I’ve spent much of the past week reading about one of the twentieth century’s most influential landscape designers and it has left me surprised that Geoffrey Jellicoe’s name doesn’t crop up more often in discussions of contemporary garden design. As someone who has always worked between the margins of different disciplines – especially focusing on the often disregarded connections between literature and science – I find Jellicoe’s focus on the links between design, landscape and the mind, both refreshing and inspiring. So I though I’d share some of his life and works on the blog this week:
Geoffrey Jellicoe is known for his private and public landscape designs. He was born in 1900 and continued working through retirement and beyond, well into the 1990s. He believed that landscape design was part of a wider creative movement throughout history, which encompassed visual arts such as painting, sculpture and architecture, and he was influenced by such disparate forces as the writings of the ancient Greeks, Cubism and the psychology of Carl Jung.
Jellicoe was trained as an architect and in the early 1920s he travelled across Italy with fellow student, J. C. Shepherd, drawing the villas and their gardens, and immersing himself in Italian garden design. When he returned in 1924, the two young men published Italian Gardens of the Renaissance and the influence of this trip can be seen throughout Jellicoe’s later work.
By 1929 he was a master at the Architectural Association school, a founder member of the Institute of Landscape Architects and was established in private practice with Shepherd. He continued to write, teach and design and in 1931, set up his own practice at 40 Bloomsbury Square, London. In 1934 he began designing the restaurant at Cheddar Gorge; the project which really saw him take his place at the forefront of modernist architecture. He included influences from German expressionist architecture, created a glass-bottomed pool with fountains above (water became a key element in his designs in later years) and also drew inspiration from the surrounding landscape.
As his practice developed, he began to take on larger private gardens. From 1935 he was involved in designing the garden at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire on a site where little of the original garden remained. He designed a formal landscape heavily influenced by his knowledge of Italian design, creating a long formal terrace overlooking the lake and a water-curtain of secret fountains to allow bathers to use a semi-circular pool unobserved from the house.
He also became involved in designing more public landscapes throughout the 1930s and 40s. 1935/6 saw him working on the surface layout of Calverton Colliery in Nottinghamshire, the plan for reconstructing the Mablethorpe foreshore in Lincolnshire and the town plan for Hemel Hempstead. By the 1950s Jellicoe was back in Hemel once more, this time designing the water gardens which surround the River Gade in the centre of the town. The gardens formed the shape of a serpent from the lake as the head, past a fountain which formed the eye and culminating in a curving tail resting on a mound. Bringing water into the town as a feature was intended to allow people to become closer to nature and the landscape.
As Jellicoe developed as a designer, the role of the wider landscape in his designs became more important. With projects like Harvey’s Store Roof Garden (1956), Jellicoe made the most of the view of Guildford and the North Downs. Jellicoe wrote in Studies in Landscape Design that it ‘is primarily a sky garden and the underlying idea has been to unite heaven and earth; the sensation is one of being poised by the two.’ He based the design on the launch of the first sputnik which took place in 1957 while he was designing the garden. The circular pools represent the spinning of the planets and originally there were fish in the pools and a waterfall cascading over the parapet to the levels below. Once again Jellicoe was creating movement and impact through his use of water in the garden.
Throughout his career, Jellicoe was heavily influenced by the work of modernist artist Paul Klee. The Swiss German painter lived from 1879-1940, but the two men never met. Klee’s work on colour theory and his use of elements of Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism inspired Jellicoe in designs like the rose garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire in 1959. This design was based on an abstract Klee painting The Fruit (1932), which depicts an embryonic being inside a fruit. Jellicoe created a garden with soft curves and described it as a vegetable form, like a cabbage, which was intended to absorb the visitor deeper into the garden.
The roses ranged in colour from soft pinks, through deep oranges, reds and yellows, again inspired by Klee’s experiments with colour. The rose garden demonstrates Jellicoe’s increasing interest in the relationship between garden and people in the way he uses shape and colour to create a connection between the visitor and the landscape.
More prestigious commissions followed with projects like the Kennedy Memorial Garden in Runnymede, Surrey indicating Jellicoe’s position as one of Britain’s foremost landscape designers. One of Jellicoe’s original ideas for this garden was that it would represent an allegorical journey from darkness to light, following the spirit of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The garden opens on a stretch of meadow and then a pathway leads through the wood to the seven ton block of Portland stone monument at the top with views back over the Thames and the valley in which the Magna Carta was signed. The path is irregularly laid with 60,000 axe-hewn granite setts and the view of the monument is obscured until the visitor reaches the top, when the culmination of the pathway is finally revealed. In this way the garden is both a physical and metaphysical journey – mind and matter combined through landscape.
In the 1970s and 80s, Jellicoe worked on a number of long term projects such as Shute House in Dorset (1970-90) and Sutton Place in Surrey (1980-86). At Shute, Jellicoe made use of the spring to create a series of watercourses guiding the flow through bubble fountains, rills, seven pools and out towards the open landscape. He experimented with creating a true harmonic chord with water as it passes over the four cascades in the rill, and the sounds and views created with water are intended to replenish the mind.
In 1980, Jellicoe was commissioned to design the gardens at Sutton Place for the American Stanley Seeger. Jellicoe proposed significant changes, such as moving the lake, adding a walled garden to balance the house, and developing a Paradise Garden and a Moss Garden. There was also to be a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore ‘Divided Oval’ and a ‘White Relief’ wall created by Ben Nicolson. Although the wall was installed, a change of ownership meant the sculpture was never added.
One of Jellicoe’s final projects was the Moody Gardens in Texas, US which he began when he was 86. The scheme was to design a human landscape in the wetlands which would allow development of the site for domestic and leisure purposes. Jellicoe proposed a landscape which would explore the evolution of plants with a range of areas within the gardens demonstrating the ecology and habitats of different species. Creating the 126 acre site to encompass the botanical history of the world was a way to foreground nature within the landscape and to make a point about the importance of plants to the past, the present and the future. Unfortunately his plans were never implemented, but they demonstrated his desire to promote a design which, as Michael Spens explains, shows ‘man ‘in’ a botanical landscape of the universe. The theme is one of creation, growth, pollination and survival of species on the edge of chaos.’
A Designer For Our Time
Geoffrey Jellicoe’s work cannot be reduced to a single style or influence. His projects spanned the subjects of garden design, landscape design, architecture, town planning and teaching, and he was active in these fields for over seventy years. His influence on modern design tends to be overlooked, but his interest in the ways that garden and landscape design interacts with many other creative disciplines, his desire to see it as part of a wider artistic and historical movement, is innovative and exciting. He wrote in The Landscape of Man in 1982, ‘The world is moving into a phase when landscape design may well be recognized as the most comprehensive of the arts. Man creates around him an environment that is a projection into nature of his abstract ideas. It is only in the present century that the collective landscape has emerged as a social necessity. We are promoting a landscape art on a scale never conceived of in history.’ His deep conviction that gardens should relate to the wider landscape and his belief that our relationship with the landscape is intrinsically linked to our subconscious, mean that Jellicoe’s work has acute contemporary relevance, especially in a world which has become increasingly divorced from the reality of external landscapes, with far-reaching consequences for our present and the future.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on modern garden design. Which landscape/garden designers or styles do you find most inspirational and where do you think the future will lead us in terms of our relationship with the landscape?
Featured image, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and Ben Nicholson by Harris Lynda, Creative Commons Licence
6 thoughts on “Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe – the landscape, arts and the mind”
I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Jellicoe, but maybe his name will keep cropping up now he is on my radar! I suppose I am more of a gardener than a landscape person, paying attention to the planting more than the design, though of course they should be intertwined. I am struggling to think of any names other than Lutyens or Capability Brown, though could you argue Beth Chatto was as much a landscape designer as a plantswoman?
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Hi Ali, yes I think Jellicoe is hugely underrated, especially as his ideas are so relevant to the modern world. I’m also more plantswoman than landscaper, but agree that the two are intertwined in many cases, as with the example of Beth Chatto. Enjoy your weekend 😊
Thank you, this was a fascinating read as our house was designed and built by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe in the 1950s in Levylsdene, Merrow, Guildford and I was doing some research to work out how we could keep his original features.
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Hi Caroline. Thanks for your message. How interesting to live in a house designed & built by Jellicoe. I’m really glad you found the article useful. Best of luck with your work on the property.
I am glad to read such a wonderful article about sir Geoffrey Jellicoe . In fact, I’m an landscape architecture student, doing some research on landscape architects to analyze their style and design and gain some experience from them. I have benefited from your article a lot. Thank you
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That’s lovely to hear Shaima! Thank you and all the best with your studies.
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