Lutyens and Jekyll: The Perfect Partnership of Garden Design and Architecture

The talents of garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and architect Edwin Lutyens came together to create Hestercombe's stunning Formal Garden

Gertrude Jekyll (1920/1920) by Sir William NicholsonHestercombe House & Gardens

One of the twentieth century's foremost British garden designers, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) created around 350 gardens in England and abroad. The Formal Garden she created at Hestercombe between 1904 and 1908 in collaboration with Edwin Lutyens is considered to be the best surviving example of their celebrated partnership. Listed Grade 1, it is also Grade 1 on the Historic England register of historic parks and gardens.

Edwin Lutyens O.M., K.C.I.E., P.R.A, in the hall of the Art Workers' Guild (1933/1934) by Meredith FramptonHestercombe House & Gardens

In 1899 Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944) was introduced to the Hon. E. W. B. (‘Teddy’) Portman and his wife, Constance Mary Lawley, by client and magazine owner, Edward Hudson.

In her 'A Life of Edwin Lutyens' (2002, p. 154), Jane Ridley writes: 'Two days later he was near Taunton at Hestercombe with the Portmans, clients recommended by Hudson'. Edward Hudson was an enthusiastic devotee of Lutyens who he met in 1899 through Miss Jekyll. So convinced was he of the young architect's talents that from 1900 Hudson featured many illustrated articles on Lutyens' work in his popular magazine, Country Life, as well as introducing him to numerous clients, the Portmans included.

Layout plan with sections: Hestercombe – Taunton – Garden. (1904/1904) by Edwin LutyensHestercombe House & Gardens

In July 1892, Teddy married Constance Mary Vesey (1854-1951), widow of Capt. the Hon. Eustace Vesey of the 9th Lancers. Two years later the young couple moved from St. Giles, Dorset, to take up residence at Hestercombe and continued the programme of domestic and agricultural improvements begun by the 1st Viscount twenty years earlier. Although confronted by ‘a very bad house architecturally’, Lutyens believed ‘the gardens might be lovely’ and presented his terms: ‘I want £10,000 to start my garden on. He [E.W.B. Portman] talks of £1000!! So today will prove - what strength her [Constance Portman’s] influence is. She is for the £10000!!’

On returning to his office at 29 Bloomsbury Square, London, the following day, Lutyens set about transferring his ideas for the exciting new project onto paper. The result was the Formal Garden; a clever arrangement of interconnecting garden rooms carefully terraced into the south-facing slope below the Victorian terrace and embellished by locally quarried stone.

Albert Hubbard, Hestercombe Head Gardener 1902-c.1913, nd [c.1912]. (1912/1912)Hestercombe House & Gardens

On 11 October 1902 (p.276), the editors of the Gardener’s Chronicle announced the arrival of a new Head Gardener at Hestercombe in their 'Gardening Appointments’:

MR A. (ALBERT) HUBBARD, late Foreman at Blenheim Palace Gardens, as Head Gardener to the Hon. E. W. B. Portman, Hestercombe, Taunton, and entered upon his duties on the 1st inst.

Accompanied by his family, 36-year-old Albert Hubbard arrived in Taunton on the 1st of October 1902 and by all accounts settled well into his new post. However, his greatest challenge at Hestercombe, the planting of a new flower garden by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens, was not to arise for another two years.

Plan by Gertrude Jekyll: Hestercombe Planting Plans, Pergola & Border under Jan[uar]y 1907. 1/8 Scale. (1907/1907)Hestercombe House & Gardens

When Miss Jekyll designed the planting scheme for the Hestercombe Formal Garden she made two copies of each border plan, retaining one and sending the second (on oiled paper) to E.W.B. Portman’s Head Gardener, Mr. A. Hubbard. To this day her original planting plans for thirteen of the Formal Garden’s seventeen component areas survive. The exceptions are the Rotunda Terrace, Rose Garden, Pergola, and West Walk.

One of the first large scale garden conservation projects in the country, the five-year restoration of the Formal Garden, was undertaken 1973-77 by Somerset County Council with full Fire Brigade support (they were resident at Hestercombe 1954-2006) and in partnership the Somerset College of Agriculture and Horticulture at Cannington (replanting) and the Crown Estate Commissioners (stonework & pergola repair). The project was prefaced by three years of detailed research which located, amongst other documents, some of Gertrude Jekyll’s original planting plans which had been removed for safekeeping from a potting shed at Hestercombe by the last Portman Head Gardener, Andy Thomas.

Jekyll's planting scheme for West Rill. (1904/1904)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Many of the plants that Gertrude Jekyll specified for her garden commissions came from her own nursery at Munstead Wood, Godalming, Surrey, which by 1890 comprised over 300 hardy plants for the border, shrubbery and rock-garden. In March and April of 1905, Jekyll sent along the remainder of the plants for the Great Plat, East & West Rills and Grey Walk at Hestercombe.

Head Gardener, Albert Hubbard, who worked closely with Lutyens that summer – ‘Did such a lot of work today arranging planting-etc’ (Edwin Lutyens to Lady Emily, 31st July 1905) – also had to contend with the usual rural challenges. In Lutyens’ words: ‘No rat has been seen - but the rabbits are hard at it Eating the fig trees - which must be stopped.’ The Canal, Pergola, Orangery borders and East & South Walks were not planted by Hubbard and his team until February of 1907, followed in March by the just completed Dutch Garden.

Coloured plan by Gertrude Jekyll: Hestercombe Wall facing East; with borders & rill on higher level [West Rill & West Plat Border] nd [c. 1906]. (1906/1907)Hestercombe House & Gardens

The high survival rate of Gertrude Jekyll’s planting plans is largely due to the efforts of noted American landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand, a lifetime admirer of Miss Jekyll who purchased her plans just after the Second World War (1948). On her death in 1959, Farrand bequeathed over 2,000 Jekyll plans and other documents to the University of California at Berkeley. The collection, which spans the years from 1877 to 1931, is now housed in the University’s Environmental Design Archive where it forms an integral part of the Reef Point Collection, so-named for Beatrix Farrand’s summer home in Maine, USA.

Labourer’s posing in the Hestercombe quarry opened 1903 to supply stone for the construction of the Portman's newly designed Formal Garden, nd [c. 1904]. (1904)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Stone had been ‘raised’ from the Hestercombe estate quarries from at least the 13th century mainly to facilitate on site building projects (e.g., path surfaces, mortared garden walls, drystone parkland walls, stone-tiled roofs), but also to aid local improvement schemes.

Edward ('Johnny') Rendell is the bearded man wearing the stovepipe hat and holding the jumper (drill) bottom right. According to his grandson, ‘He used to walk from Hardington Mandeville, where he lived, through the night, some 29 miles, to reach Hestercombe to be ready to start work at 6 a.m.’ (Gordon Rendell, April 2017).

The main compartment of the new Formal Garden, The Great Plat, in the early stages of construction, 1904. Photo by Mrs. Portman’s eldest son, Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958). (1904/1904)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Construction of the new 0.48-hectare (1.19-acre) Formal Garden began on 23 April 1904, St. George’s Day, under the direction of Edwin Lutyens and his assistant and office manager, Albert J. Thomas, who worked with Lutyens for 30 years.

We have started the gardens at Hestercombe. It is such a typical self satisfied comfortable English sporting-squire of a house & place. I shouldn’t be surprised to be presented to porter & oysters between meals – but one isn’t. Breakfasts. luncheons. teas. dinners. Enormous vast quantities of foods & wines for 4 persons – our number. (Edwin Lutyens to his wife, Lady Emily, 23 April 1904)

Excavated ground on the site of the future Rose Garden, West Walk and West Rill, Hestercombe Formal Garden, 1904. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci. (1904/1905)Hestercombe House & Gardens

The surplus earth excavated by hand during the building of the Formal Garden between 1904 and 1908 was removed from the site using only wheelbarrow, horse and cart. By 1911 there were two carters employed on the estate, 58-year-old Edwin Hopkins and 46-year-old Edward Foyle, although it is likely that carters from adjoining properties were also called upon. The Hestercombe carters were answerable to Teddy Portman’s estate agent, E. C. Trepplin, who was ‘a big consequential bug in his own eye and ear’, according to Edwin Lutyens.

Great Plat under construction with the morte slate retaining walls on the south (Pergola) and east (East Rill) sides now almost complete, 1904. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The silvery-grey morte slate used throughout the Formal Garden by Edwin Lutyens was quarried on site, mainly in the two combes (valleys) to the north of the House, but the Hestercombe quarries were also the source of a rarer, and more decorative, stone. Pink diorite was used to reface the west front of Hestercombe House on at least one occasion in the 1720s when John Bampfylde (1691-1750) commissioned a classical ordering of sash windows, diorite surrounds, and neatly coursed diorite with the aim of creating a fashionable Palladian facade.

View down the finished oak and stone Pergola from the west with garden visitors enjoying themselves, 1907. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Edwin Lutyens treasured his stays at ‘comfortable luxurious Hestercombe’, and although busy overseeing the construction of the Formal Garden from April 1904, he still found time to go fishing (his only real sporting passion), play croquet and mingle with the socially prominent, usually wealthy, guests he encountered there, some of whom were already clients. They included Frances Isabella Catherine Thynne (Vesey), Marchioness of Bath and Mrs. Portman’s sister-in-law; Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life magazine; Edith Lyttelton, wife of the well-known cricketer Robert Lyttelton and a great friend of Mrs. Portman; and Constance Bigges, wife of Arthur John Bigge, 1st Baron Stamfordham and Private Secretary to the future King George V, the Prince of Wales.

View of a highly manicured Great Plat from the northeast with the planted Pergola apparent background, 1906. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci.Hestercombe House & Gardens

At the time of his death on 27th April 1911, aged 54, E.W.B. Portman employed over sixty people on the Hestercombe estate, including at least eleven gardeners, most of whom were young and unmarried. Henry Britton (28), Charles York (26), Charles Jones (25), Frank Juson (22), John Wadham (19) and Charles Dyer (19) were housed in the Gardener's Lodge, later the Bothy, a simple five-room structure situated alongside the walled kitchen garden that is still in situ to the south of the Formal Garden (albeit with a modern extension).

‘Garden Lads’ Jack Roy (17) and James Cording (15) lived with their families in nearby Upper Cheddon, Albert Shaw (31) occupied a ‘tied house’ (estate cottage) opposite the Cheddon Fitzpaine village church, and William Tucker (22) lived at Park Gate with his uncle, Henry Tucker (39), the caretaker of the Reading Room. The Head Gardener, Mr. Albert Hubbard resided in the more comfortable six-room Gardener’s Cottage (c. 1896), now ‘Kirklands’, located below the Formal Garden and just east of the walled Kitchen Garden on what was then known as Hestercombe Road.

The newly planted Plat Borders and Grey Walk, view from the southeast corner of the Hestercombe Formal Garden, 1906. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci.Hestercombe House & Gardens

By early December 1904, Albert Hubbard’s foreman, Mr. Cook, had received plant material for the North Plat Wall & Border of the Formal Garden. The following spring Hubbard received a letter from Miss Jekyll, asking him if he still wanted calla lilies (Zantedeschia aetheopica) for the Rills and also indicating which plants – mainly shrubs - she could not supply from her Munstead Wood Nursery. As a consequence, Hubbard was forced to canvass various nurseries for the likes of Buddleja globosa (Dutch Garden), Clematis 'Jackmanii' (Grey Walk), Gladiolus brenchlyensis & ‘Childsii’ (Plat Inner Beds), Lilium candidum (West Rill, Orangery), Magnolia grandiflora ‘Exmouth’ (East Walk, South Walk), and Ceanothus ‘Gloire de Versailles’ (East Walk, South Walk, West Rill). In all over 30 shrubs and perennials had to be found, possibly from such well-established local suppliers as Veitch of Exeter (est. c.1808) and Kelways of Langport (est. 1851).

Albert Hubbard and his staff were also asked to grow quantities of the annuals Miss Jekyll insisted on for edging, colour and fill, for example the Ageratum mexicanum and Trachelium caeruleum that would eventually adorn the Dutch Garden.

View of the Formal Garden from the northeast corner, the unfinished Pergola background, nd [c. 1906]. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci. © Thomas Eustace 7th Viscount de Vesci.Hestercombe House & Gardens

Among the most noteworthy features of the Formal Garden at Hestercombe is the 225-foot-long [68.2 m] pergola that spans the Garden’s southern boundary. Reminiscent of the wood and stone version that Lutyens designed for Ernest Blackburn at Little Thakeham, Sussex, in 1902, the structure is fashioned from 20 sets of alternately round and square stone piers linked together by substantial oak beams (on the ground waiting to be installed in this image) that are in turn overlaid with oak stringers.

In 1907, the Pergola was richly planted by Jekyll who employed rambler and cluster roses, occasionally interspersed with jasmines, vines, and woodbines, thus ensuring that beauty and utility were partnered with ‘presence and solidity’. The ‘solidity’ was not intended to be absolute, however. The gaps between the well planted piers lend a semi-transparent quality to the Garden boundary, admitting fine views of the Somerset countryside and adding to the apparent extent of this highly ordered space.

Panoramic shots of the Dutch Garden (upper) and Orangery Lawn, Hestercombe Formal Garden, 1906. Photo by Ivo Richard Vesey (1881-1958), 5th Viscount de Vesci.Hestercombe House & Gardens

The Formal Garden was largely complete by April of 1906, but Edwin Lutyens was to return to Hestercombe before long to extend it 88 yards (80m) to the East. He completed this £2,000 commission between 1906 and 1907, creating in the process the raised Dutch Garden and his celebrated ‘Wrennaissance’ slate and Hamstone Orangery ‘which will be fun to build & good to look at’.

Looking down on the East Rill and across to the Great PlatHestercombe House & Gardens

The view today looking over the East Rill, with the Great Plat beyond. As much as possible, our team of gardeners adhere to Jekyll's original planting schemes.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
UK Gardens
From the smallest window box to the largest country estate
View theme
Google apps