Gertrude Jekyll in Sussex: SGT and the Digitisation of the Archive

Born in 1843 and with a professional life that lasted almost until her death in 1932 Gertrude Jekyll might have taken her artistic skills in any direction: painting and embroidery, wood-carving and silver-making, photography, even dry stone walling, yet it is for gardening and her garden writing that she is remembered. She was involved in as many as 400 commissions, mainly in this country but a small number abroad, and ranging from grand gardens to advice for a simple window box.

Until now the only opportunity to see the plans for these garden designs has been on a rather unclear microfilm or as paper copies kept at the Godalming Museum in Surrey. After Jekyll’s death the entire contents of her home at Munstead Wood were put into an auction and the collection of her garden plans was bought by the American landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand, for her library at Reef Point in Maine. Farrand eventually donated the archive to the University of California, Berkeley and the Gertrude Jekyll collection is now owned by the Environmental Design Archives (EDA) at Berkeley.

In 2018 Sussex Gardens Trust was delighted to be part of an important project to have the drawings, plans and correspondence relating to the commissions for Sussex digitised. Michael Edwards, a conservation architect, was instrumental in securing a significant proportion of the funding to make the digitisation possible, and the work was completed in 2019. Michael had previously helped the Surrey Gardens Trust to have their Jekyll collection in the EDA digitised and now this significant archive relating to Jekyll’s work in Surrey and in Sussex is available to researchers and contemporary gardeners worldwide. The conservation of this valuable collection will help to raise awareness of her influence on garden design and her lasting legacy.

There are seventeen folders in the EDA archive of drawings and plans associated with gardens in Sussex, dating from Jekyll’s first recorded commission of 1887 to 1931, a year before her death. The number and range of documents relating to each commission varies. The most extensive is for Plumpton Place, the home of Edward Hudson, the owner of Country Life, with a fascinating collection of letters to Jekyll, as he seeks her advice about the planting design and sends her black and white photographs of the garden.Here is a sample (for other images visit Jekyll documents relating to Plumpton Place)

Plumpton Place. Plan for Flower Borders

The folder for the ambitious gardens of the King Edward VII Sanatorium near Midhurst has fifty-three plans with intricately drawn planting schemes. Here is a sample (for other images visit Jekyll documents relating to King Edward VII Sanatorium)

KE VII Sanatorium Plan for Garden East

The digitisation of Jekyll’s archive captures the work of a renowned and highly influential garden designer, allowing access to gardens that may have been lost over the years, but now can be visible again. We hope that our project will encourage other country garden trusts to have their collections digitised, creating a complete online archive.

Do please visit the EDA website where you will find all the documents relating to Jekyll’s commissions in East and West Sussex. (Jekyll archive at University of Berkley, California)

For the last year the SGT research group has used the collection as the showpiece for a study of Jekyll’s work in Sussex, focusing on some of her less well-known commissions in the county. Our new book, with many plans and drawings that have not been seen before, will be published in the summer of 2021.