One of the more common questions asked about the British Ambassador’s Residence gardens is whether Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was involved in the planning. The influential gardener, designer and writer’s long partnership with Sir Edwin Lutyens, resulted in dozens and dozens of gardens. But by the time of the designing of the Washington Embassy, the two had largely—although not completely—stopped working together as the nature of Lutyens’s work changed and with Jekyll’s long-failing eyesight and age.
The classical severity and large scale of the architect’s few country houses commissioned after the Great War were not particularly suited to Jekyll’s artistic use of plants in Impressionistic groupings of color. However, it is too simple and dry to state in their collaboration that Lutyens laid out the foundations while Jekyll filled the spaces in with flowers: the aesthetic of each informed the other, with Jekyll influencing the young architect from the early 1890s in use of humble materials and restraint within the Arts and Crafts movement. The influence of Lutyens’s work is seen in Jekyll’s Gardens for small country houses (with Lawrence Weaver, 1912), one of her many books, as well as numerous articles for Country life and The Garden. They discussed the orientation of both house and garden in the planning stages, and specific details such as the favored “flower-border.”
Lutyens and Jekyll often worked closely together but they were not dependent on each other. Jekyll worked alone as well as with other architects. During her career, with surveyors’ plans, photographs, and descriptions sent to her home, Munstead Wood. Lutyens also designed gardens on his own, notably Ammerdown in Somerset (1902-3), Great Dixter, Sussex (1910) and Tyringham, Buckinghamshire (1926). They collaborated again when Lutyens turned his skills to designing war memorials. Jekyll, having done a therapeutic scented garden at King Edward VII’s hospital, joined Lutyens with the plantings of the cemeteries of the Great War. Their relationship endured, and Lutyens designed Jekyll’s grave in a churchyard near Godalming, Surrey.
Jekyll did design three very different gardens for American clients although she had never traveled there, encouraging the owners’ and local nurserymen’s suggestions for suitable plantings for the climate. She did not work directly with Lutyens on the Embassy gardens but they may well have discussed the initial project since they were planning together a grand country estate in Sussex at the time. The monumental garden layouts of Plumpton Place (1928), along with Gledstone Hall in Yorkshire (1922-26), were their last collaborations. This was a period (from 1925) of the early stages of the Washington Embassy. However, there is no known evidence—in correspondence, plans, planting guides, personal diaries—that Jekyll had anything directly to do with its landscape. And, as events turned out, except from the general design, neither did Lutyens.
While Lutyens did not collaborate with Gertrude Jekyll on this project, some of their country-house vocabulary is in evidence. There were many Lutyens’ design notes in the Embassy gardens, such as changing levels in in a sloping site, compartments, semi-circular stairs, patterns formed by paving, the importance of a vista. There are playful elements and unpredictability that are carried over into the garden from the Embassy buildings. The circular staircase that ends a parallel axis of terraces south of the Residence widens out in semi-circles as it descends gently to the turf. Anchoring the Residence are Lutyens’ broad stairways from another project that was illustrated in Lawrence Weaver and Jekyll’s book, Gardens for small country houses. These provide not only a platform but also a contrast with the massive bulk of the Residence walls of Virginia brick and Indiana limestone and terraces, and transition to the lawn. Extending these materials, the walkways are of the limestone sheltered by brick retaining walls. The sharp masonry details in the garden are one of the hallmarks of Lutyens’s work.