Sunday, February 27, 2011



It's not required that you wear black when visiting the Tate Museum—the "Tate Britain," the "old Tate." But somehow you look more "right" here in black—this group of lady visitors seemed to know that.

The black and white and chrome with a touch of celadon couldn't be more appropriate for the quick cafe lunch you might choose to have in the hall just outside the cafe doors.

And as you look around you from the above vantage point your eyes rest in the comfort of modernist black and white and chrome.

But if you choose a more lunchy lunch in the museum's fine restaurant the black and white and chrome get a little reprieve from the colorful murals and terracotta floors.

In the more modest cafe, just across the hall, black and white and chrome enjoy absolute rule but for an inner light of robin's egg blue and a sun-yellow sign like a destination.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Winter Windows: London


Window boxes are not the exclusive territory of village cottages or Swiss Alpine chalets. London tries each season to outdo itself in the department of window box creativity, and a walk around Belgravia can be most amusing for the London mini-garden visitor. Why not a single cordyline and two box balls for a bit of style in an empire box complete with corner finials!

This isn't a window but it's a box of pansies—like a holy water font of flowers. You can admire it each time you come home on a foggy winter's night.

Hedges in gardens are never under-planted with flowers in this way as the shorter standing plants would serve to discourage lower hedge growth. But this is a window box and the hedge element is seasonal, if not annual—when it goes thin, you merely throw it away and replant.

London has a mild climate and primroses are happy outside even in the coldest months—they're especially happy to have the interior heat escaping from the window sash to warm their roots.

What lovely simplicity here, five cones of boxwood in a white cast iron window-mounted cache pot.

Graminaceous plants are all the rage these days thanks to Piet Oudolf—and why not a window box of grasses?

Or of desert plants?

Ivy seems to be the reliable ingredient, so willing to cascade.

And why not throw in a bulb or two?

Or go geometric, a line of box and a line of cyclamen: black and white and black/green!

And your window box doesn't really have to hang below a window to please, does it?

A nicely done window box lends elegance and cheer to a season in which the garden seems to be far from our concerns.

And if it's just bulbs, well we can wait can't we? The new green of rising bulbs is of interest in any state of growth.

Box planters are handsome in porticos as well, especially one so looked after as this!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Turner in London


It was Turner (in part) who brought me to London. And sights like these that you can never see too often. There is already an art to this view before the artist touches it. It's the art of landscape, or of cityscape. There are the materials of the earth here, reformed and recast. There is the sky, not just any, but this London sky. And there is this river.

And the more we think it all seems to have changed since Monet repeatedly painted it, or surely must have changed, the more we believe that time has left it untouched.

And this view reminds us of Turner whose watercolors are on view in a marvelous show called "Watercolor" just opened at the Tate, which presents a vast sampling of watercolor art throughout history and into modern times. Worth the detour.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An Arrival Court


When I came upon this job the underground parking garage had already been built. What I saw on my first visit was a sea of cement next to the house, which was in fact the garage's roof. My clients proposed the idea to build a further car park here, perhaps with a cantilevered roof over it!

I went for an arrival courtyard instead. You drive in on the right (in this photo) then circle round to the house to unload. If you have a vintage Rolls Corniche well you can just go ahead and leave it there (till it gets dirty).

The central planter for a hillock of lawn is two feet high and laid out in a renaissance form. I painted the teak seats a wine dark red. This is the way things looked last September and by now the paving stones are taking on the color of weather and time and looking much less freshly laid.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

La Tienda del Teatro


Small theaters are endlessly fascinating. This is the Real Coliseo de Carlo III, just outside the gates of Escorial where we relive the days when live stage productions were all about intimacy.

French architect Jaime Marquet is responsible for the theater's delicious neoclassical lines. It was inaugurated in 1771, but Juan de Villanueva made additional improvements in 1792 and 1793. By now it is one of the most important and best loved cultural centers of greater Madrid.

Open for lunch, with or without a theatrical production going on, is the charming La Tienda del Teatro in the theater's basement. Its main dining room (it's really just a café) is a rotunda of sorts with a ceiling decorated in a garden themed mural.

Showcases of theatrical literature and memorabilia line the walls near the bar.

I have vivid memories of eating Spanish tortilla, a kind of potato omelette, on my first trip to Madrid more than forty years ago, and this was as good as it gets.

This wardrobe for the theater somehow looks just the way a theater wardrobe ought to look; it evokes those emotions we feel knowing that the curtain is about to rise.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gareth in the Pouring Rain


Gareth Richards stops by for one of his all too rare visits. But the steady early February rain doesn't deter him from visiting the garden, which for a year, when he was only 21, he helped care for as an apprentice. He's now a garden expert/producer for the BBC and ITV in the UK where he's gained quite a reputation and even a certain well-deserved notoriety in the field.

It's been three years since his last visit and these narcissi have multiplied in their naturalized clusters under the cherry trees in our viale orchard.

Gil developed this scheme many years ago and his vision is now more than realized. In a couple of months the blooms of these Queen of the Market cherry trees will shift the focus up to their clouds of white.

There are literally tens of thousands of these bulbs by now and their perfume is powerful and evocative.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Landscape: Escorial


What kind of a garden would this have been in the 16th century when Escorial was built? Certainly not this. This is a monastery, yes, and monastic gardens were usually laid out in geometric form, not unlike what we see above. But the forms would have been simpler, perhaps, and the contents of the garden would have been agricultural: here a fruit tree, there a row of vegetables. The order and symbolic beauty of it was important to a point, but not at the expense of practicality.

The monks would have looked down from this upper floor loggia to admire the fountain, which formed the center of a passage of their garden—if not this very fountain then one like it. But the vegetation they'd have seen all around, in the warmer months, would have ended up served to them at table sooner or later.

The fish they raised swam peacefully in this basin.

And the sheep they kept would have grazed these pastures just as they do today.

Ornate parterre, or broderie, was an Italian creation, which would later be refined by the French. In the 18th century this was the obligatory garden style for palaces and royal households and it was brought to Escorial by the Bourbons who at the time ruled Spain, Parma, Sicily and Naples.

And it's a garden style that well suits the palace/monastery today as it looks good all year round. The maintenance, though significant, is a lot less painstaking than the earlier monastic garden would have been. Box hedges, such as these, need trimming once a year in June, with a tidy-up in September. Apart from that, it's simply a matter of keeping the weeds down.

The green forms echo the stone volumes and their linearity provide dignity and order.

A smaller garden off to the side has recently been replanted in a structure of schemes that repeat themselves internally; it's typically French in inspiration.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

El Escorial: the Hardscape


Escorial has a reputation. To so many it evokes a concept of cold brutality, of almost subhuman severity. To many it's no more welcoming or inviting than a cave. I, on the other hand, have a life-long romance with the stone and so visiting here was an inspiration. What a celebration of man's gifts for grandiose construction with the raw materials of the earth itself.

The Monastery of El Escorial, located some 30 miles northwest of Madrid in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, was built as a monument to commemorate the Spanish victory over the French in the battle of Saint Quentin on 10 August 1557 (feast day of St. Lawrence). Felipe II himself selected the site for the monastery, 1,028 meters (3,372 feet) above sea level, and personally oversaw the progress of the project.

The monastery was initially designed by architect Juan Bautista de Toledo, but after his death in 1567, his assistant Juan de Herrera continued the work. Construction lasted 21 years from 1563 to 1584, and for many years after its completion, El Escorial Monastery was the largest building in the world.

It's an interesting forty minute drive outside of Madrid through dry hilly countryside that brings to mind central California or perhaps even Iran, here and there regrettably developed with massive new housing complexes—such is the way of the world. Eventually you arrive at the town of San Lorenzo de Escorial, a rather pretty and tidy community with a well-healed population who enjoy extraordinary views southwards towards the capital city.

The decoration of the Monastery was entrusted to prominent Italian painters of the time who were responsible for the Gallery of Battles and the Library among other rooms. Works of Titian, Bosch, El Greco, and Velázquez also hang in the Chapter Rooms and Sacristy. Overall there are about 1,600 paintings and more than 500 frescoes in walls and ceilings. The Monastery has an interesting Museum of Painting and Architecture as well.

In my next post we'll visit the garden.