Ancestry of the ‘English’ plot

How English is that global icon, the English garden? Less so, I think, than that other icon, the English face, but more so than that hybrid, the English dog. This weekend the best things in the garden are not English at all. They are Chinese winter sweet, which seem undeterred by the recent cold weather and double snowdrops, the best of which come from the Crimea. What, though, about those dreamy English borders and their ultimate founding mother, Gertrude Jekyll, revered in garden histories the world over?

When the architect Sir Herbert Baker visited her in her home, Munstead Wood, he decided that it represented “the best simple English country life ... frugal, yet rich in beauty and comfort”. Jekyll wrote a book called Old West Surrey and commissioned much of her house in the vernacular style, which she had admired since childhood. Even her fireplace was equipped with Old West Surrey fire tongs and an Old West Surrey shovel.

How could there have been any foreign input into a spinster whose cats were called Pinkieboy and Tittlebat?

Nobody, not even Jekyll, is an island. On checking the list of gardens she designed, I find there was one in Berlin and another, the South African war memorial, in a wood in France. There were also plans for Le Bois des Moutiers, which we can still visit in Normandy. I then remembered her head gardener. He was a Swiss-German called Albert Zumbach who worked on her English borders for 35 years until arthritis forced him to stop. Her theories on colour and her famous way of blending one “neighbouring” shade of yellow or red into a spectrum were based on a very un-English source, the bossy “colour-wheel” of ME Chevreul, a French engineer. There is also the matter of Jekyll’s sister, Caroline.

Caroline Jekyll married a rich but unhealthy Englishman, Frederick Eden, and together they emigrated to Venice for the sake of his health. There they planted the most extraordinary English garden abroad, a dream of a place on more than four acres of land on the Giudecca, the island opposite the Zattere and the bit we all think of as main Venice. It is still there, though damaged by storms and much altered in the past 40 years. The Eden garden was often visited by the young Gertrude and it may well be her sister and her expatriate inspiration which first alerted Gertrude to some of her subsequent “English” features.

The most amazing items in the Eden garden were the pergolas of wood. They ran for nearly half a mile and much of them was underplanted with white madonna lilies, a flower which English expatriates in Italy found to be very willing to grow well. In her much later book on lilies I notice that Jekyll still gives a picture of her sister’s impressive madonnas, flowering on a scale that we forget to attempt nowadays.

These foreign hints point to contacts abroad, but were they anything more than contacts with yet more English style? Certainly, thanks to Jekyll, foreigners started to want the English style for their own gardens. In Delaware the great garden patron Henry du Pont copied Jekyll items for his sumptuous garden at Winterthur. He ordered a grey garden, inspired by her ideas, and put a note in the margin of her book where it printed the plan of her famous autumn garden of Michaelmas daisies: “Follow Miss Jekyll’s shape of beds and arrangement of colours.” The debt eventually ran in the opposite direction. After 1918, Jekyll was finding it hard to maintain her four gardeners and her Surrey garden in the new age of inflation. Americans bailed her out. The exclusive Garden Club of America sent her a cheque for $10,000 to put her back on her feet.

So Jekyll was one of the first troubled assets in need of relief, but was she not rescued because her eye and her experience were so English to the core? Not if you re-read her most famous book, Wood and Garden.

There are clear memories of her Mediterranean travels and evidence of her admiration of Mediterranean flora. She loved aromatic cistuses and she liked to plant them under vigorous species of roses. Her heather garden was not narrowly Scottish. It had plenty of Spanish heath in it and, in her mind’s eye, there was always a Mediterranean glimmer.

She travelled, and went out to her sister and presumably then down Italy to what she later admires as “good old Italian gardens” and the Villa d’Este, whose pools she illustrates and recommends in her later book, Walls and Water Gardens. She even went across to Algeria in her early thirties, where she admired the lovely lavender-flowered winter iris in the wild. She later championed it for beds close to a house door, where its colour and scent can be admired on dark English days. This iris, our Iris unguicularis, is starting to flower this weekend, one of the essential plants for “English” gardens. I look on mine with Jekyll and Algeria in mind.

A reader, appropriately from west Surrey, has just come up with even more. He found it in the excellent little journal of The Mediterranean Garden (, where Michael Tooley, a professor of geography, follows Jekyll on far more Mediterranean travels than I realised that she took. One is irresistible. Aged 40, she was in Capri and sent postcards describing her delight at the brilliant blue lithospermum which ran in the cracks of the limestone cliffs. She dug bits of it up and sent pieces to the great wild gardener William Robinson. In my book Thoughtful Gardening I have just written about my own visit to Capri and an encounter with this brilliant blue flower around the louche old emperor Tiberius’s villa. I had no idea that Jekyll had been there first, uprooted bits of it and added it to her “English” nursery list.

Rooted in Surrey, bailed out by Americans, she nonetheless had a widely travelled and widely read eye. She had gone to the Greek islands aged 19 and never forgot them. In Wood and Garden, 30 years later, she writes lyrically about the scents and evergreens and the tree-like suckers of the sweet bay tree in nature. “Only when one has seen it grow like this can one appreciate the old Bible simile”, that the crooks all flourish “like the green bay tree”.

To stand, she writes, “while still on earth in a grove of giant myrtles 15 feet high is like having a little chink of the door of heaven opened, as if to show what good things may be beyond”. The grand old lady of English gardening had been formed by un-English travels. All styles are mongrels, and in Jekyll’s Garden of Eden the finest flowers were not from Old West Surrey.

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