Monday, August 8, 2016

A Very Good Prologue

It's not too often that I think about the prologue to a book. In fact, sometimes when I am in a hurry to begin a book, I skip it. But I did take the time to read Claire Harman's brilliant prologue to her fabulous new biography of Charlotte Bronte and I am so glad I did. It was a reminder of the power of literature. It also set the stage and the mood for what has so far been a fascinating read. I am 100 pages into this biography and really enjoying it.

The prologue tells a fascinating story: in September of 1843 Charlotte Bronte, age 27, is alone at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, a girls' school where she is a teacher. Everyone has left for vacation but she cannot afford to go home. She is lonely and unhappy. It is not only her solitude that is making her feel this way. She has fallen in love with the husband of the headmistress of the school and it is obvious he doesn't return her love. When she was a student at the school, he paid her a lot of attention and singled her out as a shining star. But after she became a teacher, his behavior changed and he acted coldly towards her. She feels rejected and ignored by both the husband and wife.

On one of these days alone at the school she takes a long walk through the town and winds up at the city's great cathedral. Although she is not Catholic, she decides to go in and hear the service. Afterwards she enters the confessional and makes a confession to the priest. For the daughter of an Irish Protestant minister, this was very strange behavior. But she was desperate to talk to someone about her feelings. She later wrote to her sister Emily about her sense of relief in unburdening herself. Later, when she wrote her first novel The Professor, she would learn how to deal with her pain by turning it into art.

Two weeks after Charlotte's visit to the Cathedral, a young Queen Victoria was in Brussels. Charlotte went out to see the royal party procession and wrote to Emily about her excitement at seeing the young queen. Claire Harman ends this little story with the following line:

"Five years later, the insignificant little Englishwoman in the cheering crowd who had watched Victoria flash by would be keeping that queen and half the nation awake with the novel she had written."

That novel would be Jane Eyre.

Would this prologue make you want to read the book?
It definitely pulled me in!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Amanda Brooks' English-Country Style

The living room in Amanda Brooks' house in England

If there's one type of architecture that captures my heart, it's an English country farmhouse. The September issue of Architectural Digest arrived just in time to satisfy my passion. There is a great article on writer Amanda Brooks' Oxfordshire house which hits all the right notes:  timeworn ceiling beams, reclaimed wood counter tops, vintage farmhouse kitchen table, unpainted plaster, pine cabinetry, piggery turned into a painting studio, garden shed, boot room, and rose-filled gardens. Sigh... this is my dream house. Take a look at this lovely place, decorated by Amanda Brooks who brought to the decoration her favorite aesthetic -- English-country style which she loves for its "timelessness and lack of pretension." Oh yes, I could live here! This house simply exudes warmth and coziness.

The 1820's farmhouse owned by Amanda and Christopher Brooks

A corner of the living room

Living room

Tea tray in a sunny niche of the living room

Sitting room



Their daughter's bedroom

Master bedroom

Boot room

Garden shed

Amanda Brooks in her garden

Go here to read more about Amanda Brooks and her Oxfordshire farmhouse. All photos via here.

What is your dream house?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Book a Month

After reading my post about signing up for "A Year In Books" at Heywood Hill in London, some of you asked me to keep you updated about the books I receive. So here we are, my book for July! I was very excited to open up the most recent package from Heywood Hill and find Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. I have loved "A Year in Books" so far! The booksellers at Heywood Hill understand my literary interests and have sent me some wonderful books.

 Each book comes with a bookmark designed by Cressida Bell

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes is a book that has definitely been on my radar. I haven't started it yet but here are a few things I know --

Set in Victorian London, it came out originally as an app with chapters released weekly, each one ending with a cliffhanger -- a 21st-century version of a Victorian serial novel. It has now been published as a complete volume. And just as Julian Fellowes began "Downton Abbey" with a famous historical event -- the sinking of the Titanic -- he begins this book with a famous social event -- the Duchess of Richmond's ball in 1815 which was was held in Brussels, where some of the Allied troops fighting Napoleon were encamped. Many of the guests at the ball were young officers which meant they had to leave at once to go to their regiments. Many of them were killed shortly after while fighting in the battle of Quatre Bras, which turned into Waterloo. This ball was to become one of the most tragic parties of all history, as many of the handsome young men in attendance would be dead within days.

Most of the book is set in the early 1840s and concerns two families: the aristocratic Ballasises, who live in a mansion on Belgrave Square and the wealthy Trenchards, whose fortune stems from trade and who reside in Eaton Square. At the time there would have been a distinct social divide between the two, even though in London it was easier for the groups to mix than in the country. Events occur that will link these two families together and Julian Fellowes uses this storyline to demonstrate how things were changing back then in terms of the social order. By the end of the century aristocratic families such as the Ballasises became so financially strapped that they had to search for American heiresses to be able to keep their estates. Just like Lord Grantham did with Downton Abbey. 

It seems there are enough Downton Abbey-like qualities in the book to satisfy those of us who are missing the popular series. It has gotten good reviews and I look forward to delving into another world created by Julian Fellowes. One bookshelf in my study is now reserved for my Heywood Hill books. I look forward to seeing the twelve volumes lined up together at the end of the year.

I would love to know, what are you reading right now?   
Have you read Belgravia?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Garden Ramblings

A knot garden at Haddon Hall in England designed by Arne Maynard
From his new book The Gardens of Arne Maynard

"There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry."
-- Emily Dickinson

After spending an hour lost in the pages of the beautiful new garden book The Gardens of Arne Maynard, I understood the meaning of Emily Dickinson's quote. I was given this book by a dear friend for my birthday and when I finally got around to looking through it, I felt as if I had been on a trip to the East coast and Great Britain and toured some of the most magical and romantic gardens!

London-based Arne Marnard grew up in rural Dorset and began gardening while still a child. He considers himself more gardener than garden designer. That may be the case, but after reading this beautiful book you will realize what a talented garden designer he is. Wherever the property is located, he is able to read the land and create harmonious landscape designs. He is known for his large country gardens in Great Britain and is celebrated for his ability to draw out the essence of a place. He can design in any style -- a beachside retreat filled with dune grass and scrub, a knot garden on an Elizabethan estate, an intimate manor-house garden enclosed by a yew hedge. They are the stuff of fairytales.

A few years ago he moved to Wales with his partner and created a beautiful garden there. His new book covers twelve of his gardens, including that of his home in Wales. They include an Oxforshire manor, an East Hampton beach house, an Elizabethan estate, a farmhouse in Devon and a rambling mill house in Wiltshire. One of the things I love most about the book are his detailed essays about the elements that go into his creations: roses, kitchen gardens, borders, topiary, craftsmanship, and pleached, pollarded and trained trees. These sections are very informative and useful to any gardener. The craftsmanship section is especially interesting regarding the materials he favors for plant supports and structures. He prefers to make them "from local materials in order to establish a connection with the surrounding landscape and with its traditions." I also love what he has to say about roses. "I use the rose -- one of my favourite of all flowers -- in three ways: to clothe buildings and soften walls; to add impact and weight in mixed borders with its blowsy, perfumed splendour; and in the wilder parts of the garden, bringing unexpected sophistication to a meadow or tumbling through the tree canopy in great frothy cascades." Yes, I agree, roses bring romance to any garden!

If you love gardens, be sure to get a copy of The Gardens of Arne Maynard. It is a treasure trove of information as well as inspiration.  It is the first book devoted to the work of this talented designer. Not only will it inspire you with ideas for your own garden, but you will be transported to some very magical places. His poetic writing about gardens will sweep you away. Pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea and beat the heat by immersing yourself in this book. In the meantime, take a look at the photos below and enjoy a little tour of his beautiful and evocative gardens. Arne Maynard understands the notion of garden as sanctuary and retreat.

Beach house in East Hampton, New York

17th-century farmhouse in Devon

Oxfordshire Manor

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire

Allt-y-bela, Arne Maynard's home in Wales 

Stay cool this weekend!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Bloomsbury News

The studio at Charleston

After all these years the Bloomsbury Group continues to inspire. Charleston, the country retreat of its members, was a hive of writing and art. The artists who lived there painted and decorated every surface of the house -- the walls, cupboards, doors and mantelpieces -- and created a magical place. Its beauty inside and out, as well as the artists and writers who lived there, have been a source of inspiration to so many. Here are a few exciting Bloomsbury-related arts events that are happening right now! 

"The Other Room" by Vanessa Bell 

The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London will be hosting a Vanessa Bell art exhibition, her first major solo show. Most people know Vanessa as the sister of Virginia Woolf, the husband of Clive Bell, the lover of Duncan Grant and the doyenne of the Bloomsbury set. But many people don't realize what an accomplished artist she was. The curators of the exhibition at Dulwich are making it very clear that she was a talented artist who deserves a show of her own. Oh, how I would love to be in London for this one!

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, the subjects of a new film based on Eileen Atkins' play Vita and Virginia

Eileen Atkins' play Vita and Virginia about the friendship and affair between the writers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West is finally going to be made into a film. The relationship between the two literary luminaries began in 1922 and lasted around a decade. They remained friends until Woolf's death in 1941. Woolf dedicated her novel Orlando to Vita, a book that has been called "the longest and most charming love letter in literature."

A fan designed by Duncan Grant

David Herbert has curated a fascinating exhibition A Room of Their Own: Lost Bloomsbury Interiors 1914-30 at the Victoria Gallery in Bath, England. It brings together rarely seen pieces of fine and decorative art to recreate the essence of lost Bloomsbury spaces. So many of these rooms no longer exist, but fragments still remain. Charleston is the only significant example of a Bloomsbury home to survive. After years of searching for furniture, ceramics, fabric, sculpture and paintings, he has reassembled many Bloomsbury interiors. He has collected pieces by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to create an intimate look at the domestic lives of these artists.

David Herbert's Bloomsbury Ceramics

David Herbert has also created a line of Bloomsbury-themed ceramics decorated with foliage and flowers inspired by Duncan Grant's and Vanessa Bell's own designs. Go here to view. I can't wait to order some of these!

And one more thing -- a restaurant! The Dalloway Terrace, named after Virginia Woolf's famous book, has opened in the heart of Bloomsbury. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu for its afternoon tea was inspired by the Bloomsbury group. This restaurant looks lovely and I have read only good reviews!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Year in Books

Reader, I did it. The most famous line from Jane Eyre has been on my mind ever since I visited the lovely old Heywood Hill shop in London a couple of weeks ago and bought Reader, I Married Him. Edited by Tracy Chevalier, the book is a collection of short stories by writers such as Esther Freud, Jane Gardam and Francine Prose, all inspired by "Jane Eyre." I haven't had a chance to read the stories yet, but did read the fascinating Forward by Tracy Chevalier which explains why this line is so celebrated. The book was commissioned for Charlotte Bronte's two hundredth birthday year which is 2016.

And what was it that I did? Well, I took the plunge and signed up for Heywood Hill's "Year of Books!" Ever since I read about this service many years ago I have been considering it. But I could never quite take the step...

First let me tell you about the service. The Heywood Hill customer pays a fee and the store chooses books after interviewing the recipient about their likes, dislikes, and idiosyncratic interests. The customer receives twelve volumes over the course of a year, beautifully wrapped and delivered monthly. If there is one thing Heywood Hill is known for, it is the ability to build a library for a person's home. Apparently they do this on a regular basis. The "Year in Books" is one way to tap into this knowledge and literary assistance on a much smaller scale.

Now, back to that momentous day in London...It was a beautiful afternoon and my husband and I were walking around Mayfair. I said that we should find Heywood Hill. This Mayfair book shop has a rich history with many famous associations. For example, John Le Carre set a scene there in "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy." The novelist Nancy Mitford worked there during World War II. And it is currently owned by the 12th Duke of Devonshire, son of Nancy's sister, Deborah Mitford. Go here to learn more. As the stores's mystique was swirling in my head, I remembered that it was located on Curzon Street.

After a quick consultation with our map we found the street but were at the wrong end. I called Heywood Hill and a kind young man stayed on the phone with me until we got there. The store was right next to a construction project and was fairly well hidden from view. And Heywood Hill is a tiny shop. Finally we arrived and there were at least a dozen books I wanted to buy. Exercising some self-control, I purchased just one, "Reader, I Married Him." I soaked up the delicious atmosphere -- wooden bookshelves, crown moldings, a fireplace, elegant chandeliers, and stacks of books piled invitingly on tables.

Photo via here

But eventually I got up the nerve to ask a young woman on the staff about "The Year in Books." After hearing the details I considered two things:

1) I was about to have a very big birthday and I wanted the next year to be a year of meaningful books.

 2) I was actually at Heywood Hill and wouldn't it be nice to be interviewed in person instead of doing it by email.

So, it was decided. This would be my birthday present to myself -- a year of enlightenment, Heywood Hill style! We talked for 30 minutes about my book interests and the deed was done. I would receive one book a month for the entire year chosen by the staff based on the information I had given them. Each book would come with a special book mark designed by Cressida Bell. And wrapped in the charming Heywood Hill style. I received my first book around June 20 and couldn't be happier. Here's what it all looked like.

The package

The book

The author, who also wrote "Corelli's Mandolin" 

The bookmark

All in all, it was an unforgettable experience and will surely be the birthday gift that keeps on giving!
I'll let you know how I like this book. So far it is very good!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

London Highlights

Somerset House
Location of the Courtauld Gallery and Spring Restaurant

We had the most wonderful time in London. The beginning of June turned out to be the perfect time to visit. Even though the weather during the first part of the trip was gray and chilly, eventually we had blue skies and the city was lovely. The Chelsea Flower Show had just happened and London was still bedecked with floral installations. The Queen was turning 90 and the streets were festooned with bunting. And since the gardens were blooming and the parks were leafy green, London was at its best. We stayed at the Stafford Hotel on St. James Place near Piccadilly, a great location for walking to so many favorite places. Right around the corner are Hatchards Books, Fortnum & Mason, and the Royal Academy. For a special treat, the elegant Ritz Hotel is close by for an early evening cocktail or afternoon tea. I love thinking of all the history that happened there! Green Park and St. James Park are within walking distance. And there are so many little streets to wander around on late afternoon or evening walks. Virginia Woolf called it "rambling the streets of London." On this trip we returned to some of our favorite places as well as discovered new ones, went to some great restaurants, and saw two excellent performances. As always, London is endlessly fascinating. Here are the highlights of our week in London.

The Stafford Hotel

The Stafford Hotel is located on St. James Place, just off of St. James Street. Within minutes you are on Piccadilly and able to walk to so many places. What I love best is the quiet and tranquility at both entrances to the hotel.  

The lobby at the Stafford

The little lobby is a peaceful place to relax and have a cup of tea after being out all day. And the American Bar is just through that door. If you don't know about the American Bar, try it next time you are in London. It was originally a bar for American officers during World War II and is decorated with all kinds of fun memorabilia. The menu is casual and delicious -- they have a great burger -- and the atmosphere dark and warm. There is also a lovely outdoor space surrounded by greenery and flowers.


The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace had two fabulous exhibitions

The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is such a beautiful space for art. This time I was excited to recognize a Vigee Le Brun painting after seeing the exhibition of her work at the Met in New York in April.

The Tate Britain

I hadn't been to the Tate Britain since I was in my twenties. It is a beautiful museum and proudly claims to house "500 years of British art." I sought out some of my favorite paintings, including  "Ophelia" by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais.

Charlotte Bronte exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth, the National Portrait Gallery has mounted a small but very moving exhibition of her life. The centerpiece is the portrait of the Bronte sisters, painted by their brother Branwell Bronte. There are many personal items from the Bronte Parsonage, including the miniature books written by the Bronte children and Charlotte's walking boots.


Fortnum & Mason

London is a great city for shopping and I always go to Fortnum & Mason when I am there. It's pure eye candy. This time the stairs were resplendent with flower lined railings. It really took my breath away!

I couldn't resist buying a couple more pieces from their Burleigh collection. This pattern is "Celeste," which is designed exclusively for Fortnums. I picked up some mugs for my daughters who have developed a love of blue and white ceramics.

After all that shopping, some ice cream at their old-fashioned ice cream parlor is a welcome treat!

This display at Fenwick's was photographed by many passersby

The flowers at the entrance of Liberty, where I bought a "William Morris" patterned bathrobe for myself and two Liberty print smock dresses for my little granddaughter!

Exploring our neighborhood

Around the corner is Dukes Hotel with their cute bicycles for guests 

The streets were decorated for the Queen's birthday

Albermarle Street, just minutes from our hotel, at dusk

St. James Park in bloom

And the window boxes in London, always a beautiful sight!


Royal Albert Hall

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was seeing "Swan Lake" danced in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall. This breathtaking performance by the English National ballet included 60 "swans" moving in unison across the arena floor. I've never seen anything like it. We were in awe! 

A close second was this performance of "Romeo and Juliet" at the Garrick Theatre. It starred Lily James and Derek Jacobi and was directed by Kenneth Branagh. It was excellent!

Afternoon Tea

 Tea at the Lanesborough Hotel

I got a chance to catch up with one of my favorite Londoners, Miranda Mills, over tea at the elegant Lanesborough Hotel. We enjoyed the Pink Princess Afternoon Tea which was created in  honor of the first birthday of Princess Charlotte. If you don't already read Miranda's inspiring blog, please check it out. If you are an Anglophile, you will love all her suggestions for fun things to do in London!

Favorite Restaurants

Clos Maggiore
Photo via here

This was my second time at Clos Maggiore in Covent Garden and I think it must be the most romantic restaurant in London. Sitting under an arbor of flowers and vines and eating dinner is a very unique experience. It is wonderful for a special occasion.

Spring Restaurant
Photo via here

A new restaurant we tried this time was "Spring," which is located in beautiful Somerset House (see first photo). The room is stunning and the food excellent. Another special occasion restaurant!

Design Inspiration

The library at Hamyard Hotel

I have been inspired by Kit Kemp and her hotels for a long time now. I finally got to see one them -- Hamyard Hotel -- and it is stunning. The decor is beautiful, original and fresh! 

And one surprise

 Spencer House, viewed from the back

I had been curious about the elegant white building on St. James Place across from our hotel. It turns out this is Spencer House, an 18th-century private palace built around 1756 for the first Earl of Spencer, an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. The back of the house is much more elaborate than the front and was meant to be enjoyed privately this way. Diana officially reopened the House in 1991, following the restoration of the State Rooms. 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the restoration and they decided to open the garden gates for the first time since 2011. Apparently this is the "Year of the English Garden" and Spencer House wanted to celebrate. I learned all this because we were at the Stafford Hotel on one of the two days the house and garden were open. We bought tickets and walked right over, touring the grounds which were lovely. I wish we had been able to walk through the house as well, but we needed to leave for Bath. Fortunately I purchased a book on Spencer House and have enjoyed seeing the magnificent rooms of this very grand place. I learned that it is the only great 18th-century town house in London to survive intact. It never fails to amaze me how much there is to see in London!

Next up, London bookstores!