Aunt Bumps freed gardens in England from formalism DATELINE: ENGLAND

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 02, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

GODALMING, England -- They called her Aunt Bumps, and she was the grand doyenne and genius of the modern English garden.

Gertrude Jekyll was a quiet reformer. She took garden planning out of the formal drawing room and dropped it into the garden soil where it belonged, to paraphrase an old Raymond Chandler line.

But she looked a most unlikely reformer, more like Queen Victoria than Rosa Luxemburg. She was a great expansive woman with plump blooming cheeks, full jowls, hair pulled back severely and weak eyes peeking through tiny oval spectacles.

She helped liberate English gardening from rigid, empty formalism. And she influenced the whole of gardening in Britain, in the United States and around the world.

Miss Jekyll was born near this small town in Surrey 150 years ago. She lived at Munstead Wood, a kind of house and gardening compound designed and built for her in 1896 by her great friend and collaborator Edwin Luytens, who is often thought of as Britain's finest 20th-century architect. She was 89 when she died there in 1932.

Part of her estate, a cottage called Munstead Orchard designed by Luytens for her head gardener, is now for sale. You can buy a significant piece of gardening and architectural history, as well as a fine house and fragments of Miss Jekyll's original plantings, for 250,000 pounds, somewhat less than $375,000 -- a bargain, say British real estate experts.

The cottage has a handsome timbered facade, walls of locally quarried stone and Lutyens' sweeping tile roofs and tall, elegant chimneys.

Miss Jekyll's influence survives in the line of cypress trees she had planted, the boxwood hedging the front garden with her favorite begonias and yucca, the gnarled fruit trees in the orchard.

"The story goes that when the fruit was ripe she used to just bump the trees and all the fruit fell down around her," says Shelley Robinson, who now owns Munstead Orchard with her husband, Graham.

"That's how she got the name 'Bumps.' "

Miss Jekyll was a follower of the arts and crafts movement that celebrated the plain, solid virtues of hand-crafted workmanship. She was an advocate of the cottage garden as opposed to vast stodgy flower "bedding," the subtle against the showy, the free vs. the formal.

She had a painterly eye for color. She has been called the first horticultural Impressionist. She had been a fine painter until her eyesight failed her. Flowers and plants then became her palette.

"I hold the firm belief that the purpose of a garden is to give happiness and repose of mind," she said. "It is just in the way that it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening that may rightly claim to be a fine art."

Munstead Orchard includes a splendid little folly designed by Luytens called Thunder House. It's a low stone tower that guards a corner of a wall that once completely enclosed the estate.

Miss Jekyll mounted the spiraling stone stairs, now mossy and worn, to watch thunderstorms approaching across the wide shallow Surrey valley from the crest of a hill called Hawk's Beak.

"She painted up there," says Violet Male, who is 85 and wrinkled as washed linen and bright as a magpie.

"She had a voice like a man," Mrs. Male says. "She'd come down in to the gardens and say 'Mornin', Bailey. Mornin', Berry,' just like a man."

Mrs. Male was a Bailey, and her father was one of Miss Jekyll's eight gardeners. She has come along the Heath lane to go blackberrying by the wall of the old Jekyll estate.

"She wore men's boots," Mrs. Male says. "When she passed away each gardener got a pair of her boots."

William Nicholson's painting of Miss Jekyll's well-worn boots hangs in London's Tate Gallery.

"My father was with her when she passed away," Mrs. Male says.

"Henry Bailey his name was. He's lying in the churchyard not far from her. They took her pony up the stairs to her room when she lay dying. She wanted to see her Polly.

"She used to come down to the village with her pony and trap," she says.

"She looked just like Queen Victoria driving along the street."

Her gravestone in the churchyard down the way says simply "Artist Gardener Craftswoman." Edwin Luytens designed it.

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