In the latter months of 2019, the Environmental Design Archives completed a project in which we digitized a set of drawings from the Gertrude Jekyll collection. The portion of the collection we focused on was the gardens Jekyll designed in the county of Sussex, England. The EDA was very fortunate to have the support of the Sussex Garden Trust in funding this work, as the full digitization of portions of archival collections is a time-consuming and labor-intensive task.
The digitization of large numbers of drawings and archival documents is always a logistical challenge. For the Jekyll collection, the EDA digitization studio primarily used two tools: the large-format flatbed scanner, and the overhead capture copy-stand. These two tools reflect the two main types of documents in the Gertrude Jekyll collection - large format landscape drawings and correspondence. To effectively work our way through Jekyll’s Sussex projects, it was necessary to identify, physically move and order, and actually digitize the material in a way that limited the handling, movement, and climatization of the fragile documents.
Physically handling the entirety of documents for a number of garden projects in the Gertrude Jekyll collection was a sensory delight in many ways - the drawings are mostly in watercolor or ink on heavy cream-colored paper, and the correspondence is mostly handwritten on letterhead from the estates being designed for. Handling this material also revealed many of the peculiarities in the way that Gertrude Jekyll worked - some due to the time period, and some due to Jekyll’s ways and limitations.
To back up for a moment, it should be explained just exactly what the Jekyll collection contains. The Gertrude Jekyll collection consists of the correspondence, drawings, and other documents which she maintained. For the last half of her career (after the age of 65), Jekyll did not leave her home town of Surrey, and therefore did not visit many of the garden sites that she designed. To consult on gardens, she had clients and architects send her plans and even soil samples.
She would then send original and tracing versions of her design drawings, along with plant lists, specifications, and other instructions for the gardeners to carry out. The EDA’s Jekyll collection consists mostly of her portion of this extended remote design process - her originals and copies of landscape drawings, her copies of her outgoing correspondence, and originals of incoming correspondence. Jekyll helpfully dated most drawings indicating when copies were forwarded to her clients - allowing us to see how the designs changed over time.
Also often present are the site surveys that landowners had carried out and sent to Jekyll so that she could read the land from afar. Some correspondents sent photographs, and some even detailed architectural plans so that Jekyll would know the locations of windows and doors and could orient the gardens appropriately.
It was often frustrating but tantalizing to read only the incoming half of the correspondence, as Jekyll’s patrons often made their wishes and needs quite clear - while doubtless she returned with similar firmness.
As with most archival collections, incompleteness of the record is the norm rather than the exception. At their most complete, garden project records in the Jekyll collection may contain a site survey, a general garden plan, planting plans of beds, and correspondence. Some projects only have a few plans and limited other documents. Many of the gardens and estates documented in this collection are no longer extant, and so we only have these limited records of the thought and care that went into the design of their gardens and landscapes. Yet with the limited materials available to us, we can reconstruct these gardens in our imaginations to a surprising degree.
This blog entry has featured documents relating to Bestbeech St Mary, for which Gertrude Jekyll designed gardens for in 1927-1928. To see other drawings and archival documents from the Gertrude Jekyll and other archival collections held at the Environmental Design Archives, please head to Calisphere, the online portal to digital images from California Institutions: https://calisphere.org/collections/26864/