Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Secret Garden

What is it about discovering a secret garden that is so exciting? With summer coming up and travel plans swirling in my head, I began to think about how much fun it is to stumble upon a garden. Especially in a big city. Sometimes it happens fortuitously. You're tired. You've been walking on city streets all day, touring museums, and seeing historic places. And then there it is. The most welcome sight -- a beautiful place to sit down and rest. A place to reflect. A secret garden. You can't believe your luck and wonder if anyone else knows about it. This happened to me while in Edinburgh last summer when my husband and I stumbled upon Dunbar's Close Garden. It is a leafy green sanctuary in the heart of the city amid the bustle of the Royal Mile. Hidden behind a gate, this little garden is the perfect place to rest your weary feet.

Scotland is well known to possess a magical quality. If you've been watching the television series Outlander you are familiar with its mystique. Not surprisingly, Dunbar's Close Garden is tucked away in a deeply atmospheric part of Edinburgh at the end of a dark and narrow 'close' (a narrow lane) in the Old Town, just off the busy Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is a stretch of four ancient streets which formed the main thoroughfare of medieval Edinburgh, linking Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It has around 80 narrow lanes or 'closes' and when you are among them it is easy to imagine Edinburgh's medieval past.

The garden was designed in the style of the 17th-century with gravel paths, neatly trimmed shrubs, herbs, flowers and mature trees. Walking through its gates is like stepping into another world after the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile. It is divided into three parterres. You can sit on a bench and enjoy the peace and quiet of this romantic green spot. The locals know about it and frequently come here with a cup of coffee or lunch to enjoy the sunshine and a few moments of peace and quiet. No one seems to stay very long and it is frequently empty.

The garden was created by Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) who lived on the Royal Mile at the time. He was an eminent Scots biologist who stressed the connection between health and the environment. Geddes had a vision for a network of gardens around the city of which Dunbar's Close is one. By the 1970s the garden had fallen into disrepair. It was saved by a bequest which gifted the land to the City of Edinburgh Parks Department. In 1978 it was rebuilt by a landscape architect and has remained a delightful space ever since.

Being on one of these little lanes or 'closes' will make you feel connected to Scottish history. In Robert Burns' day, Dunbar's Close was famous for its oyster cellar. Apparently Burns was surprised to find fashionable ladies washing down their oyster suppers with ale or punch. You can almost feel their spirits as you enter the little alleyway that leads to the garden.

If you go to Edinburgh, one of my favorite cities in the world, be sure to visit this little gem. The symmetry of the garden's formal design is calming and there are beautiful stone benches to rest on. Being there will make you appreciate the connection between well-being and the outdoors that Sir Patrick Geddes had in mind when he created this space. It will remind you of the restorative power of a garden.

I have been reading a lot about gardens lately and love this quote by Allen Lacy in his book The Inviting Garden: Gardening for the Senses, Mind and Spirit --

"Gardening is restorative. It brings us back to the things we thought we had lost in childhood. It brings us back to our senses -- to the downy feel of the leaves of silver sage; to the perfume of jasmines and gardenias; to the taste of spearmint; to the sound of bamboo rustling in the sudden rush of wind before a storm; to the cool white beauty of a moonflower unfolding as dusk turns into night.

But the garden is not just a retreat from the world, and there is much more to gardening than sensory delights, as important as these are. In gardening we also encounter the larger world. Gardening engages the mind in an unending quest for knowledge, for it would take many lifetimes to know and understand everything that goes on in even the smallest garden. And, finally, gardening satisfies the spirit. It connects us with a small part of the natural order that is ours to tend during our time. It involves the desire to create something of beauty. It has to do with caring and feelings of belonging to earth. It connects us with others, for the company of gardeners is the closest thing on earth to the fellowship of saints and the communion of souls. It draws people together to become lifelong friends on the basis of a common passion for plants and affection for one another.

The pleasures of gardening are not partial, for they satisfy body, mind, and spirit. They also endure. Very few people take up gardening and then give it up because of waning interest. Whether we begin early or late, it is a lifelong commitment."

Thank you to the gardeners and garden dreamers who created this magical space!

Speaking of gardens, peace, and serenity, I hope you are doing something fun this holiday weekend. If you feel like seeing a movie, don't miss Love & Friendship based on Jane Austen's very funny novella Lady Susan. It is hilarious. I am taking a little break from the blog and will be back in June. Wishing you a Happy Memorial Day weekend!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What Is Your Muse?

What is your muse? We are all compelled by something. It may be great books, art, design, fashion, film, history, an influential personality, great writer, artist, or entrepreneur. Charlotte Moss writes in her new book Garden Inspirations that the garden is her greatest muse. She brings it into her life wherever she can. The garden informs and enriches her surroundings. It influences her aesthetic as a decorator. She is inspired by the great women gardeners throughout history: Vita Sackville-West, Edith Wharton and Beatrix Farrand, to name a few. To read her beautiful new book is to learn how one's woman passion has affected her entire life.

I began to think about mine. I have always believed that a place can be a muse and there is no question that I have a love affair with England. Its writers, artists, history, castles, cathedrals, great houses and landscape have inspired me since I was in college and spent six years reading English novels and poetry. Those books became part of me. They affected my entire life and inspired my love of great books and excellent writing. It is a passion that continues today.

I remember my first trip to England and visiting the places that filled my imagination. I saw the landscapes, the gardens, the little villages, the pubs, the monuments, the pageantry and the historic sites I had been reading about for years. I had a proper English tea, the kind that seemed to occur in all my favorite novels. I discovered London, the setting for so many of my favorite books and it was a revelation. A modern bustling city with beautiful parks and green spaces and a thousand-year old history lurking around every corner if you took the time to look. And there was the glorious countryside. Right out of a novel by Thomas Hardy or a poem by William Wordsworth. My goal was to walk on country lanes, have tea and scones, poke around little villages, and read in rustic settings just as all of my favorite heroines had done. On that first trip I made a special point of visiting as many writers' houses as I could. Seeing the objects that surrounded them was thrilling.

Over the years I have brought home many memories and souvenirs from my trips to England. Even on my very first trip, when I was living on $5.00 a day, I was collecting post cards from my favorite museums. I went to Fortnum and Mason and bought two cups and saucers by Wedgewood, little realizing this was the beginning of a china obsession. And then there were the books. I discovered bookstores like Hatchards, a heavenly place for any book lover. I didn't mind buying new editions of books I already had since the cover art was so different and often more beautiful. I still go to Hatchards, Heywood Hill, John Sandoe and Persephone Books on each and every trip and browse in utter contentment.

When my husband and I traveled together to England for the first time we stumbled upon a book fair in London. Bloomsbury was already a passion of mine and I was thrilled to find a little book of poetry by E.M. Forster that had been published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. It was my first Hogarth Press book. When we traveled to Lewes in Sussex to look for Virginia Woolf's house, we wandered into a little gallery where we found a drawing by Duncan Grant. Those two purchases were so exciting. And so it began... books fill our bookcases, images of favorite writers decorate my study, and art hangs on our walls. Tea pots, cups and saucers peek out of the cabinets in the kitchen. All memories and reminders of a love of England.

But the greatest reward I gained from all that reading and those visits to England was a love of the written word. Books are my passion. Over the years I've discovered many writers to add to my list of favorites: Nancy Mitford, E.F. Benson, Barbara Pym, Jane Gardam, E.M. Delafield, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Taylor and Isabel Colegate, just to name a few. They inspire me with their words and stories and motivate me to write something of my own. Great art can inspire personal dreams. That's the thing about a muse -- if you keep an open mind, it will lead you towards creative fulfillment.

 I would love to know what is your muse?
And, are you an Anglophile?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Beautiful Gardens and Inspiring Spaces

The window at Nathan Turner decorated by India Hicks for "Legends La Cienega" 

Last week was an inspiring one here in Los Angeles for home and garden enthusiasts. If you are an interior designer then you probably know about the Legends La Cienega event that occurs every year in Los Angeles during the first week of May. The windows of the design stores on La Cienega and Melrose Boulevards are decorated by interior designers and can be viewed for one week. I have gone with friends several times to see the windows. There is always a theme and this year it was "One of a Kind." The designers consistently do a fantastic job and this year was no exception.

The other and much bigger component to the "La Cienega Legends" are the lectures, seminars, conferences and book signings. Two days worth of fascinating and educational design events. This year I was able to attend with my sister who is an interior designer in Greenwich, Ct. I was wowed by all the fascinating information I learned as well as the visual feast put on by everyone involved. What a fun and inspiring two days!

The photo above is of the window at Nathan Turner decorated by India Hicks. She created a fantasy room for the well-travelled home-owner. It represents a lovingly curated space filled with souvenirs from far-flung locations. You could easily spin a narrative based on this space. What interesting conversations there would be about all these objects.

Her well-appointed coffee table

India Hicks was at the store to show her new fashion line which includes scarves, handbags and accessories.  

Mecox Gardens

Mecox Gardens is one of my favorite stores on La Cienega. It always makes me think of summer, casual living and outdoor entertaining. They have everything you would need to decorate a beach house. When we visited last week the place was jumping. In the back room there was a trunk show for interior designer Mark Sikes' new clothing line. And in the front room Will Taylor, an interior designer from London, talked about his design career in England and new book which is about to be published. He has a popular blog Bright Bazaar

Suzanne Rheinstein's Hollyhock 

Will was on the panel of design bloggers that kicked off the first event which was held at Suzanne Rheinstein's beautiful store Hollyhock.  Hollyhock is one of the loveliest stores in Los Angeles. Antiques are combined with carefully curated objects, art work and ravishing fabrics. Suzanne was signing copies of her newest book Rooms for Living. We gathered on her outdoor patio for a bloggers' breakfast and panel discussion. It was a spirited affair moderated by Newell Turner, the former editor-in-chief of House Beautiful. The bloggers were asked to give their opinions on many different design trends. 

This generated a lot of laughter as the bloggers held up paddles saying either "Love" or "Hate. They weighed in on the following home decor concepts:

Banana leaf print, macrame wall hangings, black walls, round copper pendant lighting, chalkboard walls, sheepskin seating, white tulip tables, entertainment wall units, tufting, green velvet, sliding barn doors, skirted round tables, sunburst mirrors, peacock chairs, zebra rugs, black and white checkered floors, all white kitchens, Staffordshire dogs, Windsor chairs, succulents, the great room, cement floors, ginger jars, layered rugs, tufted headboards, and faux flowers.

There were many diverse opinions but the one that generated total agreement was "faux flowers." They were universally disliked!

A lovely little vignette in the back room of Hollyhock

Of course we couldn't forget about the windows and luckily when we went over to Melrose Place for lunch we saw the window that was decorated for Waterworks. It was created by interior designer Schuyler Samperton. Her theme was "The Past Perfected" and was an ode to "one of a kind women." The spirit of Vita Sackville-West loomed large here. It's amazing how a creative use of objects, colors, textiles, lighting, flowers and whimsy can convey such a strong sense of place. I felt as if I were in the English countryside. The designer's goal was to create a "refuge of a creative spirit where history is revered, inspiration flourishes and dreams come to life." This was my favorite window. By the way, I had to photograph the windows from inside as the glare was too strong to take a photo through the glass!


And just in case the garden lovers felt left out, there was a design event for them as well. This was the weekend for Garden Conservancy Open Days in Los Angeles. It featured beautiful and intimate gardens in Santa Monica and Brentwood. They were filled with inspiration. Nothing lavish or showy in these gardens. Just beautiful garden moments that were created with enormous attention to detail. These were gardens we could all relate to. Each was an inviting, green haven. Take a look at a few of these serene and inspiring outdoor spaces.  

What a stimulating few days here in Los Angeles! Ideas flowed all around us and it was very exciting to be among so many vibrant and creative people. If you love home and garden design, be sure to sign up for one or both of these events next year.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

What Book Do You Reach For?

Photo via here

"I must have dropped off to sleep at this point, for the next thing I knew was that I had been woken up by the sound of the front door banging. I switched on the light and saw that it was ten minutes to one. I hoped the Napiers were not going to keep late hours and have noisy parties. Perhaps I was getting spinsterish and 'set' in my ways, but I was irritated at being woken. I stretched out my hand towards the little bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comforting bedside reading. My hand might have chosen 'Religio Medici,' but I was rather glad that it had picked out 'Chinese Cookery' and I was soon soothed into drowsiness." -- Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

What book do you reach for when you want a soothing read at night? I just finished rereading Excellent Women and I have always smiled at the passage above. For me there is no book as comforting or soothing. I have read it many times and each time I see something new and wonderful. This time the ending surprised me with its promise for the heroine Mildred. I had always thought that because she had no other suitors she was resigning herself to a relationship with the anthropologist Everard Bone. A relationship which she was not very excited about since it seemed to consist of unwanted obligations such as editing his books and cooking his dinners. Not very romantic! But this time I realized that there were two men in love with her. The vicar Julian Mallory drops many hints and Everard Bone is actively pursuing her. By the end of the book things are definitely looking up for Mildred, a character who early on compares herself to Jane Eyre and describes herself as one of those women caught with a teapot in her hand for every dramatic occasion. Much comedy ensues as she becomes entangled with her glamorous new neighbors, the Napiers. As she says at the beginning of the book:

"I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives by herself and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her."

Barbara Pym is a treasure and if you haven't read anything by her I highly recommend Excellent Women as a place to begin. I have returned to it many times over the years, finding pleasure and comfort in the funny, wise and good-natured voice of its narrator Mildred Lathbury. Her insights into human nature have the wit and style of Jane Austen. It never fails to take me to a cozy place and always make me feel good. This comic masterpiece is sure to make you smile. And laughing out loud in bed is always a good thing!

I would love to know what book you reach for at night when you need to be soothed.

Are you a fan of Excellent Women and have you read any other books by Barbara Pym?

P.S. The first photo of the bedroom, where I could easily imagine myself reading Barbara Pym, is from the Covent Garden Hotel in London, part of the Firmdale Hotel Group. I've been following them on instagram and fallen in love with the beautiful and quirky decor in all their hotels. The rooms are just stunning. I've never seen beds with such gorgeous fabric-covered headboards! The designer is the very talented Kit Kemp who has recently come out with a book, Every Room Tells a Story, filled with images from the various hotels she has designed. Go here to learn more.

And just one more thing -- I have been intrigued by Arianna Huffington's new book The Sleep Revolution and want to pick up a copy. Have any of you read it? I would love to know her thoughts on reading in bed. It always seems to work for me! 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Garden Roses

What are you up to this weekend? I am still enjoying the flowers from a dinner party we had on Monday night. Cutting roses from the garden and making an arrangement for the table is one of the true pleasures of life. Especially at this time of year! That is exactly what I did the other day when we were having friends over for dinner. This year has been a banner year for our roses. When there are so many blooms available it is easy to put together a beautiful arrangement. I especially like an abundance of one type, massed together in a single container. The pink roses with the blue and white china looked fresh and pretty. It felt like a little celebration of spring!

 Using these Royal Copenhagen dishes that belonged to my mother-in-law always makes me happy since they remind me of her. I love mixing them with other blue and white dishes. The chargers stay on the table between courses so the table always looks beautiful. Placemats and napkins by Heather Taylor Home completed the spring-like setting. 

The garden roses practically arranged themselves. There wasn't much to do other than trim and put them in a vase. These beauties just do their own thing. I kept the arrangement low to allow for free-flowing conversations across the table.

The early morning is my favorite time to pick flowers. I often take my coffee outside and walk in the garden to see what is going on. This time I was happy to see there were plenty of roses to make an arrangement.

Originally when we designed the garden I wanted a palette of pinks, purples and blues, but now I love the addition of strong colors such as red and orange.

These orange roses look so pretty in the dappled sunlight

But the pinks are the stars this year and make the garden look beautifully lush. They would be perfect on the dining room table.

 I hope you get a chance to pick or buy some roses this weekend and make an arrangement for your home. Surrounding yourself with flowers is a reminder of nature, an affirmation of life, and a guaranteed mood lifter. Don't forget to include some extras and give a bouquet to a friend!

Happy Spring!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Favorite Musical -- "She Loves Me"

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in She Loves Me

I first saw She Loves Me about thirty years ago in a small theater in Los Angeles and fell in love. It was funny, old-fashioned, and romantic -- a little jewel box of a musical. The music was beautiful with songs that were hard to get out of your head. I bought the CD and listened to it endlessly. I later saw a bigger production at the Music Center in Los Angeles and once again was in heaven. But I have to say that the production I saw in New York City last weekend was rapturous. Joy just emanates from the stage. It's the kind of joy that reminds you of why musicals exist -- to take us away from the irritations of the modern world and transport us to a simpler time. This show is filled with nostalgia. The cast is perfection and features Jane Krakowski as Ilona, one of the employees at a parfumerie shop in 1930's Budapest. She is divine in the role. The set is exquisite, like a box of chocolates. If you are in New York anytime soon and love musicals, be sure to see this one. You won't be disappointed.

You might well ask: what is She Loves Me? It opened on Broadway in 1963 and starred Barbara Cook. That casting makes a lot of sense since the role of Amalia Balash is a dream role for any soprano and Barbara Cook must have been dazzling. Laura Benanti plays the role in the current production and she is excellent. The story is about a pair of feuding co-workers in a Budapest parfumerie who don't realize they have been writing anonymous love letters to each other as part of a Lonely Hearts Society. Endless comedy ensues from this misunderstanding. Each morning George Nowack, Amalia, Ilona Ritter and the other employees who work for Mr. Maraczek at the Parfumerie open the shop and greet their customers. As they go about their work day, their personal stories unfold (in song, of course) and we learn that Ilona is having an affair with the playboy Steven Kodaly, Amalia and George constantly bicker, Mr. Maraczek is unhappy in his marriage and is taking it out on George, and the young delivery boy Arpad wants nothing so badly as to be treated like a grown-up and hired as a salesman. The tension builds as Amalia and George continue to write love letters to each other, unknowingly, and arrange a meeting. The music is by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and the show is considered one of the most charming love stories in Broadway history.

If all this sounds familiar that's because She Loves Me is the third adaptation of the play Parfumerie by the Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo. There was a 1940 James Stewart-Margaret Sullivan movie The Shop Around the Corner and later a 1949 Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical version In the Good Old Summertime. It surfaced again in 1998 as the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan film You've Got Mail. Add some enchanting music, gorgeous costumes, an exquisite old world setting, and humor that will remind you of the old Hollywood screwball comedies and you will get an idea of what this is all about.

If you don't get a chance to see the Broadway musical, buy the music. It has so much charm it will knock your socks off. And you will never think of "vanilla ice cream" the same way again. It is one of the most delightful songs. Watch as Laura Benanti hits that high note!

I would love to know: have you seen She Loves Me and are you a fan?

Monday, April 11, 2016

April Showers, May Flowers

A rainy weekend in Los Angeles is always a good thing since we desperately need the rain. In fact, we get a little giddy about it here in L.A. It rained off and on all day on Friday and Saturday. Which made me very happy as I was in the mood for a cozy weekend at home. There were so many things I wanted to catch up on. Here are a few activities that made the rain far from a nuisance, but instead a lovely accompaniment...

Watching some good television--

 "Outlander" is back. Did you watch it? Season Two began on Saturday night. If you are already a fan, then you know (not giving away spoilers here) from last season that Jamie and Claire are in in France this time. The costumes are gorgeous and of course those two are not so hard on the eyes. This is escapist television at its best.

Catching up on my reading--
I am completely under the spell of these books. The story of two women in a working class neighborhood of Naples whose lifelong friendship endures despite incredible odds has kept me enthralled through two books now. This one deals with the marriage of Lila and the continuing education of Elena and her quest to move beyond the neighborhood she finds so stifling. 

Running outside in between rain showers to take photos of the garden--

I love how it looks on a rainy day. The irises in the fountain are starting to flower!

 The David Austin roses in the front garden are looking so good right now

 These graceful and frilly ones remind me of ballet tutus. It felt good to get back into photography; it  makes you look at the world differently. My goal is to bring my camera with me now wherever I go, not just my iPhone!

Planning our trip to London--

This was a great weekend to pull out my books and notes on London and decide what we want to do this time. I am thrilled to know that Kenneth Branagh's stage production of Romeo and Juliet will be playing at the Garrick Theatre and Swan Lake in the Round at the Royal Albert Hall.  I hope to see them both! There is always something new to do in London...

Learning about this artist--

The New York Review of Books has a great article on the French artist Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun and I want to learn all I can about her before seeing this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Doing a little research and mulling over a fascinating lecture by Hermione Lee from last week--
I went to a fabulous event last Thursday in Pasadena. It was a lecture by renowned English biographer Dame Hermione Lee. My friends and I got a chance to meet her and say how much we enjoyed her biography of Edith Wharton. She was lovely. She has also written biographies of Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather. Her topic that evening was "Gardens of the Mind: Writers, Gardens and Biography." Did you know that American writers such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather featured only European-inspired gardens in their books? This was all the rage at the time. She talked about the "cross-cultural garden moment at the turn of the twentieth-century." I dipped into her Edith Wharton biography this weekend in preparation for my book club's discussion of The House of Mirth later this week. What a treasure trove that book is!

And after the rain--

 Joseph's Coat rose climbing on our porch

The sun is shining today and there is no better way to start the week than in the garden. It was a cozy and productive weekend. The rain was great and so beneficial for our gardens. The peak of the season is right around the corner. Don't forget to get your tickets for the Robinson Gardens Tour on May 14. It's going to be fabulous this year!

April showers really do bring May flowers!