A Visit to a Garden in Connecticut Designed by Gertrude Jeckyll

The English garden designer who painted her ideas in plants, and thought like a 17th-century baroque artist.

I recently visited Glebe House, Woodbury, CT to see a small garden designed by the famous English garden designer and writer Gertrude Jeckyll.

Gertrude Jeckyll is an English garden designer whose long life spanned the turn of the last century. She often worked in conjunction with the architect Edwin Lutyens who was famous for his English country houses. Most of Jeckyll's gardens are in England but there were three in the US. This one has been restored, which for Jeckyll's gardens means planting as she planted as much as reproducing the shapes of the borders.

Jeckyll design principles are about harmony of colour and form through a proper understanding of beauty and a deep knowledge of her medium, plants. She studied art as a young woman and based her ideas of colour combinations upon what she learned and especially those of the artist William Turner. Luckily for us she also wrote beautifully about gardens and gardening. I am grateful to my friend Nancy Feeman who has been studying her work and her gardens for bringing Jeckyll's books to my notice.

I am just working my way through the first book, The Gardener's Essential Gertrude Jeckyll and it is a delight. She had a deep Christian faith and this is reflected in her approach to design which is that of the baroque painter, applied to gardening. So much so that her descriptions of the purpose of gardening (to bring glory to God and joy to mankind), the virtue of creating a beautiful garden to that end and the need for inspiration from the Creator in working towards it, remind me of passages that I have read from the book about baroque painting written by the great Spanish teacher of Velazquez in the 17th century, Francesco Pacheco. I would recommend every artist to read her. Especially those who wish to paint landscape.

Furthermore, her understanding of the relationships and hierarchy of God, man and nature is thoroughly Christian, and consistent with those that I wrote about in a previous article about gardening, here. I would suggest that Jeckyll should be read by all conservationists and ecologists as well in my opinion.

Glebe House is not a huge garden at all, and we saw in September when it was well past its peak. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to see (apart from the vicious biting insects!). There will be more about Gertrude Jeckyll in the coming months, but for now I will let her garden and her words speak for themselves:

‘The object of this book is to draw attention, however slightly and imperfectly, to the better ways of gardening, and to bring to bear upon the subject some consideration of that combination of common sense, sense of beauty and artistic knowledge that can make plain ground and growing things into a year-long succession of living pictures. Common sense I put first because it restrains from any sort of folly or sham or affectation. Sense of beauty is the gift from God, for which those who have received it in good measure can never be thankful enough. The nurturing of this gift through long years of study, observation and close application in any one of the ways in which fine art finds expression is the training of the artist’s brain, and heart and hand. The better a human mind is trained to the perception of beauty the more opportunities will it find of exercising this precious gift and the more directly will it be brought to bear upon even the very simplest matters of everyday life, and always to their bettering.’

'I am strongly for treating garden and wooded ground in a pictorial way, mainly with large effects, and in the second place with lesser beautiful incidents, and for so arranging plants and trees  and grassy spaces that they look happy and at home, and make no parade of conscious effort. I try for beauty and harmony everywhere, and especially for harmony of colour. A garden so treated gives the delightful feeling of repose, and refreshment, and purest enjoyment of beauty, that seems to my understanding to be the best fulfillment of its purpose; while to the diligent worker its happiness is like the offering of a hymn of praise.'

'And a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust. “Paul planteth and Apollos watereth, but God giveth the increase.” [cf 1 Cor 3:6] The good gardener knows with absolute certainty that if he does his part, if he gives the labour, the love and every aid that his knowledge of his craft, experience of the conditions of his place, and exercise of his personal wit can work together to suggest, that so surely as he does this diligently and faithfully, so sure will God give the increase. Then with the honestly earned success comes the consciousness of encouragement to renewed effort, and, as it were, an echo of the gracious words, “Well done, good and faithfull servant.” [Mt 25:23]'


PS In case anyone is wondering, she is related to the Dr Jeckyll after whom Robert Louis Stephenson named the character in his book Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. Dr Jeckyll was the good guy!