Munstead Wood, the celebrated Arts and Crafts house and garden in Surrey, has been acquired by the National Trust, the charity for the preservation of historic houses, gardens and landscape, with financial aid from the British government, “for the enjoyment of all”.
The house and garden, an integrated Gesamtkunstwerk of world importance where house and garden are subtly but inextricably linked, was created by the architect Edwin Lutyens for, and with, his client and mentor Gertrude Jekyll. It had been for sale, at an asking price of £5.25m following the death in March 2022 of its owner Marjorie Clark. Clark, and her husband Robert Clark—a leading banker in the City of London who himself died in 2013—renovated house and garden over half a century after acquiring the place in the mid-1960s. They had for many years made the garden available to groups of visitors. It was, Robert Clark once said, “the best investment I ever made”.
The National Trust said it had acquired the house through a private sale and that it “has begun fundraising to support the restoration and reimagination of the garden and house”. The trust said it “is working with the local community and partners to develop plans on the best way to open the property to visitors in future”.
The special quality of Munstead Wood lies in the tight, and graduated integration between the wood, woodland garden, herbaceous borders, paving and—all at the same level—the ground floor of the house which is built in local materials, Surrey brick and Bargate stone, and placed in its woodland setting as if to be discovered by chance rather than design. The sense of discovery continues into the ground plan of the house, full of unexpected turns and vistas. Everything is a gradual reveal, and the aesthetic both inside and out is heightened by Lutyens’s early artistic mastery of the fall of light across masonry, smooth carving and deep set windows.
The house was completed in 1896 to designs by the 27-year-old Lutyens for his mentor Jekyll, a formidable, writer, artist, historian of crafts and country life horticulturist, and garden designer. In 1886 she had acquired its site, 13 acres of unpromising Surrey heathland, and planted a wood in which she developed her own form of informal gardening, and placed a series of practical buildings for writing—she was a serial contributor to Country Life magazine and producer of books on gardening, craftwork and buildings—and the selling of seeds and flowers. Munstead Wood was always a working place for Jekyll, funded additionally by her writing of books and journalism.
In 1889 she met Lutyens, then a prodigious talent, all of 19, with a retentive memory for the architectural detail of local building in Surrey, where he had spent childhood summers. It was a meeting that made him as an architect. The austere, almost monastic, Jekyll aesthetic and sense of “rightness” fed into his work as a builder of romantic, vernacular buildings, but also, in later years as a master of classicism responsible for masterpieces including the starkly castellated Castle Drogo, in Devon, the great war graves spread across the killing fields of Flanders and Normandy, the imperial capital at New Delhi and his great unfinished design for the Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. Lutyens in turn offered Jekyll a whole new avenue of work as a garden designer to a fashionable clientele (work that helped pay for the upkeep of house and garden), usually in league with Lutyens in the country house practice that he built in the late 1890s and 1900s on the back of their collaboration at Munstead Wood.
Jekyll herself was a crucial figure in the history of the Arts and Crafts movement. A talented amateur artist, she had attended lectures by both John Ruskin—the intellectual founder of the movement—and William Morris, the master of applying the movements principles in decoration and interior design. When she once suggested to Ruskin that she might build a house in Surrey decorated with marble, he insisted that she looked instead at whitewash and tapestry as her aesthetic. It was a life-changing moment that later influenced the aesthetic of Munstead Wood itself but also a series of masterpieces on which Lutyens and Jekyll collaborated including the restoration of Lindisfarne Castle (1906) and Lambay Castle, Co Dublin (1908-10) and a new house, Deanery Garden, for Edward Hudson, proprietor of Country Life magazine, a crucial figure in promoting the work of Lutyens and Jekyll.
The sophisticated sense of geometry, and play with segment of a circle, that Lutyens developed at Munstead Wood, in both planning and the elevation of archways and lintels, fed through into 50 years of subsequent work. The arc of a circle is fundamental to his most sophisticated, almost abstracted designs: the Cenotaph in Whitehall—whose apparently straight elevations meet in the junction of their arched sides miles above ground—and the stepped arches of the war memorial at Thiepval and, on an even more massive scale, in the great unbuilt aisles of Liverpool Cathedral.
Another noted Lutyens work in Surrey, Goddards, is maintained by the Landmark Trust, the charity that restores smaller historic buildings and lets them to its members as holiday accommodation, and is the home of the Lutyens Trust, the charity dedicated to research and education on the architect’s work.
Munstead Wood and its owner had close ties to artists of the day. Jekyll had photographed local houses with her friend Helen Allingham, who left distinctive water colours of Munstead Wood, including the famous summer herbaceous border, 200 feet long and 14 feet deep. William Nicholson left two indelible portraits of Jekyll. A powerful portrait in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery—left to the gallery in 1947 at the express wish of Lutyens, who had died in 1944—and a delightful portrait of her gardening boots painted, according to legend, because Nicholson had difficulty in getting the every entrepreneurial and creative Jekyll to sit still enough for him to capture her likeness.
When Robert and Marjorie Clark bought Munstead Wood in the 1960s, 30 years after Jekyll’s death, many of its borders and rockeries had been grassed over as an economy. Many of the wood’s finest trees were destroyed in the great storm of October 1987, after which the Clarks’ head gardener suggested removing the grassed over areas and restoring Jekyll’s full design, both close to the house and through into the surrounding wood. A project that was triumphantly achieved and carried on by Annabel Watts, the leading expert on the history of both house and garden, who has been head gardener at Munstead Wood for 19 years.