Twenty years after Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s death, an academic and admirer looks again at his work and sees his achievements freshly.
Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900–1996) was a founder of the Institute of Landscape Architects (ILA)
and founding president of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA). When president of the ILA from 1939–49 his advocacy work built the profession’s non-garden workload and his generosity in passing on jobs helped the new profession’s leaders establish their practices (Sylvia Crowe, Brenda Colvin, Peter Youngman, Derek Lovejoy and others). But my reason for claiming that Jellicoe was ‘the most important landscape architect of the 20th century’ has a firmer base: he brought intellectual, artistic and institutional clarity to what remains an ill-defined professional activity of uncertain parentage.
Olmsted’s approach to landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted is known as ‘the father of landscape architecture’
His achievements, though brilliant, were more practical than artistic or theoretical. He did little to explain the profession’s aims, objectives, history or design approaches. Charles Waldheim, following Joseph Disponzio, believes that Olmsted’s use of the term ‘landscape architect’ derived, via Alphand, from Morel
This is possible. But further research is needed and I think it more probable that Olmsted’s use of the term ‘landscape architecture’ came, via Loudon, Downing and Vaux, from the title of Gilbert Laing Meason’s 1828 book on The Landscape Architecture of the Great Paintings of Italy
Whichever ancestry is correct, the etymological principle was to integrate architecture with landscape and cities with nature. ‘Landscape’, in the new profession’s name, referred to the design style characteristic of English gardens in the century before 1860. Olmsted’s conception scarcely defined a new art and he remarked that ‘Landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not’, and ‘Gardening is worse’
Similarly, Jellicoe told an IFLA meeting in that ‘The landscape architect, who was first called a landscape gardener, is still surely wrongly named.’
Jellicoe made use of the word ‘landscape’ but not to characterise a design style
Jellicoe’s approach to landscape architecture
Jellicoe’s decision to study architecture followed a meeting with Charles Voysey, who was an Arts and Crafts ‘complete designer’ with a zest for modernism. Studying at the Architectural Association, Jellicoe was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Classicism and Modernism. A tutor pointed him to Italian Renaissance gardens and this led to a book
Like Dan Kiley a decade later, Jellicoe interpreted Italian gardens as abstract spatial compositions of solid and void. Jellicoe’s enthusiasm for gardens led to his involvement with founding what became the ILA and is now the LI. The original idea had been to establish a ‘British Association of Garden Architects’, or of ‘Landscape Gardeners’
Following Olmsted, Mawson and Adams persuaded the founding group to change its name to the Institute of Landscape Architects. Mawson hoped this would lead to the type of work he had called Civic Art in the title of his 1910 book. They saw the number of private commissions falling and hoped public commissions would fill the gap. Jellicoe designed gardens for seven decades and his practice grew to include work on the landscape of industry, roads, new towns and urban design. To him, they were part of the ‘landscape’ we should ‘design’, as he did for Hemel Hempstead New Town and for Motopia Studies in Landscape Design Published in three volumes between 1960 and 1970, Studies in Landscape Design contains Jellicoe’s most profound writing. The books integrate history, theory and design ideas. Jellicoe explains the art of landscape design as ‘the artificial shaping of the land to accommodate the innumerable activities of the modern world’11. Jellicoe’s study of the ‘Landscape of allegory’ is a good example. It opens with a discussion of Zen Buddhism, Stourhead, Homer, Virgil and Giorgione. This leads to a concise and inspirational account of his own design for the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede. Here is an edited version of the designer’s account:
The stages in the composition were something like the following:
The Landscape of Man
- The decision that the landscape, and only the landscape, was the memorial.
- Because the memorial stood for harmony between two nations, there should appear to be no boundaries between the territories. This led to the adoption of the ha-ha or sunk fence.
- The stone is symbolic of a catafalque, borne on the shoulders of the multitude. The lettering on the stone covers the whole surface, so that it is not so much an inscription upon it as an expression of the stone itself; it is as if it were the stone speaking.
- The recognition that the genius loci depended first upon the green undisturbed slopes. The wood through which the path gropes its way upwards is symbolic of the virility and mystery of nature as a life force. It is appropriate that it is not very good as forestry, and in fact in order to emphasize the cycle some trees have been retained beyond their reasonable maturity. It is a natural ecological system that is based on self-regeneration and, beyond a few repairs and encouragement to the ground cover, has been largely left undisturbed.
- The setts represent the multitudes for whom Kennedy stood as champion for individual freedom. The informal path winds its way upwards through a primitive wood, avoiding hazards. Occasionally it breaks into steps. Several sample lengths were laid on orthodox lines, but were unsatisfactory and he was asked to imagine that they were a crowd attending a football match – the steps to be like the front of such a crowd. With this in mind the craftsman went ahead and virtually positioned every sett himself. They are, I think, a considerable work of art I have never read a better account of a landscape design.
The crowning achievement of Jellicoe’s work on the nature of our profession was The Landscape of Man. He argues that:
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.
Waldheim’s Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory takes the art of landscape architecture back three centuries, from Olmsted to the Renaissance Jellicoe’s Landscape of Man traces our art to thirty millennia before Olmsted. While the first buildings date from c10,000 BCE, ‘the first landscapes’ appear in cave paintings dating from c30,000 BCE.
As President of the ILA, Jellicoe oversaw a dramatic change in the editorial direction of its publication. The title changed from Landscape and Garden to the Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects (JILA). The content policy changed from articles about horticulture and gardens to the advocacy of landscape architecture. The eight issues of the Wartime JILA campaigned for the full involvement of landscape architects in public projects. This included the protection of agricultural land, concentrating building on poorer land, multi-purpose forestry, parkways linking cities to the country, new towns on garden city lines, the design of trunk roads and restricting urban sprawl. JILA also had book lists, obituaries of members (including Edwin Lutyens) and commentary on the County of London Plan – on which ‘our two members, Mr J H Forshaw and Professor Patrick Abercrombie, are to be congratulated’. Jellicoe declared that there were two essentials for the future of the Institute. ‘One was to know what we wanted, to have a policy; the other to know that the people would be there to carry out the work' This remains true.
The ‘lost videos’
To mark the 20th anniversary of Jellicoe’s death, four videos have been published on the Landscape Architects Association (LAA) website16. Two of them are recordings made in the early ’80s, which were also Jellicoe’s early 80s. This is when he began to apply his mature philosophy to design projects. After letting the recordings gather dust in my attic for 35 years, because of their disappointing audio quality, I enjoyed listening to them again and trying to make them watchable. They show Jellicoe as the kindly, thoughtful, perceptive and widely knowledgeable man he was.
For seven years Jellicoe was a distinguished visiting lecturer at Thames Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich). I recommend this arrangement to landscape courses: Jellicoe’s role was to give occasional lectures, as in the two videos, and to attend design crits throughout the final year. This allowed him an Olympian overview, quite separate from everyday studio student-staff interaction and valuable to both groups. His comments were always positive, pointing out what was of merit and suggesting improvements.
I was surprised to discover, in the 1990s, that Jellicoe had adopted a postmodern approach some 40 years before Charles Jencks applied the term to architecture. In 2016 I was equally surprised to discover that in the 1980s Jellicoe was making the case for an approach to urban design which has since become fashionable. ‘Landscape urbanism’ is explained as ‘a theory of urban planning arguing that the best way to organise cities is through the design of the city’s landscape, rather than the design of its buildings’
Reflecting on his urban design work in Modena, Jellicoe comments that:
‘Now we come on to what I think is the most interesting thing in the history of landscape. The mayor wanted it so much that he actually came to see me in London... he made it clear that they want this to be a landscape conception and not an architectural conception... [Similarly, Virgil] inverses the relative thing that you expect... We now inverse values that are accepted. The most comprehensive of the arts is obviously landscape architecture18.’
What should we learn from Jellicoe’s life and work?
We should seek close integration between theory, practice and the world of ideas; we should help students and fellow professionals when we can; we should draw; we should not retire; we should be of good cheer; we should keep open minds about institutional innovation; we should remember our Institute’s central role in ‘promoting a landscape art on a scale never conceived of in history’.