Memorable Outings Make for Happy People

Song of the Day: Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf

If we were all to go through all the drafts that were meant to be finished and published, what a fountain of work we would all have. Having said that, whilst doing some necessary housekeeping, I found this piece which has been sitting in my drafts folder since August 2011.

Anyhow, here goes…

Take a bit of art, add a few trees, a dash of flowers, and four people to get a memorable outing.

I finally managed to fulfil a fervent desire of a year, which became more pressing this last month, to re-visit the Huntington’s Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Interestingly, (even though I had asked my friends several times, none wanted to commit) it turned out to be an outing with a couple of guys that I had just recently met and did not really know well enough. But they were enthusiastic enough to fulfil my wish that I didn’t give it a second thought.

Anyhow, after three hours of sleep, I was up bright and early, almost literally at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, excited and almost restless. I couldn’t wait to erase the memory of my last visit.

To be honest I do not know why I allowed myself to be convinced by D. last time to see the William Blake exhibition that was being held there. A wonderful spring morning with the flowers in bloom is the perfect time to visit a venue that has a variety of themed gardens in the same place as a world-class art gallery and library, or so you would think. But alas! The ferocity of the William Blake tainted my perception and memory of the place.

Let me clarify a tad bit here: Blake is a phenomenal writer and his work is awe-inspiring but his art, at least for me, is not as accessible. His obsession with life and death, good and evil, angels and demons, God and Satan, is a bit too much. His paintings are a visual assault full of colour, loud motifs, and violent brush strokes that speak all too loudly and clearly of doom and punishment in the pits of hell.

I think that before my message is misconstrued, I should be clear. I do like Blake’s art but sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. It was such a moment. He has a variety of art: pencil drawings, paintings, etchings and many more. It was the paintings that were terrifying (for lack of a better term) in a way. Just take a look at the illustrations in which he tries to depict Dante’s Inferno, and you might get an idea of what I am trying to convey here.

Moving on from Blake to the recent visit to Huntington – it was a sunny summer day, 95˚F, perhaps a tad bit too hot for an all-day outing but the sight of the various botanical gardens made up for any discomfort caused by the heat and humidity. Keep in mind that my description of the day will be inadequate; it is something to be seen and experienced.

We started out at the Library itself in which I went through the several rooms each dedicated to a different study, which house original manuscripts of books by authors long dead. Oh, how I wished books were published as they used to be. It was magnificent and beautiful to see but saddening that we have never had the equivalent in our time.

In the Library’s West Hall is the currently ongoing Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811-1820 exhibition, showcasing art from that glittering yet turbulent era. Formally, the Regency period began in 1811 when King George III was determined unable to rule (after finally succumbing to insanity) and his son the Prince of Wales, later George IV, was installed as Prince Regent; and ended in 1820 when George IV became King upon the death of his father. However, the term Regency era is occasionally used to refer to a more extended period than the decade of formal Regency. The period of time between 1795 and 1837 was characterised by distinctive trends in British architecture, writing fashions, political relations and culture. The era was a time of excess for the aristocracy. Many great and beautiful buildings such as the Brighton Pavilion were built then. On the other hand, it was also a period of uncertainty caused by several factors including the Napoleonic wars, intermittent riots, and the anxiety that the English might simulate the upheavals of the French Revolution. This was a period of time, one might say, when England was trying to re-define itself, and perhaps in many ways the nation was trying to regain its mental balance just like its monarch. Mayhap tis the reason for so many satirical caricaturists making a name for themselves then.

After an hour (and a half, maybe) we moved to Shakespeare’s Garden, which with a stylised look of a woodland glade as its motif, appears as though it were a vignette from an old English country scene. Apparently the aim of the designing architects was to create a stage in which one could understand Shakespeare’s art and its relationship to plants.

If one wanted to see various roses, some of which are hard to describe, one has to make it to the Rose Garden. The fragrance alone is seductive and beckons on all the five senses to be alert. The colour scheme is to be appreciated and I wish that I could design a garden that seduced as this one does.

Not to be left out is the Japanese Garden, which unfortunately I only saw glimpses of as it is closed off till next year being renovated in anticipation of its centennial, but the void was filled by the newly-opened Chinese Garden, alias the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. The name itself was a seller for me, actually methinks for anyone really. Surrounded by beautiful Chinese architecture, a man-made lake constructed in the same location where water used to gather after heavy rains, featuring an authentic Chinese Tea House, it is a sight to behold, setting forth one’s ability to contemplate. A half-hour break by the Tea House did the same for me, whilst I beheld my surroundings.

I was ready to take a break from the heat and spend some time in the comfort of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. But unfortunately I did not last much in there. The collection of Art was not as enticing as the botanical gardens outside, which I wanted to continue exploring.

For some reason the Green House/Conservatory next to it summoned and I felt the need to make a stop there even though I did not have any idea what to expect there. On the door was a tagline: ‘Plants are up to something’.  Picture this: I walked in and was hit by a gust of heat, humid air (100%) and the mist constantly being sprayed on the plants. Every room had a fascination to be seen, and the binoculars set up at strategic locations to examine the intricate details of the plants and trees around was a plus and never have I been as enraptured to look at plants as I was there. It did not even faze me that the heat, humidity and mist sprays made my hair turn into a huge frizzy poof. Ah… if only everything else held such intrigue?

I left the Conservatory taking my sweaty with frizzy-poofy-hair self to the Children’s Garden where everything was designed with little people in mind. The doorway itself, for my 5’9” person was a challenge. But that did not stop me from running around with the kids there, and even into the rainbow tunnel in which I had to crouch to make through. The coloured lighting in that tunnel had me gazing at the roof until my knees couldn’t take being in that position anymore.

But childhood is long gone and can only be re-imagined, and reality along with disillusioned adulthood comes knocking very hard and a tad bit too quickly. So my adult self fully satisfied was willing to intake the sculpture work in the North Vista, alias Camelias. Featuring mythical beasts, various warriors, and gods from classical mythology and folklore in limestone sculptures dating from the late 17th century to early 18th century, the magnificence of the pieces, their strategic placement, surrounding trees and vegetations was enough to satisfy any nostalgia for childhood left behind. But all was not old in this garden, as there were a few twentieth-century pieces such as the 19-foot tall bronze Sounding Sculpture made in the 1970s which seems to emanate mysterious harmonic tones that combine softly with the natural sounds of birdsong and rustling trees.

The rest of the gardens kind of meshed in my head, perhaps there is a limit to how much sensory stimulation one can take but had I not been walking around since 10 a.m. I might have had more to say on them. Anyhow, by the time the clock hit 3 p.m. I was more than happy to spend the rest of the day in the Huntington Art Gallery in which they house the European art.

If any of you ever go, get a pair of free headphones and listen to the audio tour. Boy! Auditory high! It starts out with a soothing female voice directing you down a long hallway into the first room. Her explanations were interesting to say the least – she said stuff like: ‘pay attention to the brush strokes in this painting and how their rigour clashes with the serene background to create violent scenery’… Huh?! My routine during this time was to walk to a piece, study it, form my impressions and then key in the number designating a summary on that piece and hit play.

Anyway, it was interesting to learn things about the artwork that I would never have known if it had not been for the audio tour. There was a particular painting in one of the rooms, Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie (1794) by Thomas Lawrence, of a young girl wearing a flowing white dress and a beautiful pink bonnet. The painting had been commissioned by her grandmother who once young Sarah, eleven at the time, had left for England to study, missed her granddaughter and wanted a large likeness of her in the house to gaze at. Sadly, the young girl died a month after the painting was finished and the grandmother never got to see the painting either. I was attracted to that painting even before I pressed play to listen to an explanation.

If I thought my mysterious female tour guide was interesting, she was soon replaced by a gentleman who was downright hilarious. He had me laughing with his descriptions and the background sound effects he used. For example, there was a panel of tiles that formed an overall piece, the Cinderella Tile Panel (1862) painted by Lucy Faulkner and designed by Edward Burne-Jones, made of tin-glazed earthenware that seriously looked like ceramic tiles to me. There were a series of six tiles that told the story of Cinder-maid, alias Cinderella. Paraphrasing his words, I heard this: ‘Now if you were to look at the first tile to your top left, you will see Cinder-maid making all the preparations for her step-sisters and step-mother to go to the prince’s ball. Moving on to the next tile, Cinder-maid crying and feeling left-out while her fairy godmother comes in to console her’. And will you believe that in concert with the background music is the sound of a woman crying in the background?! He went through all six tiles in that fashion; the last one showed Cinder-maid trying on the glass slipper whilst her step-sisters looked on in shock – of course, the background had a group of women gasping in shock too! A liberal creative license I would say.

Anyway, my day came to a close at 4:30p.m. when they announced that the grounds would be closing after which I made my way to the gift store to buy souvenirs and left tired, hungry, thirsty but very, very happy. Ah! If all bliss came so easily!

Till Next Post!

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