Gertrude Jekyll was born on 29 November 1843, in Mayfair, London, and the Jekyll family moved to Bramley Park, Surrey, in 1848. As a child, she had the freedom to explore the Surrey countryside, to learn about the plants and to make friends with the local people. What she learned from these explorations had a strong influence on her approach to garden design and was also to be the source of information for several of her books on folklore and customs. Except for a brief period of residence at Wargrave, Berkshire (1868-1876), Gertrude Jekyll remained in the county for the rest of her life.
In 1861 Gertrude Jekyll enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art where she studied botanical drawing and attended lectures on the scientific principles underlying the harmonies of colour. She also visited the London galleries, attending exhibitions and copying the works of Old Masters. Her circle of friends and influences at this time grew to include artists such as George Frederic Watts, William Morris and the critic John Ruskin. The English impressionist, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, also had a profound influence on Gertrude Jekyll who later wrote 'nobody has helped me more than Mr Brabazon to understand and enjoy the beauty of colour and many matters concerning the fine arts'. Her ambition to become a professional artist was curtailed as a result of her severe myopia.
She first travelled abroad in 1863, on a tour of the Aegean with her friends, Charles and Mary Newton. From then onwards, she travelled extensively in Britain and Western Europe, particularly the Mediterranean, the Riviera, Greece and Italy, and also to Algiers. As she toured she sketched and painted constantly. At about this time she also began to amass a collection of embroidery and textiles which she added to throughout her life and which she used as an inspiration for her interior designs and embroidery patterns.
George Leslie, RA, an artist and friend of the family described Gertrude Jekyll in his book 'Our River' (1881):
'Miss Jekyll is a lady of such regular and remarkable accomplishments ... clever and witty in conversation, active and energetic in mind and body, and possessed of artistic talents of no common order, she would have at all times shone conspicuously bright amongst other ladies. The variety of her accomplishments, however is far more extensive ... - carving, modelling, house painting, carpentry, smith's work, repousse work, gilding, wood inlaying, embroidery, gardening, and all manner of herb and flower knowledge and culture; everything being carried on with perfect method and completeness. Her artistic taste is very great, and if it had not been for the extreme near-sightedness of her vision, I have little doubt that painting would have predominated over all her other talents.'
Gertrude Jekyll returned to Surrey following her father's death in 1876 to live at Munstead House, near Godalming, with her mother and brother, Herbert. Her first major project on moving was to lay out the gardens for the family home at Munstead House.
During the 1880s, Gertrude Jekyll had begun to write for 'The Garden' magazine and contributed photographs to 'The English Flower Garden', by William Robinson (editor of 'Gardening Illustrated' which merged with 'Country Life' magazine in 1897). As her fame spread, she wrote many more articles and published fourteen books on topics ranging from garden design to folk history. During this decade, she also took up photography, taking many pictures of the surrounding countryside and of her own gardens at Munstead Wood. From this period until c.1914, when she effectively gave up photography on account of her poor eyesight, she used her own photographs to illustrate her books and articles. Several albums of her photographs are now held at the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1889, when Gertrude Jekyll was in her mid-forties, she met the twenty-year-old architect, Edwin Lutyens. Their joint love of domestic architecture and garden design, and most importantly their evocation of the 'Surrey Style' of domestic architecture, led to their collaboration on some of the best examples of Arts and Crafts design. During the 1890s, in Surrey alone, Jekyll and Lutyens collaborated on the design of gardens for Orchards in Godalming, Goddards in Abinger, and Tigbourne Court in Witley, at the same time as they worked on the construction of her new home at Munstead Wood. Here, she laid out the gardens and Lutyens designed every building on the site from the main house to the thatched garden shed.
During her lifetime, Gertrude Jekyll created designs for approximately 500 gardens mainly in Britain, although she did design gardens for properties in the United States of America and Germany. Despite her failing sight, she continued to design gardens, publish articles and maintain a regular correspondence with friends and readers of her articles until her death, aged 89, on 9 December 1932. She lies buried in St John's Churchyard, Busbridge, Surrey, beneath a memorial designed by Lutyens which bears the epitaph: ARTIST, GARDENER, CRAFTSWOMAN