My favourite painting: Penelope Lively

'I love William Nicholson’s work. His still-lifes are incomparable.'

Gertrude Jekyll, 1920, by Sir William Nicholson (1872–1949), 30in by 30½in, National Portrait Gallery, London

Penelope Lively says:
This portrait, for me, is a happy combination of two artists I much admire. I love William Nicholson’s work. His still-lifes are incomparable. He was a prolific portrait painter and here there is a personal element: he was a friend of my grandmother’s and painted five of her six children. His portrait of my aunt Diana as a wonderfully feisty young woman was the centrepiece of the Royal Academy’s Nicholson exhibition in 2004. And, like all gardeners, I am indebted to Gertrude Jekyll for her garden artistry, which still influences the way in which we garden. She looks rather like Queen Victoria here and those unrelaxed hands suggest that she is wishing this painter fellow would be done and she could get back to the garden.

Dame Penelope Lively is a Booker Prize-winning novelist and writer. Her forthcoming collection
of short stories, The Purple Swamp Hen, will be published in November.

John McEwen comments on Gertrude Jekyll:
In February 1921, Emily Lutyens wrote to her husband Sir Edwin ‘Ned’ Lutyens (1869–1944), architect and frequent collaborator with the gardener Gertrude ‘Bumps’ Jekyll (1843–1932): ‘I have not seen Nicholson’s picture yet—but the photograph in Country Life is marvellous—and gives Bumps exactly!’ Lutyens had commissioned the portrait. He bequeathed it to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).

Nicholson wrote to Miss Jekyll’s sister-in-law: ‘It was a great event for me to meet Gertrude Jekyll… It wasn’t an easy job… she thought herself unpaintable—she said she needed to rest, and there was one chair in front of the fire where she always rested. However I managed to overcome… all these little difficulties, and painted her while she rested. I didn’t entirely waste the daylight, as I painted her Army boots and gave the result to N. [‘Ned’ Lutyens]… I feel grateful to Providence for the chance she gave me of recording so loveable a character. I am so glad if you think I have put a little of her serene charm into my painting.’

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It is easy to imagine Nicholson and Jekyll enjoying each other’s company. She had trained as an artist and both were aesthetic simplifiers. As Margaret Richardson wrote in the 1982 Lutyens exhibition catalogue: ‘Under Miss Jekyll’s puritanical gaze, he [Lutyens] was restrained and learnt to simplify.’ His inscription for her gravestone at Busbridge Church, Godalming, Surrey, was exemplary: ‘Artist, Gardener, Craftswoman.’ She also wrote 13 books. Both she and Lutyens were pillars of Country Life.

Emily Lutyens gave the popular boots picture to the Tate, where it is currently in storage. It should surely be hung at the NPG next to Jekyll’s portrait.