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National Trust Purchases Gertrude Jekyll’s Home Munstead Wood

Emma House, Curator 

In June 2023 the National Trust announced that they had purchased Munstead Wood, the house and garden of designer and plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll. On a wonderful summer’s evening at the beginning of July myself and our Deputy Director, Christina McMahon joined members of the National Trust’s team and some of their funders to celebrate its acquisition.  

In 1883, Jekyll purchased fifteen acres of land adjacent to her mother’s home Munstead House and started to develop gardens of her own.  

In 1885, Jekyll took up photography under the guidance of her brother. These early photographs record many of the plants, design choices and forms she experimented with at Munstead House and were to inform the development of her garden at Munstead Wood. In 2015 with funding from Art Fund, Friends of National Libraries and National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Garden Museum purchased a unique album of some of Jekyll’s most important and prized platinum prints. The photographs illustrate Jekyll’s passion for cottage gardens, the garden at Munstead House and her interest in vernacular building styles developed in Surrey.  

Amongst the photos in the album are many that she took for Old West Surrey, a book which she published in 1904. It showcased many examples of local buildings’ materials and styles and recorded local ways of life. Amongst them was the front view of Unstead Farm which showed the oak timbering, brickwork and whitewashed plaster which she so admired.  

Gertrude Jekyll, Front View of Unstead Farm, 1885

When Gertrude Jekyll built her own home at Munstead Wood, she engaged the young architect Edwin Lutyens to design it. He incorporated many traditional design features that Jekyll had admired in Surrey vernacular buildings and used local materials. They collaborated on the house design and it was completed in 1897.  

Jekyll had trialed many planting and design schemes at her mother’s house before she bought the land that she would eventually develop into gardens at Munstead Wood. Amongst them were the festoons of clematis that can be seen in her photograph The Mountain Clematis taken Munstead House. She later incorporated a similar scheme at Munstead Wood in the paved court that sits between the two wings of the house. The clematis’s gentle curves mirror the timbering in the building and soften the architectural features of the timbred overhang.  

Gertrude Jekyll, The Mountain Clematis
Modern photo of the paved court at Munstead Wood

As Jekyll noted in Gardens for Small Country Houses (1912), ‘some portions of the garden, and especially near the house, some kind of paving is sure to be wanted’, and in Old West Surrey Jekyll recorded the use of local large slabs of stone with shallow ripples that were formed millions of years ago and quarried in Horsham. The circular paved area in the centre of the paved court features a decorative cross of paving slabs featuring this natural decorative patterning. The paving continues into the tank garden where it is decorated with ironstone. Jekyll noted in Gardens for Small Country Houses that they had been used in the region in this way for hundreds of years.  Similar decorative stone paths had been used previously in the path to the gate in the herbaceous border at Munstead House.   

It is not only the decorative paving that Jekyll took from her mother’s house to her own but the creative planting combination of bergenia and yucca plants. They edge the path in her photograph of Munstead House taken in 1885.  When Helen Allingham recorded the South Border in her painting of Jekyll’s garden in full flower we see the same planting combination. It was wonderful to still see this planting scheme as part of the herbaceous border at Munstead Wood today.  

Helen Allingham, South Border at Munstead Wood, c.1900-1903
The same view today
Gertrude Jekyll, Bergenia and Yucca

Walls dividing and doorways connecting sections of garden were incredibly important to Jekyll as ways creating flowing journeys through the garden. She recorded many examples and types in her photography and wrote about both extensively in her books. In Wall and Water Gardens she noted, ‘A grand old wall is a precious thing in a garden…In such a wall wild plants will already have made themselves at home, and we may only have to put a little earth and a small plant into some cavity, or earth and seed into a narrow open joint to be sure of good reward.’

In her photograph Door Wreathed with Clematis Braveolens, Munstead House, 1885 we can see that she makes a feature of the decorative door and ornamental brickwork in the centre of the herbaceous border. When she moved to Munstead Wood she similarly incorporated a large doorway into the border using decorative local stonework. As time has passed, we can see that plants have made themselves at home as she’d suggested offering ‘good reward’. 

Gertrude Jekyll, Door Wreathed with Clematis Braveolens, Munstead House, 1885

It is wonderful to see the National Trust take ownership of this house and garden. The Garden Museum’s photo album helps to illustrate the context of how Jekyll worked: starting off her garden trials at her mother’s house and then walking between her family home and the new garden she was creating and the home she would eventually establish. Jekyll was instrumental in changing British garden design and encouraging gardeners to work in new ways with colour and to introduce new plants and forms to their garden.  

When Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson visited her garden they were enthused by the hazel trees, azaleas and the polyanthus that she grew. When they visited Sissinghurst in 1930 as potential purchasers one of the things that drew them to it was an ancient nuttery. Vita and Harold eventually planted a brightly coloured mosaic of polyanthus and primroses underneath in a ‘Persian Carpet’ the planting scheme was most probably inspired by Munstead Wood as well as Vita’s travels around Persia when Harold had a diplomatic posting in the region.  

The Garden Museum will be exploring the development of Sissinghurst further in an exhibition curated by Dr Claudia Tobin next year which will open in May 2024. It will explore the gardens of Vita Sackville West, Virginia Woolf and Ottoline Morrell and will tell the story of three interlinked garden makers and garden writers through the first half of the twentieth century. Featuring photographs, paintings, garden catalogues, handmade books, and correspondence, it will explore the interweaving of their lived experience of gardens with those of memory and the imagination. There is a particular intimacy to the gardens of these three twentieth century women and it will illustrate how they became refuges of conversation and creativity, privacy and performance and places where love, and relationships could be redefined. 

For more information visit the National Trust website: Munstead Wood

Garden Museum Journal no.33 | Gertrude Jekyll’s Photographic Album

Want to find out more about Jekyll’s photographs and her Surrey garden? Our 2016 edition of the Garden Museum Journal is dedicated to the collection, with an extended essay by Curator Emma House and illustrated with reproductions of every photo from the album.

Buy the Journal