OBITUARY:Maggie Jencks

Kenneth Powell
Thursday 13 July 1995 23:02 BST

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


On the day before she died, Maggie Jencks was reviewing plans for the Cancer Caring Centre at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, a project which she had conceived after being told, two years ago, that she would be dead of cancer within months.

Jencks envisaged the centre, due to open next year, as a place where people would be helped not just to cope with the disease but to fight it - as she did. It was equally intended as a tribute to the medical team at the hospital, led by the pioneering oncologist Dr Robert Leonard, who gave her two precious years of life. Jencks was insistent that the centre should be a place of calm beauty, a contrast to the utilitarian Sixties buildings around it, and brought in the highly rated young Edinburgh architect Richard Murphy to design it.

The project embraced all the most important elements of Jencks's life and character: her strong aesthetic sense, her perennial concern for other people, her determination and her extraordinary creativity. Maggie Jencks was raised in a privileged, but hardly conventional, background. Her father, Sir John Keswick, headed the great Scottish trading dynasty of Jardine Matheson, first from Shanghai and later (after the Communist takeover, when he and his wife were put under house arrest) from Hong Kong. Born at Cowhill, the "big house" of the Keswicks in Dumfriesshire in 1941, Margaret Keswick (an only child) was brought up between the Far East, Scotland and school in England. She read English at Oxford, but - after a brief foray into the fashion business - went to the Architectural Association school in London. It was here that she met the American architect and writer Charles Jencks, whom she married in 1978.

Maggie and Charles Jencks's partnership was, above all, founded on their happy family life, but its fruits included several remarkable artistic collaborations. Maggie Jencks's book Chinese Gardens, published in the year of her marriage, was quickly recognised as a classic and gardens remained one of her abiding interests. With her husband, she designed the new gardens (a place of lakes and green mounds) at Portrack, her family home in Scotland, and carried out extensive alterations to the interior of the house. The couple's famous house in Notting Hill, London, was an equally collaborative venture, designed with the architect Terry Farrell. Its richly symbolic interior was hailed as a prime Post-Modernist monument - the concept was Charles Jencks's, but his wife made it work as a family home.

Maggie Jencks's other garden designs included a collaboration with the American architect Frank Gehry on the Lewis House at Cleveland, Ohio, where fibre-optics and running water were to be fused to create a highly original landscape, as well as a garden for the film director Roger Corman. For the Jencks's house in California, she laid out a garden inspired by Milton's "Il Allegro" and "Il Penseroso". She was a meticulous draughtswoman, with a facility in drawing which she lacked in writing - she admitted that Chinese Gardens had been an arduous task, but went on to edit a history of Jardine Matheson, The Thistle and the Jade (1982).

The Roman Catholicism in which Jencks was raised remained a strong influence all her life, though tempered by an uncommon willingness to understand and learn from other creeds. Like her father, a fluent Chinese speaker, she loved China sincerely. Buddhism attracted her and coloured her approach to life and to serious illness, though it never compromised her Catholic faith.

Jencks's moral sense was reflected in her commitment to charitable work, which found expression in the Holywood Trust, which she set up, with her father, to address the problems of young people in south-west Scotland, and the Hong-Kong-based Keswick Foundation. The latter established the colony's first hospice for the terminally ill and is heavily involved in mental health, a largely taboo subject in the Chinese culture. Jencks was a generous donor to many causes, but was equally a persuasive fund- raiser. She regularly served as a helper on pilgrimages to Lourdes, even after her own illness was first diagnosed in 1988. (An operation stemmed the advance of the cancer, but it recurred in 1993.)

At heart a deeply private person - she could seem remote to those who did not know her - Maggie Jencks was nonetheless a notable hostess. Her social connections helped Charles Jencks, who had the disadvantages of being a foreigner and a critic of the dominant Modernist orthodoxy, to establish himself as the most influential architectural critic of the Eighties. The dinners and parties which the couple hosted brought together a galaxy of international architects, designers and writers.

Maggie Jencks had a wide circle of friends, from a great variety of backgrounds and nations, but only a few who were really close. She lived for her husband, her two children and two stepchildren, who, with her mother, survive her.

Kenneth Powell

Margaret Keswick, writer, gardener and designer: born Cowhill, Dumfriesshire 10 October 1941; married 1978 Charles Jencks (one son, one daughter, two stepsons); died London 8 July 1995.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in