Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Love of a House

The drawing room of interior designer Penny Morrison's 1790 Welsh home 

Whenever I read an article about someone finding the perfect house because it speaks to them and they feel connected, I always think of E.M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End. At the heart of that book is the love a house. Ruth Wilcox deeply loves Howards End, her family home in the English countryside, and instinctively knows that her friend Margaret Schlegel shares her connection to it. She subsequently scribbles a note leaving the house to Miss Schlegel. Of course, upon her death the family tears up the note, ignoring her wishes. But, in the end, Margaret Schlegel gets the house. Somehow it was meant to be hers and she is its spiritual heir. Many of us have had the experience of finding a house that we love. We sense a certain something, a quality that is hard to define. We feel a connection and we are at home. I recently read about two very inspiring instances of this happening, one in Wales and the other in Scotland.


At the border between England and Wales sits one of the prettiest houses you will ever see, owned by English interior decorator Penny Morrison. After reading a bit about this talented designer, I learned that "prettiness" is one of the hallmarks of her design style. The story of how she came to own and restore her house in Wales is in the most recent issue of Elle Decor. The story is fascinating and the photos definitely fall into the category of "eye candy." I got the feeling that this house spoke to her and she instinctively knew it was meant to be hers.

The boxwood-lined front drive leading to the front of the house

Penny and her husband stumbled upon the house by accident 26 years ago and, although everything needed to be done, they fell in love with the building and its setting. It was basically uninhabitable, but they were thrilled that it was an historic property unspoiled by renovation. They set about restoring the house while retaining its basic structure. Their goal was for every ground-floor room to open onto the garden. Lovely idea! They furnished the entire house, using Penny's beautiful fabric and wallpaper line. The result is a very pretty home that embraces nature.  

The library with curtains made out of fabric designed by Penny Morrison

The dining room with french doors leading out to the garden

The upstairs landing

The guest bath

A guest bedroom with headboard and canopy covered in a linen by Penny Morrison

And the beautiful views. Don't you love a house that feels at one with its setting?
Go here to read more.


Even more romantic in terms of falling in love with a house is when the property is a ruin and someone sets out to save it. In this case the ruin was a sixteenth-century castle in Scotland, definitely raising the enchantment factor up a couple of notches. The intrepid couple who bought it could see the promise and were not daunted by the task ahead. They had always dreamt of living in a castle. 

Ballone Castle, a sixteenth-century tower house overlooking Moray Firth in Scotland

 This is what happened when Lachlan and Annie Stewart, the founders of Anta, discovered a dilapidated castle that hadn't been lived in for 125 years and set about restoring it. Anta is the Scottish design and architecture firm known for its silk and woolen tweeds and tartans, handmade pottery, and architecture celebrating Scottish vernacular. I found their story here and was fascinated by the scope of what this couple did.

Construction underway

The corner of the castle, which now houses the kitchen, had no roof and one part of the building was propped up on a single stone. The couple lived in a large hut adjoining the ruin while construction took place. They puzzled out how to rebuild what was originally there by finding clues throughout the building. There was one piece of each architectural feature left which showed them how it would have looked. They also studied the history of Scottish castles and their patterns in order to come up with architectural plans.

The project took four years

One of six bedrooms, all of which are accessed by steep and narrow staircases

 The dining area with its thick walls and distinctive windows. The light is gorgeous and I love the touch of tartan plaid, undoubtedly made by Anta.

The finished castle and its magnificent setting, just magical
Go here to read more

The 1992 film of Howards End

There's always a touch of magic that goes into any love affair with a house. Somehow the heart gets involved and all bets are off. I'm always inspired when I read about someone taking on such a labor of love. Especially when they do the research to keep it authentic, preserve a sense of history, and create the house of their dreams.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Scottish Obsession

Actress Caitriona Balfe who plays Claire Randall, the heroine of "Outlander"

I have a confession to make. I spent much of the weekend plunged back into 18th-century Scotland. That is because I discovered Outlander, the television series based on the best-selling books by Diana Gabaldon that take place in the Scottish Highlands. I watched three episodes and am officially hooked. Do you know about this show? It premiered last summer on Starz network here in the U.S. and was a big hit. It's hard to believe it still hasn't aired in the U.K., though I believe it will be starting there this month.

While I should have been outside enjoying the gorgeous spring weather, I was instead glued to the television and happily immersed in the Jacobite uprisings and battles between the rebels and the Redcoats that occurred in the Scottish Highlands over two hundred years ago. I was equally riveted by the growing romance between the beautiful heroine, Claire Randall, a second world war nurse mysteriously transported from England in the 1940's to Scotland in 1743, and the handsome young Scott, Jamie, who rescues her from a sadistic English soldier.

Claire and Jamie in "Outlander"

I wondered if there has ever been such a romantic and swashbuckling television drama. Or one that made you want to travel to its setting more than this. I read that tour companies are training their guides to learn about the series and its locations for the influx of tourists that will visit Scotland because of the show. One other drama with these qualities that comes to mind is Poldark, a television series from many years ago that was set in Cornwall. It centered on Ross Poldark, another dashing war hero who returns home from fighting in the American Revolution to discover that his fiance is engaged to his cousin and his estate is in ruins. He takes in a young street urchin Demelza as his housekeeper and ends up marrying her. I just learned that a new dramatization of "Poldark" has premiered on British television. Definitely looking forward to that one.

Here is the premise of "Outlander":

It opens with Claire nursing a wounded soldier at the end of World War II, a scene that shows her as a woman of courage and fortitude. After the war ends, she is reunited with her husband. They have been separated for five years and try to reconnect on a holiday in Scotland. They both are slightly anxious and unhappy at the beginning of the trip, but finally manage to revive their romance and seem resolved to stay together. Claire's husband is an historian and they spend their days exploring castles and other historic sites in the Highlands for his research.

One night they observe a Druid ceremony amidst some mysterious standing stones. When Claire returns the next day on her own, she is transported in time and lands in the 18th-century in the middle of a battle between the Scots and the English. This is when she is assaulted by the English officer, the evil "Black Jack," who happens to be an ancestor of her husband. Both characters are played by the same actor. She is saved by Jamie and whisked off by his band of Scottish insurgents to their castle. There she is met with great incredulity and is pressured to explain how a wandering Englishwoman came to find herself in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. She does her best and is accepted by the men, mostly because of her healing powers and her gumption. The housekeeper dresses her in proper period clothes and she is transformed into a tartan-clad 18th-century Scottish woman. It looks as if she can keep up the pretense for a while, but it is obvious she must figure out how to return to the present. In the meantime, it is easy to see she is attracted to the brave and handsome Jamie.

This lavish production is filled with stunning visuals. Has tartan plaid ever looked better? Or candlelit castles? Or the Scottish highlands? Not to mention the gorgeous actors who play the romantic leads. It is my new guilty pleasure and I am living for next season to premiere in April. It also has me planning a trip to Scotland this summer to experience the wild and poetic beauty of the Highlands. Looks like the magic has worked. Please let me know if you are a fan.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Hello, Spring

Photo via here

Just in time for spring, the next exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden is The Orchid Show: Chandeliers and it will be up when I go to New York in April. I feel so lucky to be able to see it. How delightful does this exhibition sound -- "Arranged in hanging baskets conceived as chandeliers, the blossoms will be high and low and as far as the eye can see." I am officially swooning. Spring is almost here and there are so many things to look forward to. Here a few that are making my heart skip a beat:

Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II
Photo via here

 The Audience starring Helen Mirren -- another must-see on my trip to New York!

Clos-Maggiore Restaurant in London
Photo via here

Eating every meal outside. I was so inspired when I saw this photo of the gorgeous Clos-Maggiore  in Covent Garden. The patio has an open fire, potted trees, and a flower-strewn ceiling. It has been called the most romantic restaurant in London. I am adding this one to my travel file. Go here to read more.

Cooking Elizabeth David's vegetable recipes from this new cookbook and using the fabulous spring produce at the farmer's markets right now.

Photo via here

Dreaming about rose-covered houses

I would love to coax my roses into growing up the arbor in my backyard, not such an easy task

 Rose garden at Sissinghurst Castle
Photo via here

Learning more about roses. Mine need a lot of work and I am hoping to take a rose class this spring. Robinson Gardens is offering one in April.

Going to this fabulous Tea with Turner event put on by Literary Affairs. It starts with a curated tour of the Turner exhibition at the Getty Center followed by a cooking class on how to prepare a proper English tea. Go here to learn more.

Season 2 of "Broadchurch"
Photo via here

Watching the second season of Broadchurch

Did you know there is a Thomas Hardy connection? I read a fabulous article about the show in Harper's Bazaar U.K., written by its creator and writer Chris Chibnall. He loves the English writer Thomas Hardy and is a firm believer in the power of landscapes and their influence on people. He writes that "...Broadchurch is my love letter to the landscapes...This is Thomas Hardy country: he understood and wrote about this savage, beautiful scenery better than anyone." He goes on to say that "Broadchurch" is peppered with references to Thomas Hardy, from the name of David Tennant's character, Alec Hardy to the name of the local police force, Wessex Police.

Reading Nina Stibbe's first novel
Photo via here

I can't resist a novel that will make me laugh and this one is being compared to Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle. It's about two sisters who try to marry off their divorced mother. The New York Times called it a "jaunty British social satire." You may remember Nina Stibbe's very funny memoir Love, Nina about her life working as a nanny for a high-powered literary editor in London. Man at the Helm is her first novel. I can't wait to read this one.

Robinson Gardens, May, 2013

And, as always, going on these fabulous garden tours, a rite of spring here in Los Angeles.

Garden Conservancy Open Days Tour takes place on April 26 in Pasadena and May 3 in Los Angeles.

The Robinson Gardens annual tour takes place on May 16. Go here to learn more.

If you don't know about Garden Conservancy, be sure to go to the website. There may be garden tours happening in your neck of the woods. They are always so inspiring!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Making Connections

"The Memoir Club" by Vanessa Bell
E.M. Forster sits on the far right
This painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London

In the novel Howards End, E.M. Forster famously advised us to "only connect." Right now I am making fascinating connections between two books, both of them related to E.M. Forster. One is Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster's first published novel. The other is Vanessa and Her Sister, an historical novel about Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. I dash from one to the other, connecting the dots.

First, Vanessa And Her Sister --

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar is about the relationship between the painter Vanessa Bell and her sister the writer Virginia Woolf. In 1905 when the novel opens they were known as the Stephen sisters. Because Virginia was a writer of novels, essays and short stories, it was in her nature to write a prodigious number of letters and keep a diary. Consequently, we know a great deal about her inner and outer life. Vanessa is harder to know. She was not a wordsmith like her sister; her means of expression was canvas and paint. Although her paintings can be seen and her published letters read, there is no diary to reveal her inner life. There is nothing to tell us how she felt when she had to deal with her emotionally unstable sister. Or if she felt overwhelmed by the burden of acting as mother to her three younger siblings -- Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian -- after the death of both parents. There is very little record of her thoughts about the circle of friends who would become known as the Bloomsbury Group or the modern art explosion that was happening in Paris. If only we had more of her words.

Priya Parmar has given them to us in her novel Vanessa And Her Sister. After doing meticulous research into Vanessa's life as well as those around her, she invented a diary for her, as well as a series of postcards, letters and telegrams. It is astonishingly effective. There is an authenticity about these invented documents that rings true, capturing the essence of Vanessa's personality. They illuminate the inner life of this woman who has been relatively unknown until now. She was the glue that held the two groups together, both family and friends. I am halfway through this wonderful book and am impressed with the authentic portrait the author has created.

It is in the story of the Bloomsbury friends that E.M. Forster makes several appearances. Here is a thumbnail sketch of how the Bloomsbury group was formed:

In 1904, after the deaths of both parents, Vanessa moved her family from their childhood home in Hyde Park Gate to the then bohemian neighborhood of Bloomsbury. It was here in the drawing room of their London townhouse that her brother Thoby's friends from Cambridge began to visit and soon established regular at home nights. This group included Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell and E.M. Forster. Vanessa and Virginia were the hostesses. Vanessa would eventually marry Clive Bell and Virginia would marry Leonard Woolf, one of the Cambridge friends who was working as a civil servant in India. Lytton would write to him planting the seed for a courtship of Virginia upon his return. Most of the men had been members of the Apostles, an elite, strictly by invitation, all-male debating society of the brightest young men at Cambridge. At 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, they would continue discussing life, art, and friendship.

Here is a scene of a typical Bloomsbury gathering from Vanessa's fictional diary in Vanessa And Her Sister:

"...the drawing room was freckled with several more of Thoby's Cambridge friends, looking the way I always imagined Thoby's rooms at Trinity must have looked, with the intellectual young men draped all over the furniture. Their talk rang out with their affectionate university names for each other: Goth, Mole, Strache, Saxe.
Lytton Strachey had curled farther into his chair and was looking endearingly rumpled, with his round spectacles perched low on his nose and his frizzy red beard even bushier than usual. He was scolding sweet-tempered Morgan Forster about his novel.
'That was indecently quick, Mole, Lytton said dramatically. 'You are meant to suffer, to pine, to ache, to burn. How is the work meant to be art if it arrives with no pain?'
This winter Morgan completed his first novel. It is to be published in the autumn. Everyone talks about writing a novel -- Lytton, Desmond, and of course Virginia -- but Morgan has actually done it."

The book was Where Angels Fear to Tread which is the second book I am reading. It is about a young English widow Lilia, who travels to Italy and falls in love with a handsome but penniless Italian. Her English in-laws are horrified and send Lilia's brother-in-law Phillip to put a stop to this romance and bring her home. By the time he arrives in Italy it is too late as the couple have already married. When a baby is born, the family wants it to be raised English. What follows is a collision of cultures which is at times very funny and also very moving. Forster pokes fun at the hypocrisy and snobbery of Edwardian England and writes lovingly of Italy. Here is another passage from Vanessa And Her Sister:

"'Mole, you have outdone us all!' Lytton said, pulling Morgan to him for a waltz. I stood and pushed the other dining chairs so they would not get knocked over. Round and round the table they went in small uneven ellipses. Maud fetched more place setting and brought back the soup tureen.
'Remarkable! Mastery of material! Keen insight! Mole! This is brilliant!' Thoby said, reading fragments aloud. Virginia, brittle and still, was silent.
'I don't like the title,' Morgan said, as Lytton released him from their dizzying waltz.
'You wanted Monteriano?' I asked. It was the fictitious name he had chosen to conjure the very real towered city of San Gimignano. I think it does capture the cadence and height of that hillside town.
'The Manchester Guardian called the title mawkish -- awful,' Morgan said fretfully, folding and unfolding his neat slim hands.
'Well, I think it is splendid,' Virginia said, unexpectedly. Thoby and I looked at each other, surprised. When Virginia says splendid, that is rarely what she means."

And so I learned that Monteriano, the fictitious Italian city at the center of Where Angels Fear To Tread, was based on San Gimignano. And that Forster wanted Monteriano to be the title of the book. I love connecting the dots. And there is more...

Last week I went to a fascinating lecture on Where Angels Fear To Tread. I learned so much about the book as well as Forster's life. Here are a few highlights:

Forster's great-aunt left him a generous sum of money which meant that Forster never had to get a job and was able to develop his writing skills. Lucky for us. Our lecturer described this bequest as the equivalent of a MacArthur genius grant. Forster's leisure time allowed him to travel to Italy and hence the idea for the book was formed. Its original title was "Monteriano," but a friend advised him to switch it to Where Angels Fear To Tread, which comes from a quote by Alexander Pope: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Good choice since it sounds so much more intriguing. And this book, as our lecturer reminded us, is a story of fools rushing in.

We had a great discussion of Where Angels Fear To Tread, looking at its social satire as well as its moral complexity. We talked about the juxtaposition of two societies: England and Italy. And how Phillip changes from one part of the book to another. He begins as a romantic, retreats into his Englishness, and then comes to embrace the charms of Italy. Our opinion of Gino, Lilia's Italian husband, also changes by the end of the book. At first we suspect his motives for marrying Lilia, but by the book's end we come to admire him. Nothing is black or white in Forster's books; they are filled with complicated characters and psychological depth. I left the lecture with a greater understanding of why Forster's Bloomsbury friends would be so impressed with his accomplishment. Where Angels Fear To Tread would be considered a magnificent first novel for any writer.

I love taking a literary journey from one book to another and learning something new. In this case, E.M. Forster was the common denominator. What a difference a title can make!