Restoring a Jekyll garden

A recent talk by renowned Jekyll expert Rosamund Wallinger shed new light on the life and work of the grande dame of British gardening

Jonathan Myles-Lea’s painting of Upton Grey, 2006 © Rosamund WallingerLast week I attended a fascinating talk at our library in London by Rosamund Wallinger, owner and faithful restorer of the most complete Gertrude Jekyll garden in existence today.

Rosamund started the talk with a whistle stop tour of garden history from the 18th century, tracing the evolution of the English garden style, until the extremes of wild gardening at the beginning of the 19th century were countered by the Italian style and carpet bedding we associate with the Victorians.

Gertrude Jekyll arrived on the gardening scene in the 1870s, just as William Robinson, champion of the wild garden and perennial planting, was gearing up to do battle with the architectural establishment, who favoured strictly formal lines and tender exotics. Faced with the opposing gardening camps, Miss Jekyll adroitly navigated between the two, and forged her own niche in history as one of our most gifted garden designers.

Born in 1843, Gertrude Jekyll had a surprisingly liberal upbringing: she was fortunate to have been exposed to the sort of education, opportunities and freedom often reserved for boys – and she ran with it. Rosamund described how her tom-boy girlhood was followed by attendance at the Kensington School of Art and travel abroad with friends. She had an extraordinarily wide range of interests and skills as an artist/craftswoman at a time when these attributes were being re-evaluated and appreciated by the Arts & Crafts movement.

Rosamund and her husband bought the derelict manor house of Upton Grey in 1984, unaware of the significance of the garden. Following a tip off from Penelope Hobhouse, Rosamund discovered the garden had been redesigned by Gertrude Jekyll in 1908-9 when the house was owned by Charles Holme, founder of Arts & Crafts magazine, The Studio. The trail to Miss Jekyll’s original garden plans ended at the University of California, Berkeley, to which they were donated in 1955 by American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand.

The wild garden at Upton Grey © Rosamund WallingerNow the challenge was to accurately interpret the plans, remove all unwanted vegetation and rebuild the hard landscaping. Rosamund’s photographs showed the garden structure revealed and restored, and the beds waiting to be planted: a clean slate. Tracking down the exact species and cultivars used in 1908 proved to be another exciting episode.

Reviving the traditional practice of coppicing hazel for garden poles would have been satisfying; cultivating normally unwelcome introductions such as Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and Spanish bluebells might have sparked interesting dilemmas. On the other hand, unearthing a plant thought lost to cultivation must have been pure joy: Rosa ‘Killarney’ was subsequently re-introduced by Rosamund, and Gladiolus x brenchleyensis was rediscovered by Professor Michael Tooley.

Of the many questions asked of Rosamund at the conclusion of the talk, one stands out for me: whether following another gardener’s planting plan was too prescriptive. Interestingly Rosamund’s need to be her own designer is expressed in a small portion of the site not included on the plan, where plants and gardener have permission to experiment.

Upton Grey has been on my list of gardens to visit: now I’m definitely going this summer. I can’t wait! For a full description of the restoration of the garden, consult Rosamund’s latest book, Gertrude Jekyll: her art restored at Upton Grey.

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