Painting with Plants: Paying Tribute to Gertrude Jekyll
Gertrude Jekyll

Painting with Plants: Paying Tribute to Gertrude Jekyll

by Emma Palmer, 2018 International Childfree Day Winner

“I’ll be a plantswoman in my next life!” I told my therapy supervisor a while back. I’d been writing about the parallels between gardening and being a therapist. “Maybe you’re already one, in and beyond the therapy room,” she replied. It’s true, being a therapist can feel analogous to tending to soil, to plants, to timing, to observing what’s going on in the broader weather systems.

One of my saving graces of the ‘stay at home’ nature of the Covid-19 pandemic of the past 15+ months has been gardening; our tiny, colourful corner of the city and our allotment (community garden) is merely a 5-minute walk away. When I’m there weeding, picking, deadheading, and getting soaked on stormier days, I can look across the view of Bristol to the place where my Palmer ancestors, nicknamed ‘the seed shop Palmers’ ran a market garden for three generations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Wisteria in White Room,” Barrington’s Gardens

Another highlight has also been re-visiting some great gardens not far from home. In particular, I have admired the artistry of world-renowned plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll and her influence at Barrington Court and Hestercombe in nearby Somerset. Walking around Barrington’s gardens, I’m awed by Jekyll’s ability to paint with plants — the drifts of salvias, harmonising of plant colours, sharp colour contrasts in the pond garden, and restful simplicity of the white ‘room’. These gardens feel grand enough to create awe, yet intimate enough to feel strangely homey. The elegant Victorian Terrace in Hestercombe feels more formal than Barrington Court, and the dramatic gardens have a wider range of features, including the natural and warm terracotta pots in the Dutch garden and the impressive vistas from the long pergola.

Pond Garden, Barrington Court

It’s hard to believe that Jekyll created more than 300 gardens. I can understand why on Jekyll’s gravestone we see the three words, ‘Artist, Gardener, Craftswoman’ stand one below the other. Each encapsulates her staggering number of talents and contributions.

Jekyll was a pioneer, too. She broke the rules in experimenting with planting more romantic, Impressionistic-influenced planting, sharply contrasting with the symmetrical parterres and carpet planting of Victorian England, re-emphasising the importance of natural beauty in response to the manmade ugliness of the industrial revolution. Jekyll also broke the rules socially and culturally in never marrying, nor having children. Unusual for the time even from having financially privileged beginnings, she earned her keep from an early age. Reading her biography, I felt appreciative of her father who encouraged her to pursue her interests, with Jekyll having more freedoms than many women of her generation.

There is something special about leaving a growing, living, legacy of such beauty. Sitting on a bench tucked beyond a mixed border at Barrington last weekend, I was moved by the timelessness of gardens, and felt grateful to all those who have tended to and kept the continuity of the garden since Jekyll’s influence. In times as uncertain as these we can find peace and solace in such beauty. Given that very few of the gardens created by Jekyll now exist, we each have a role in keeping beauty alive and staying close to flora and fauna. Whether or not I’ll be a plantswoman in my next life, I’ll be happy enough being an amateur plantswoman and do my bit in keeping my garden and our allotment in beautiful order for the rest of my life, for friends, family, and the local wildlife to enjoy.


Since being awarded the 2018 International Childfree Person of the Year, Emma has written for and co-edited the book #MeToo – Counsellors And Psychotherapists Speak About Sexual Violence And AbuseHer work as a therapist, facilitator and writer continue, including writing chapters for a few therapy book collections. In addition to loving gardening, during the pandemic, Emma has also reconnected with poetry writing. More info about Emma’s work here.

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