Kristine F. Miller – Almost Home:
The Public Landscapes of Gertrude Jekyll
Berkeley Design Books no. 6, Marc Treib, Series Editor, published in Europe by
Architectura & Natura Press, Amsterdam, 176 pp. 2013.
This is a welcome if late-blooming volume from the archives of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley, especially welcome to many of us who have trekked to California to catch glimpses of the Jekyll drawings at various times during the last forty years. At last the drawings, at least some of them, have found a champion in a landscape architect, Kristine F. Miller, now Professor at the University of Minnesota, who has had the facility to ‘examine, dissect and digest’ the meanings of these precious originals from the Jekyll hands, those hands so prominently a part of William Nicholson’s 1920 portrait.
As a contemporary landscape architect, Miller understandably believes she ‘can have the most significant impact on people’s daily lives’ in the public realm. With her previous academic studies of the changes in ‘the visual and sensory qualities of an Edwardian garden’ focussed on Hestercombe and Upton Grey, she has freed herself from the mires of restoration and survival, and now sees clearly the intentions and implications of the critical moments of creation. She comes well-armed to her questions as to why Jekyll, ‘whose aesthetic approach was so rooted in the domestic’, should be chosen to ‘create the symbolic language for prominent public works?’
The works are the King Edward VII Sanatorium at Midhurst completed in 1907, the Phillips Memorial Cloister at Godalming, dedicated in 1914, and the World War 1 Cemeteries, including Herbert Baker’s Delville Wood Memorial and the Winchester College Memorial Cloister. Via the Jekyll planting plans (mostly the work of her seventh and eighth decades) and the architects’ layout drawings, all sensitively reproduced and revealing their true beauty, with relevant photographs, Miller ’s prose lures her readers through the creation to the physical experience of these places. Her avowed ambition to achieve ‘good design writing’ seems well-grasped.
Her detailed analysis of the Sanatorium landscape is an especially potent reminder that, in the last hundred years, we have only regressed in our appreciation of the curative values of some well-gardened hospitals. In the Godalming memorial to the young Jack Phillips, radio operator on the Titanic, she applauds ‘an Arts and Crafts tour de force’, but is equally appreciative that ‘the landscape that produced Phillips is framed by open arches’ in the Cloister.
Miller’s early chapters have perhaps too many phrases in the vein of ‘virtuous and nationalistic art’, ‘aggregate of Englishness’, ‘potent symbolism of England’, which make me feel that I live in a theme park. But, by the time she reaches the War Cemeteries, she is fully converted to Jekyll’s heaven-inspired but earthbound integrity and humanism. Each of the seven cemetery schemes has a chapter of coolly professional explanation, transposing the planting plans onto the landscape. Miller quotes Jekyll’s notes liberally, but she also begins to speak to us on Jekyll’s behalf, as if standing in for her at an imagined site meeting: one small instance, at Corbie La Neuville BC, the drawing ‘shows how plantings at the back of the headstones could serve as borders to either side of an important walk: bringing the bodies themselves into a kind of burial border of headstones, flowering shrubs, perennial lupine and iris’. Miller’s conclusions are complex and intriguing, but essentially that Jekyll deployed her knowledge of gardens ‘at different scales to resolve the key tensions of the cemeteries to transform landscapes of death into landscapes of endurance’.
Almost Home is a timely study in view of the looming anniversaries, but also abounds in lessons for our contemporary landscape designers. Kristine F. Miller’s designer’s empathy with her designer-subject is so eloquently expressed as to bring these achievements of Gertrude Jekyll’s mature years into vivid relevance.
Jane Brown is the author of Gardens of a Golden Afternoon and Lutyens and the Edwardians. She is currently working on a biography of Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst (1887-1968), the founder of Dartington Hall.