  I hope you’ll be persuaded to explore, and discover your own treasures.  Link below:

Further reading:

RHS Digital Collections here

Gertrude Jekyll’s Cottage Gardens

Cottage porch from Old West Surrey (1904) by Gertrude Jekyll (University of California Libraries)

Gertrude Jekyll’s Old West Surrey Some Notes and Memories (1904) represents something of a departure from her vast output of books and articles about plants and garden design.  This study of the locality around her home at Munstead Wood reveals an enthusiasm for all aspects of vernacular architecture and the rural way of life in this part of southern England, which was rapidly disappearing at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Illustrated with dozens of Jekyll’s photographs, details of farm buildings and cottages, trades, furniture, tools and everyday household articles are documented – and, of course, the people she encountered on her travels.  Jekyll dedicates a whole chapter of her book to the cottage garden, praising both the skill of the cottage gardener, and the dedication needed to maintain the displays of flowers over the season.

This style of gardening, with roses framing the front door and a profusion of flowers in the borders, was a favourite of Jekyll’s and examples of cottage gardens regularly appear in her other published works.  These gardens are still deservedly popular, despite associations of sentimentality and nostalgia, perhaps because this unpretentious style of planting complements smaller houses so well.  Any meanness in the scale of the building is softened and the cottage front garden, in particular, lifts the spirits of passers-by as well as providing pleasure for the owners themselves.

Here follow Jekyll’s photographs of cottage gardens from Old West Surrey together with some of her observations about them.   Her detailed knowledge of plants makes this a useful resource for anyone wishing to re-create a cottage garden from this period.  Links to the text below:

‘The most usual form of the cottage flower-garden is a strip on each side of the path leading from the road to the cottage door.  But if the space is a small one, it is often all given to flowers.  Sometimes, indeed, the smaller the space the more is crammed into it.  One tiny garden I used to watch with much pleasure, had nearly the whole space between road and cottage filled with a rough staging.  It was a good example of how much could be done with little means but much loving labour.  There was a tiny green-house, of which the end shows to the left of the picture, that housed the tender plants in winter, but it could not have held anything like the quantity of plants that appeared on the staging throughout the summer.  There were hydrangeas, fuschias, show and zonal geraniums, lilies and begonias, for the main show; a pot or two of the graceful francoa, and half-hardy annuals cleverly grown in pots; a clematis smothered in bloom, over the door, and, for the protection of all, a framework, to which a light shelter could be fixed in case of very bad weather.  

It must have given pleasure to thousands of passers-by; to say nothing of the pride and delight that it must have been to its owner.’

‘There is scarcely a cottage without some plants in the window; indeed the windows are often so much filled up with them that the light is too much obscured.  The wise cottagers place them outside in the summer, to make fresh growth and to gain strength.  These window plants are the objects of much care, and often make fine specimens.’ 

‘The deep-rooting Everlasting Pea (Winterbean is its local name) is a fine old cottage plant, and Nasturtiums ramble far and wide.  Nowhere else does one see such Wallflowers, Sweet-Williams, and Canterbury Bells, as in these carefully-tended little plots.’

‘Here and there is a clipped yew over a cottage entrance; but this kind of work is not so frequent as in other parts of the country.’

‘China Asters are great favourites – ‘Chaney Oysters’ the old people used to call them – and Dahlias, especially the tight, formal show kinds are much prized and grandly grown.

Sweet smelling bushes and herbs, such as rosemary, lavender, southernwood, mint, sage and balm, or at least some of them were to be found in the older cottagers’ garden plots.’

From Wood and Garden, first published in 1899.

Quintessential cottage garden from Wood and Garden first published 1899.

Further reading:

Old West Surrey

Official Website of the Gertrude Jekyll Estate

Gardens for Small Country Houses

June borders of lupin and iris in the Garden at Munstead Wood from Gardens for Small Country Houses

Between the first edition of Gardens for Small Country Houses published in 1912, and the fourth which appeared in 1920, the world had changed.  The effects of the Great War on the population and economy of the UK were profound and those whose wealth and status had insulated them in the past faced the challenges of a new economic and political climate.

But change brings opportunity.  In the preface to the fourth edition, a collaboration between designer Gertrude Jekyll and Lawrence Weaver, architectural editor of Country Life, they anticipate the rise in popularity of the small country house, both with wealthy down-sizers and new owners.

Without seeking to fill the role of gloomy prophet, we cannot escape the belief that the changes in social life and habit, which are the mark of our economic troubles, are striking at the maintenance of great gardens, as of great houses, in this pleasant land. But if those who have built up, kept, and loved so well their spacious gardens, must needs be content with smaller houses, and if, as seems likely, the wider distribution of wealth will lead to-morrow to the creation of many more small country houses, the art of making gardens for such houses will increase in importance.

Clearly, to the Country Life reader a ‘small’ house was, by modern standards, quite substantial.  See below for an example of a building Jekyll and Weaver describe as a small cottage:

In the book Jekyll and Weaver suggest how a harmonious relationship between house and garden might be created in terms of its scale, features, planting and placement the wider landscape.  Their expertise ensures that the case studies used for approaches for garden design in various locations in the UK are still illuminating today, even if our tastes in garden styles might have moved on.

Jekyll identifies both medieval and Tudor gardens as inspirations for the ‘new’ gardens she and others were making in England at this time.  Both Jekyll and Weaver admired the hillside garden at Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire (now a hotel), an example of a formal garden where large, bold yew topiary and hedging are used to anchor the house to its surroundings.

.. with what modesty the house nestles against the hillside and seeks to hide itself amidst regiments of yews. Great skill has been shown in their planting, for they emphasise the drops between the existing levels of the terrace, even though they partly veil them.

Using photographs and plans Jekyll and Weaver explain how the changes of level have been used.  Without this terracing and the dramatic yew planting, the house might appear to be about to fall off this steep hillside, but actually looks secure and intriguing, partly obscured by foliage.  The repeated yew also also echoes the mass of the woodland above the house, which otherwise might feel oppressive.

Owlpen: view from north-west from point B (see plan)


Curved entrance stairway at Owlpen Manor

The climber on walls of the house has been clipped very precisely at different levels (below the window on the right of the picture and above on the left).  These solid blocks of foliage help to reinforce the formal feel of the planting.  The dark yews contrast with the pale stone of the house and also form a backdrop for the beautiful gateway with its curved steps.

Curved stone steps appear as a design feature in many new gardens shown in this book, including those pictured below at Highmount, in Surrey.  Also located on a steep slope, these curved steps were used by Jekyll as part of an ambitious design for the garden of a new house.

Jekyll explains,

The garden ground, all on the southern face of the hill .. had already been laid out to a certain degree when the garden designer took it in hand.  Tennis lawn, croquet lawn and bowling green had been levelled and made; but the steepness of the remainder composed of grassy slopes between clumps of shrubs and flowers of no particular design, was found to be incommodious, and great need was felt for something more restful and systematic.

Jeykll’s solution was to dig into the chalk hillside to create a large level space, and install retaining walls to provide some shelter in this exposed site.  She acknowledges that this solution was expensive and applauds her client’s willingness ‘to face the necessary outlay, by no means a slight one’.

Highmount, Guildford: General Plan

One of the features of Jekyll’s general plan of the garden is a rose garden, at the bottom of the slope with a water lily tank at one end, and a six foot high retaining wall running along the entire length, the top of which was planted with plants that would tolerate the free draining and exposed position.  Jekyll says,

The wall is in full sun, and the good plants and sub-shrubs we have from the Mediterranean region – lavender, rosemary, santolina, othonna and so on, with pinks, stonecrops and several of the rock loving campanulas of the Alps (to name only a few of the plants utilised) – rejoice in the full southern exposure and the brilliant, unveiled light of the high elevation.

Photographs of the garden (taken two years after planting) show the extent of the works.

From the middle of the rose garden. View point C on general plan.

Circular tank and steps at west end of rose garden. Point of view “A” on general plan.

The west end of the pergola, from view point “G” on general plan.

The garden-houses, from view point “F” on general plan.

Many of Jekyll’s planting plans are reproduced in the book, showing her method of planting in drifts, using groupings of the same plant to amplify their effect.  For Highmount Jekyll talks about the importance of having a coherent planting scheme to define each section of the garden.

Offering to the eye one clear picture at a time they rescue the beholder from the distracting impression of general muddle and want of distinct intention that is so frequent in gardens and so wasteful – wasteful because a place may be full of fine plants, grandly grown, but if they are mixed up without thought or definite scheme they only produce an unsatisfactory effect, instead of composing together into a harmonious picture.

Planting plan of borders of West Walk. See general plan.  Jeykll describes the colour scheme as ‘mostly of yellows, with tender and brilliant blue’.

The mixed borders of the west walk (above) featured golden privet, box and elder and a single yellow rose ‘Jersey Beauty’ as well as rudbeckia, helenium, anthemis, verbascum, tansy and yellow snapdragon.  Splashes of blue were provided by lavender, delphinium and campanula.  Nothing if not colourful.

Gardens for Small Country Houses


Lawrence Weaver