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Gertrude Jekyll: In Her Own Images, A New 'Aunt Bumps'

Gertrude Jekyll is famous the world over as the mother of the lush English garden. But her legacy is thriving in the dry hills of Berkeley.

The pioneering landscape architect never visited this country; she conducted her career from a 15-acre garden in Surrey. Yet, her garden plans and photographs are one of the treasures of the University of California at Berkeley, where they have resided since 1955 and where they are the centerpiece of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Jekyll's birth. An exhibition of her photographs, running through Sept. 19 at the University Art Museum, is a sign of the change in Jekyll's image from Edwardian lady gardener to modern superwoman.

When Jekyll (pronounced JEE-kill) died in 1932, at 89, she was the most important garden designer of the century. Her theories had shaped the showplace English gardens at Sissinghurst and Hidcote and popularized the herbaceous border around the world. Behind her persona as a lovable eccentric, "Aunt Bumps" was a strong-minded perfectionist who had overturned Victorian taste with her sophisticated color harmonies and emphasis on texture, her rejection of geometric beds for asymmetrical "drifts" of flowers, and her then-radical championing of native plants over exotics.

The home and garden that Jekyll built in Surrey, Munstead Wood, were embodiments of the Arts and Crafts ideal of esthetic harmony in living. Designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens in the 1880's, its house, cottages and workshop were fitted out from top to bottom with Jekyll's own handiwork, down to the hinges and doorbolts she made herself, and decorated with her own paintings and embroideries, and her collection of Surrey crafts.

It is one of the riddles and regrets of history that neither Jekyll's heirs nor the Government took immediate steps to preserve this remarkable designed environment. In 1940, her belongings were donated by her heirs -- nieces and nephews, for she never married -- to a Red Cross sale for war relief. The remaining contents of Munstead Wood were dispersed at a public sale in 1948.

In 1949, six photograph albums from the public sale were bought for about $25 at a village bookshop by agents of Beatrix Farrand, the American landscape architect who designed Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, and whose own career had been inspired by a youthful visit to Munstead Wood. Mrs. Farrand eventually assembled Jekyll's complete personal archive for her library at Reef Point Gardens, on Mount Desert Island, Maine.

But when the State of Maine would not maintain her estate, she donated her Jekyll archives to the University of California. It includes the only known surviving albums of her original photographs, correspondence, plans and drawings and renderings, some with color washes.

"Hardly anyone in England realized that this treasure survived at all," Judith Tankard, a Harvard professor who is a Jekyll scholar, wrote in 1989 in Pacific Horticulture. She said that it came to light in 1978, when an influential Jekyll biographer, Betty Massingham, visited the Berkeley collection.

Garden plans and photographs from this little-known collection are part of the current exhibition, "Gertrude Jekyll: Private Gardens, Vanishing Arts." A university-sponsored tour of local Jekyll-inspired gardens is being held on Sept. 18.

The high point of this historic exhibit is 70 black-and-white photographs Jekyll took of her Surrey surroundings between 1885 and 1914, selected from the 2,151 prints in the Farrand collection at Berkeley. On display are two of the albums showing the innovative collages Jekyll developed, some of which she was reworking just before she died.

Jekyll took up photography in 1885, possibly under the influence of the painter George Frederick Watts, the teacher of the legendary Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. In her first five years, she produced half of her photographic output, an anthropology of vanishing Surrey life.

The twisted trees in the landscapes, cottage gardens, vernacular architecture (including some by Lutyens), crafts and tools, workmen, cottages, friends and family are presented with a stark intensity that inspired James Steward, the curator of this show, to compare her work to Robert Mapplethorpe's. More obvious parallels exist between her collage garden views and David Hockney's Polaroid collage landscapes.

The albums continue chronologically up to the start of World War I, ending with views of her mature garden at Munstead Wood. Many of the photographs are unpublished and are being exhibited for the first time. Those images that have been reproduced include "September Border Looking Down Laburnum Arch," which Jekyll described elsewhere as "surprisingly -- quite astonishingly -- luminous" in its combination of blue and orange flowers with gray foliage. Such individual images do not prepare us for her collage photographs.

Jekyll may have overlapped prints simply to simulate a comprehensive garden view. Yet, the unexpected variations in tone and perspective between prints indicate that she may have been striving for three-dimensionality or the textural variation that was one of her lifelong goals. A student of the Impressionists, she, too, tried to record the changes in natural light in a single setting.

Recognizing Jekyll as an experimental photographer is part of the radical transformation of her image in the last decade. Jekyll exerted her greatest direct influence as a designer in the decade before World War I, but her name became well known again in the 1960's, with the cult of antique roses and native plants.

But the woman beloved by generations of gardeners was a sentimental stereotype: she was "Aunt Bumps," the frumpy, nearsighted spinster who traveled around Surrey in a dogcart. In her associations with powerful men, from William Morris to Edward Hudson, the publisher of Country Life, to Lutyens, Jekyll was assumed to be subordinate, the lucky beneficiary of male patronage.

Aunt Bumps is now being erased from the historical record. She has been replaced by a full-blooded Victorian hero, a model of pioneering professionalism and female independence, an achiever on the scale of her contemporary William Morris.

Jekyll's career was indeed prodigious in its length and output, extending from the 1860's to the 1930's. Besides her 350 garden designs, she wrote 15 books and more than 2,000 articles. Part of Jekyll's current appeal is based on the notion that she began late as a professional. She was 40 when she moved out of her mother's house to build her own home and garden at Munstead Wood and began receiving commissions. She was 56 when she published her first book.

But Jekyll's mid-life emergence as a professional was preceded by years of rigorous, self-motivated study. The daughter of a prosperous and well-connected country family, she went to London at 17 to study at the South Kensington School of Art. As a woman, she was barred from membership in the Art Workers' Guild. The alternative for students of Jekyll's comfortable means was to study in Italy. Recent biographies give an appealing picture of Jekyll's awkward but determined forays into the workshops of Italian gilders and woodcarvers.

As gardening replaces cooking as the Northern California cultural obsession of the 90's, the stage is set for a third, updated, revival of the Jekyll cult. Her philosophical commitment to native plants and gardens that incorporate existing heathland and woods makes her environmentally up to date. Her well-argued writing in support of the cause of the Victorian wild garden can give comfort to hard-pressed gardeners in San Francisco Bay area in the aftermath of a drought and fire that made delicate bedding plants and exotic trees unthinkable as well as unfashionable.

In the area, the Arts and Crafts style she practiced left a cherished architectural legacy. The revered names of early area architecture -- Bernard Maybeck, Willis Polk, Ernest Coxhead and the young Julia Morgan -- were to some degree all products of the English Arts and Crafts Movement. They left a stock of shingle houses and garden cottages, many in Berkeley and Oakland, for which a Jekyll garden is a historically correct accompaniment.

Mr. Steward, the curator, said the plight of Jekyll's actual gardens should strike a chord with preservationists: fewer than 20 Jekyll gardens in England have survived. Another dozen, Munstead Wood among them, are under restoration.

"One reason it is so moving to see the plans in the show," Mr. Steward said, "is that the gardens themselves are lost." Where to Find Her

"Gertrude Jekyll: Private Gardens, Vanishing Arts" will be on view through Sept. 19 at the University Art Museum, 2621 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, Calif. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., and Monday, 9 A.M. to 6 P.M.; (510) 642-0808. Free.

New York Times, 8/26/1993