Monday, March 31, 2014

Keeping It Young

The dining room at Alice Temperley's country house, Cricket Court, in Somerset, England
Photo via here

This weekend I had a serious case of Anglophilia. It started when I saw this article in the New York Times about Alice Temperley's country house, Cricket Court, in Somerset, England. She lives there with her husband and young son. She is the British fashion designer whose romantic, feminine and lacy frocks would look perfect worn at a summer garden party in the Somerset hills. I love this dining room (shown above) and the way the outside and inside are so connected. The English do this so well. I also love the hand-painted wallpaper and giant papier-mache foxglove, a touch of English eccentricity that gives the room a sense of humor. Can't you just imagine characters from an Angela Thirkell novel wandering in and out of this space?

Alice Temperley sketching her bridal collection ( left) and playing with her son and nephew (right)
Photo via here

The house has a rich history. It was built by William the Conqueror for his brother, rebuilt after a fire at the beginning of the 18th century, and was once home to the exiled Leo Tolstoy. Alice Temperley's love of textiles is seen throughout; her study and one of her bathrooms have pieces of vintage fabric hanging in the windows. The house is filled with wit and whimsy. Go here to read more.

The home of Jemma Kidd and her family in Hampshire

The next country retreat I spotted was in the April issue of Elle Decor. Another historic home, this one dates from the 18th century and is part of an estate that once belonged to the Duke of Wellington. Jemma Kidd, a former model and now a make-up artist and her husband Arthur Wellsley, Earl of Mornington, live here with their two young children. Outside the countryside is green and lush, thanks to the English rain. And inside the rooms make you want to settle in with a good book and a cup of tea. I love how this young family moved into a venerable English home and managed to make it look youthful and fresh. Take a look:

Jemma Kidd with her twins

The drawing room

The sitting room

The entrance

The guest bedroom

A bathroom

The library

 Do you notice a touch of red in almost every room? That's one of the elements that makes this house a warm and welcoming place. Filled with family heirlooms, whimsical fabrics, vases of flowers and loads of books, the house feels cheerful, collected and lived-in. The interior designer has done a fabulous job combining a romantic English country look with a twenty-first century sensibility. Go here to read more.

Photos via here

Prince George at eight months
Photo via here

And finally, speaking of adorable young English families, there was this. A photo that was released just this weekend. It is the most recent shot of the royal baby and his parents at their home in Kensington Palace. Can it be that eight months have already gone by? Pretty cute!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring in Bloom

Photo via here

Do you know about the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden? In mid-April the pink Japanese cherry blossoms take over Brooklyn's Botanic Garden and create this breathtaking scene. Go here to learn more. The website has a time-lapse video created from 3,000 digital photos, one taken every three minutes from April 8 to April 26, 2008. If you love blossoms, watch this and you will be in heaven.

The British playwright and novelist J.B. Priestly, who by his own admission was a bit of a curmudgeon, became emotional at the sight of spring blossoms:

"Blossom -- apple, pear, cherry, plum, almond blossom -- in the sun...after fifty years this delight in the foaming branches is unchanged. I believe that if I lived to be a thousand and were left with some glimmer of eyesight, this delight would remain...At least once very spring on a fine morning...we stare again at the blossom and are back in Eden."

This quote is from the book Delight by J.B. Priestley. Do you know about this book? It is a gem. About sixty years ago, shortly after the end of the Second World War, Priestly put together this collection of essays in an effort to boost national morale. It celebrates the simple pleasures of life and reminds us that it's often the little things that make us the happiest. It is funny, wise, and beautifully written. Get yourself a copy and keep it on your bookshelf to dip into when you are feeling a little blah. It is guaranteed to brighten up your day. 

 And speaking of "delights," I have just discovered that my spring trip to New York will coincide with the cherry blossom display at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I have never been before and now can't wait to visit! 

What garden events are you looking forward to this spring?

Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Spending an Afternoon with Queen Victoria

The film "The Young Victoria"

Ever since reading Lytton Strachey's 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, I have had a thing for the tiny but formidable queen. That book gave us the full story of her life --  her childhood, her marriage to Albert, and her long reign as queen and empress of the British empire. But the story was far from dry. It was entertaining and delightful, written in a sparkling prose. In fact, one reviewer called the book "one of the surpassingly beautiful prose achievements of our time." It brought the great monarch to life like nothing else had before and portrayed her as a real person with some endearing qualities. It was an affectionate biography, laced through with Strachey's trademark irony, wit, and irreverence. It was and still is considered one of the great biographies. I love that Strachey dedicated it to Virginia Woolf.

After seeing the fabulous new photography exhibit at The Getty Museum -- A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography  -- I pulled out my copy of "Queen Victoria" to take a look. I remembered that even though Strachey gave a definitive picture of the queen, warts and all, he seemed to emphasize some of her more charming qualities --

For one thing, she was madly in love with her husband Prince Albert. Though not at first. After being her own mistress for two years as queen, she struggled to maintain her independence as monarch while giving in to her love for her husband. Strachey tells a famous anecdote about their marriage:

"One story, indeed survives, ill-authenticated and perhaps mythical, yet summing up, as such stories often do, the central facts of the case. When in wrath, the Prince one day had locked himself in his room, Victoria, no less furious, knocked on the door to be admitted. 'Who is there?' he asked. "The Queen of England' was the answer. He did not move, and again there was a hail of knocks. The question and the answer were repeated many times; but at last there was a pause, and then a gentle knocking. 'Who is there?' came once more the relentless question. But this time the reply was different. 'Your wife, Albert.' And the door was immediately opened." Once Victoria accepted her love for Albert, he became her everything.

After his death in 1861, Victoria mourned him for the rest of her life and retreated from public view for ten years. She allowed herself to be photographed only as a grieving widow, dressed in black and looking bereft. The public expressed its sorrow by buying photographs of the late prince along with those of the widowed Victoria.

Another thing -- her heart was in the Highlands. She loved all things Scottish and her happiest times were spent in Scotland with her husband and children. Everything about the Highlanders delighted her -- their customs, their dress, their dances, their musical instruments. When she and Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle they decorated it in the Scottish style, covering everything with tartans. The Balmoral tartan, designed by the prince and the Victoria tartan, designed by the queen, were featured in every room. When in Scotland, the queen and the prince would go on expeditions through mountains and across rivers, led by their loyal servant John Brown. They loved the adventure of it and would travel incognito, meeting the locals.

And the third endearing quality I remember from the biography was that she was a devoted mother. She loved her children and she and Albert were attentive parents. As the nursery kept growing -- they had nine children -- Victoria and Albert became obsessed with the welfare of their children, especially their education. Their lives were organized around the care of the children. And the public loved it. As Strachey writes,

"the queen was now once more extremely popular. The middle-classes, in particular, were pleased. They liked a love-match; they liked a household which combined the advantages of royalty and virtue, and in which they seemed to see, reflected as in some resplendent looking-glass, the ideal image of the very lives they led themselves. Their own existences, less exalted, but oh! so soothingly similar, acquired an added excellence...from the early hours, the regularity, the plain tuckers, the round games, the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding...It was indeed a model court...The Victorian Age was in full swing."

In her later years Victoria had a bracelet made featuring the pictures of all of her grandchildren. You can see this bracelet as well as other examples of her private life at the photography exhibition at the Getty Museum. That is where I recently spent a lovely afternoon. The Getty is one of the treasures of L.A.

Exhibition at The Getty Museum

The two themes of this exhibition, Queen Victoria and the history of photography, are surprisingly connected. On January 1839, photography was announced to the world. Two years before, the nineteen-year-old Victoria became queen. There was a relationship between the new art of photography and the young queen, whose passion for collecting photographs began in the 1840's and whose photographic image came to represent an entire age. This show at the Getty gives us a peak at the queen's private and public life, showcasing her images as wife, mother, widow, and empress.

Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to have her life recorded by the camera. The Getty exhibition looks at her role in shaping the history of photography as well as photography's role in shaping her image. There are many loans from the Royal Collection in this show. They include private photos of the queen and her family never seen by the public before. It is fascinating!

Queen Victoria with some of her children

The beautiful book from the exhibition. You can order it here.

I loved this exhibition. I learned so much about the early years of photography. And it was fun revisiting the story of Queen Victoria as told by Lytton Strachey in his famous biography. If you are interested in learning more about Victoria, pick up a copy of this book. It is such a delightful read and a great introduction to this show at the Getty.

All photos except for the first two via here

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pretty as a Picture

I am in the midst of decorating my guest bedroom and having so much fun picking out fabrics and wallpaper. I have been looking around on various websites for design ideas and found these absolutely delectable rooms. Living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and even a little craft room --  they all share two things in common. They are insanely pretty and evoke the freshness of spring. Spending time in any of them would feel like living in a little garden. I am so inspired. Take a look. You just may find the perfect detail to bring spring into your home.

Happy Spring!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Writers on Writing

It has been a couple of months since the winter holidays and life seems to have finally calmed down enough for many of us to get back to some serious reading. I have been happily immersed in some very good books. I finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ( which I loved -- more on that later), reread Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and am now almost finished with The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. This book begins at a summer camp in 1974 and follows six teenagers who remain friends over the next forty years. It is about the moment in life when we meet "our people," the ones we admire and want to be like. It explores the topic of friendship and how it is affected when some of the friends reach a startling level of success and the others do not. This book is excellent and I can't wait to talk about it with my book club on Wednesday night.

In the meantime, I was able to go to a literary event to hear Meg Wolitzer speak. She talked a bit about  "The Interestings," but mostly she talked about the writer's life. It was such a wonderful and inspiring talk. Meg Wolitzer happens to be very funny and very smart. Her topic? The creative life of the writer. She was so encouraging to the aspiring writers in the audience. And I think there were many. Because I do believe that in every passionate reader beats the heart of an aspiring writer. We were all ears. Here are some of the highlights of what she said:

She told us she feels so fortunate to make her living as a writer. Writing can seem a bit like an illegitimate life. I have heard other writers say this as well. She grew up in a house filled with books and a mother who was a writer. Her mother's first short story was published in the Saturday Evening Post and Meg reflected about a time when women's magazines were literary.

She talked about what a writer is doing when he or she writes a novel. A novelist is creating an entire world. And that world can be very different from the one that he or she inhabits. It has to be believable. A sense of story is very important for any writer since story is how we all make sense of what happens to us. A narrative gives experience shape and form. We tell about what we see, we shape it, and inevitably we change it in some way. And people seem to respond well if they think the story is true. She asked how writers can be important in this new post 9/11 world. That event created a lot of anxiety in people and a need to make sense of the world. Anxiety creates a need to know and to learn about people who live differently from us. It creates a culture of empathy. This is where the novelist comes in.

She recounted some advice she received from the writer Mary Gordon: Write about what is important to you, what you care about, what preoccupies you, what obsesses you. The books we love are about the things the writer cares about.

She went on to say that the book you write should be about a way of being in the world. The reader should not have to ask "why are you telling me this?" And then she talked about that pesky issue of a writer's voice. Establishing a voice is very important. Think of "voice" as a particular feeling that shines from a friend. Books need this. A novel is a concentrated version of who the writer is; it is a version of that person, but even more so. Meg Wolitzer knows she is humorous by nature and so she keeps humor in her books. Put your sensibility into a book; that is what makes it special.

When she talked about her characters, she talked about the idea of one thing contrasting with another. She said that "Middlemarch" does this very well. The contrast makes the other thing stand out. People are complex. For example, although some people may see a person as funny, that person may see himself as melancholy. Her advice was to keep it all in in your book.

I think most of us left Meg Wolitzer's talk feeling enlightened about her book and also inspired creatively. This doesn't happen all the time, but when it does there is magic in the air. It reminded me of hearing Helen Simonson speak about Major Pettigrew's Last Stand a couple of years ago (read more here). Like Meg Wolitzer she was smart, funny, and inspiring. I remember feeling very motivated to push myself creatively.

By the way, I loved "The Goldfinch." I believe it is one of the best books written in recent years. Apropos of what Meg Wolitzer said about the novelist creating an entire world, Donna Tartt has done this so well. And it is a world with so many layers. I am not surprised that it took her ten years to write. There were passages that moved me to tears, startling and breathtaking events that I never saw coming, and beautiful sections about life and art. I wrote about the book's Dickensian qualities here. Not surprisingly, it is going to be made into a film. I wonder if it is possible to capture this kind of a book in a film. Maybe a mini-series would be better. What do you think?

Please tell me what you are reading right now. And I would love to know if you liked "The Goldfinch." 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Monk's House

The conservatory and garden at Monk's House  
October, 2013

If "places explain people" as David Garnett once said, then Monk's House goes a long way towards explaining Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I have been reading Virginia Woolf's books since I discovered her in my early twenties and she is one of my favorite writers. I had always dreamt of visiting her country house in the village of Rodmell located in Sussex, England. Last fall I finally made the pilgrimage. I wrote a bit about it here, with a promise to write more. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit the homes of the writers I love. And I had a feeling that a journey to Monk's House would be filled with meaning for anyone who loves the books of Virginia Woolf.

There has been much written about Monk's House over the years and I have eagerly read what ever I could get my hands on. In addition, when I was in my twenties I did what today I can only marvel at: I read all six volumes of Virginia Woolf's letters! Better than any biography, I thought at the time, for getting a real sense of a person. Through them I learned about the Woolfs purchase of the house as well as their experience of living in it. More recently I read a great article with gorgeous photos in "The World of Interiors" ( go here to read more) and at that point I made up my mind. I had to see this house for myself. And so when I planned our trip to England in the fall, a visit to Monk's House was top priority.

In a way, being there felt strangely comforting and familiar. Maybe because of all that reading. For example, I knew that Virginia chose the village of Rodmell because of its proximity to Charleston, the home of her sister Vanessa Bell. The surrounding countryside looked very much like that around Charleston. I knew that the house was a sanctuary for Virginia's writing as well as a gathering place for her friends who talked and gossiped late into the night. And Virginia could be a mischievous gossip. I knew that she had a fondness for the color green and despite her sister Vanessa's ridicule (which was especially stinging since Vanessa was a painter), she used it in every room. And that most things in the house had been hand-made and decorated by Vanessa and Duncan Grant -- the needlepoint pillows, the seat backs of the dining room chairs, the tiles covering the table in the sitting room, just to name a few. I knew that when she made a little money she added on a bedroom for herself. And that Leonard had created a beautiful garden for them both. And yet, there was no way to really understand this place without walking though the doors.

And so on a beautiful autumnal day we made the trek to Sussex.

We parked the car and walked the short distance to the property. The brick and weather-board cottage  is so modest and unpretentious that you would never notice it except for the sign pointing you in its direction. The Woolfs never used the door facing the street, preferring to enter through the garden door round the back. We were soon to find out why.

I couldn't get a good photo of the front of the house, so I borrowed this lovely one.
Photo via here

But I quickly got over my photo dilemma when I walked around the side of the house and was greeted by this -- the conservatory that looks out onto Leonard's garden. This is where they entered the house and where we entered, providing a brief glimpse of the gorgeous garden. The garden was much bigger than I had imagined and contained lovely expanses of grass, flower borders, garden ornaments, benches and an apple orchard. I had no idea how important the garden was to Monk's House; it was easy to see that this was why Leonard and Virginia had bought the house. But we would see the garden later. First came the tour of the house.

On the way into the house, we walked right past Leonard's greenhouse.
Apples from his orchard, what a great image of autumn!

The first room we came to is the tile-floored sitting room and, yes, it is painted Virginia's beloved green. This cozy spot in front of the fireplace was a favorite of hers for reading in the evenings. I could also imagine her sitting here with friends and talking late into the night.

A close-up of the fireplace screen
 I have never seen one made out of needlepoint -- just beautiful!

The sitting room is the biggest room in the house.
 Much of the furnishings and decorative objects were designed by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

I love this lamp and the way that the garden can be seen from this and every other window.

Another view of the garden and its statuary

This tile-topped table was designed by Duncan Grant

Everywhere you look you see needlepoint, even in the frame of the mirror.
Most of the needlepoint was designed by Duncan Grant and worked by his mother.

The dining room with its green enamelled stove. I loved this cozy room.
The chairs were designed by Duncan Grant and the yellow seat backs were worked by Mrs. Grant.

The cupboard was filled with hand-painted cups and plates

Virginia's sunny ground floor bedroom, filled with her favorite books and surrounded by the garden. Vanessa painted the fireplace surround and included a lighthouse at the top.

In the corner is Virginia's collection of Shakespeare which she bound in colorful papers. In 1936 she wrote to E.M. Forster that she was "rebinding all my Shakespeare - 29 volumes - in coloured paper," labelling the spines herself.  Lady Ottoline Morrell gave her this Chinese silk shawl.

Don't you love the idea of covering a favorite collection of books with beautiful papers like these?
I think we should bring this custom back.

Next it was off to the garden...

This is the quote chosen for the day. Poor Rex Whistler!

We sat on a bench and looked out at this peaceful scene. What a great spot this would have been for afternoon tea or playing bowls on the lawn.

On either end of the stone wall sit the busts of Leonard and Virginia Woolf

Her ashes are buried here

It was obvious that Virginia and Leonard loved this garden

 Leonard would have been proud of his apple trees which were bursting with fruit on the day we visited. I caught a glimpse of Virginia's writing hut though the branches.

It is easy to imagine their lives in this magical setting. Virginia would have read by the fireplace,  entertained friends in the garden, presided over meals in the dining room, worked in her writing hut, and taken walks in the beautiful countryside while creating characters in her mind. Leonard would have worked in the garden and the conservatory, happy in the knowledge that he was creating a peaceful place for Virginia to retreat when the noise and tumult of London got to be too much. For both of them, it must have been paradise.

If you get a chance, pick up the new issue of The English Home to see an excellent article on Monk's House. This one is an extract from the new book Virginia Woolf's Garden by Caroline Zoob who lived  in Monk's house with her husband as tenant-curator for ten years.