Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Joyful Things, from New Hotels to Heavenly Flower Farms

Those who follow me on Instagram -- -- will know I'm flying a little under the radar at the moment. It's a combination of things, but I won't confuse this post with details. Instead, I want to kick the weekend off with some joyous stuff. So here's a high toast to the small delights of life, from hotels to heavenly flower gardens. 

I hope you're all happy and in high spirits, wherever you may be this week. 

The beautiful pix above are from my Instagram feed. Pictured (left) the Wallace Collection, via Paul_J_Little's feed, and (right) Dolce and Gabbana's new shoes, via Kirstie Clements. 
More IG gorgeousness below.


Everyone I know is watching the latest Netflix hit GRACE AND FRANKIE? (TRAILER HERE)  Have you seen it yet? It's brilliantly witty, well-produced, beautifully filmed and with so much property porn you'll be wanting a beach house with a blue kitchen before the last credits have closed.

Imagine Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin living in a coastal cottage that looks like a Verandah magazine spread, spouting Norah Ephron-esque bon mots (Norah would have loved it), wearing cool clothes, and managing even more enviable careers (Lily is a painting teacher; Jane owns a Estee Lauder-style beauty company). Then toss in an unusual plot, which, thankfully, becomes a beautiful and moving story by the end, and you have this gorgeous, glamorous, shimmering new show. It's one of the best series to screen this year.

Now Grace and Frankie is really a show for women and to make us happy there's a string of oh-my men, including a hot ex-prisoner that Jane Fonda has 'almost-sex' with on the kitchen bench, pearl earrings and all. But while Janey gets the hot pecs, it's Lily who has the best lines -- and her face just radiates on camera. I loved her. (I binged-watched the entire first series last week. Although I wished she followed through with that lovely man who owned the vegetable patch.) The beach house is pure property porn. Hooked on Houses blog has a great analysis of the film set here -- LINK 

All the cast have just signed for a second season. Hallelujah, I say. Hall-e-lujah.


My favourite -- FAVOURITE -- thing this year has been the stupendously, tear-wrackingly beautiful film Far from the Madding Crowd, and the hauntingly lovely places it was filmed, historic Mapperton (worth seeing itself) and the wild Dorset coast. Some critics have sneered at Carey Mulligan's performance (I loved it and actually preferred it over The Great Gatsby; she seems more plausible as Bathsheba than Daisy), while others felt that Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays the sexy shepherd Gabriel Oak, was simply a Hardyesque version of Magic Mike. Ignore these sad people. Madding is deeply moving. As an animal lover, I even cried at the part where the sheep go over the cliff. (Sorry, spoiler.) 

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this film though is the costume design, which should be nominated for an Oscar. What's interesting is that instead of using dull browns and greys, as some period films do, the designers went for modern hues of denim blue and salvia mauve. You see, the film's researchers discovered that clothes from the time Hardy set the novel (1874) were actually surprisingly bright -- such as these eye-catchingly blue hues and striking violets --and as a consequence, created a very 'blue' costume palette. I loved the fact that they used an original French gardening smock on Gabriel Oak, which added a lot of authenticity.

There's a lovely featurette that takes an in-depth look at the film's costume here -- LINK

Arguably the best performance comes from Michael Sheen who plays William Boldwood (he played Tony Blair in the Helen Mirren film The Queen). If your heart doesn't break at the part where he shoots Bathsheba's husband (out of love for her), and realises he will no doubt hang for it, you are a hard person, indeed. (Oh, spoiler again!) 

Find a cinema and envelope yourself in one of the most beautiful period dramas this year.


Ben Pentreath, Justine Picardie, Paris Scribe, The Land Gardeners, Pretty in London, the whimsically named Cup of Meat ... IG has some of the most inspirational images on the Internet. Here are a few of my favourite pix from recent weeks.

A Cup of Meat's Instagram feed.
Curious name. Utterly sublime images.

The French Riviera by Sir John Lavery (left), via Howard Slatkin's IG feed, 
and Map of The Open Country of a Woman's Heart published by D.W. Kellogg 1833-1842 (right), via Cup of Meat.

The King's Potager at Versailles (left)(artist unknown), via Susan Alicias, 
and Jean-Jacques Lequeu (right), via Cup of Meat's IG feed.

Rattan sunlounger by Nicholas Haslam (left)
and the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Penang (right) via Cup of Meat


Did you see the recent New York Times article on the idyllic, elysian, utterly enviable World's End flower farm in upstate New York? LINK HERE Many of us would love to pull up our lives and go live on a flower farm, and this one is a dream-in-a-box kinda place, complete with distressed layers of antique wallpaper and fields of dahlias. You can almost smell the hyacinths.

Owned by Sarah Ryhanen and Eric Famisan of the legendary Saipua flower shop in Brooklyn (their floristry style is akin to a Dutch master’s still life), the farm is a place for them to plant unusual flowers (black dahlias; Hello Darkness irises) for their equally bohemian arrangements.

There's a video of the farm on the NY Times page too. Watch out, you'll swoon. (See link above.)


One of the best yet. Just look at these spreads.


Kate Spade (the woman, not the brand) is returning to fashion after eight years away. Launching an accessories collection that's due out for holiday, she has began showing retailers previews but is yet to announce a name. (The designer is unable to use her own name due to legal restrictions following the sale of her brand.


Personally, I can't understand why the glossy mags haven't yet covered this newbie? Perhaps a feature is on its way? In any case, get there before the crowds do. The Cotton House in Barcelona is set to be the hot new hideaway.

Occupying a former textile headquarters (hence the name), this glorious hotel has been sympathetically restored to take advantage of the elegant proportions and rich decorative details. The building’s neoclassical character is evident at every turn: the public spaces are jaw-droppingly in their loveliness. Don't miss the library-lounge and the bar-restaurant Batuar. If you have the money, book the first-floor Ottoman and Damask Suites overlooking Gran Vía.

I'm off to plan our trip to New York and New Orleans in September.
Wishing you all a lovely weekend!

Monday, June 29, 2015

LONDON: A Little List of Design Delights and Secret Destinations

So... there's good news and bad news. The bad news first: My recent England trip (which seemed to come and go in a wet blur of windy May days, quick meetings and blink-and-miss photoshoots) was long on London's usual dignified loveliness but very short on spring gardenalia.

Kynance Mews (left) and the Dior scaffolding (right)

The houses of Canning Passage (left) and the popular Orange pub in Pimlico (right)

England's spring came very late this year and most of the flowers weren't yet in bloom. Even the walled gardens seemed to be tucked up in their hibernated state. It was all quite underwhelming. So I'd like to apologise for not posting any roses, peonies, perennial-filled borders and other petalled delights but the sad fact is that—excluding the Chelsea in Bloom windows (above)— I didn't see many!

Some talented photographers managed to duck the rainshowers, bitter winds and grisaille-y grey days in order to capture the first of the aliums, the last of tulips and a few brave little bulbs poking their noses above the soil line. Jenny Rose-Innes' images of both Chelsea and a selection of country gardens were sublime — — while Naomi at Coulda Woulda Shoulda did a witty recap of the show here — (I missed Chelsea this year due to work, but grabbed some pix of the Chelsea in Bloom windows on King's Road, above.)

Paradise pub (left) and Designers Guild china (right)

A Chelsea florist (left) and Ralph Lauren (right)

The good news is, I was in London to finish shooting a future guide book and catch up with some business contacts, and the inclement weather couldn't prevent the city from looking grander and more glamorous than it's ever done. From the newly opened apartment of architect and collector Sir John Soane at the Soane Museum (which has been locked up for 160 years) to the profusion of petals and pretty windows around Chelsea and Pimlico for the Chelsea in Bloom festival (the fringe festival is almost better than the actual Chelsea Flower Show now), the city seemed to have dressed in its best for the start of the summer season. It's not surprising London has now passed Paris and New York as the most popular city for foreign visitors. The place was glowing like a newly polished silver tea setting.

The London book is a year or so away. But in the meantime, I'd love to offer you a few tips for places to see, shop or stay

Kate Spade's windows (left) and the view from the National Portrait Gallery's restaurant, over Trafalgar Square (right)

London doesn't give out all its secrets at once; it's a little old-fashioned like that. (I lived there for years and am still discovering corners I didn't know existed.) But persevere, because under the buttoned-up formality there's a surprising personality. The London I've come to know in recent years is witty, sophisticated, surprising, upbeat, unique and extremely kind. Those Parisian taxi drivers could learn a thing or two from London's cabbies' manners.

So here's a London list to bookmark for your next trip. I hope the skies are blue wherever you may be this month.


London has a lot of spots that are considered 'fashionable'—any of the Firmdale Hotels (above), the Dover Street Market (above; a department store so cool  it doesn't do merchandising, windows or indeed decorating or displays), the new restaurant Spring by Skye Gyngell (formerly of the Michelin-starred Petersham Nurseries), any David Collins-designed bar, any boutique in Brompton Cross, Bloomsbury, Pimlico, or Spitalfields, and anything with a books or botanica theme, such as the Ivy Chelsea Garden and Assouline.

A navy drawing room that was taken from a Mayfair mansion and reconstructed in a wing of the V&A

The Exchange on Gloucester Road – one of the best places to pick up cut-price Chanel

Leighton House's grand gallery of mosaics and tiles

But there are also a lot of London that go under the radar. The charming architecture and homes tucked away in Launceston Place, Kynance Mews and Canning Passage behind Gloucester Road. The extraordinary fashion archives of Blythe House (where the V&A stores all its archives and 'leftovers' from all their exhibitions and display). The hidden gardens. The unknown National Trust properties—such a 575 Wandsworth; truly one of London's greatest delights. The too-good-to-be-true price tags on consignment boutiques, such as The Exchange (above), where you can nab Chanel for almost nothing. All the memorable museums and the design secrets they hide—Sir John Soane's attic apartments; Leighton House (above); the Emery Walker Trust...

This is the London that's truly memorable. This is the London you need to find.

So here are a few of my London 'favourites', from sublime design destinations to fantastic fabric finds.

Located next door to man-of-the-moment Ben Pentreath, Maggie Owen is not only Ben's friend but a brilliant jeweller. Her store, above, is as pretty as her trinkets, which are the kind you can wear during the day and then out the opera at night. Flashy but far from tacky, they take costume jewellery to a new level of sophistication.

If you're an artist, this is going to be your new happy place. This 100-year-old art store is filled with irresistible pigments, beautiful brushes, incredible history and of course creative inspiration. All the artistic greats have bought their bits and pieces here. The best part is the timber cabinetry and panelling; it's as beautiful as the paints. Don't miss the antique drawers full of coloured pastels at the back: you'll want to start drawing even if you don't know how.

Don't go to Columbia Road just for the flowers, although they are fabulous to see and smell. There are also a dozen or more gorgeous shops, including this cute garden boutique, above, which stocks everything from the now-ubiquitous Kew planters to herb signs and hats. There are also lovely little stores selling fashion, fabrics and more. The key is to go on Sunday, as that's the only day that many of the stores are open. The atmosphere of the market is wonderful, too. All in all, it's great thing to do on a Sunday morning.

A little known gem in London's East End, the Geffrye Museum is dedicated to period interiors and gardens. It's set behind a grand garden but it also features it own charming garden at the rear, which is divided into various period gardens — Victorian; Edwardian, and so on. The key is to read all the small signs and plaques; they're where the interesting bits are hidden. One large board, that was almost lost behind a door, showed in fascinating detail how gardens became popular with the upper-middle class. Even the small signs in the medieval herb garden are enthralling. I didn't visit for many years because I'd heard it was dull. It's not at all.

I love browsing fabric stores, especially those along King's Road (Cabbages and Roses, Designers Guild, and William Yeoward, above). But on this trip, I also discovered Fulham Road, where you can buy Manuel Canovas at Colefax and Fowler without needing an interior designer's trade card. And then there's the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, a veritable Who's Who of Textiles, from Tissus d'Helene (my favourite; a wonderful jumble of sumptuous stuff) to Brunschwig & Fils, Kravet, GP and J Baker and Samuel and Sons. There are more than one hundred fabric houses here, so leave a few hours. Some are trade-only, but my friend gave me a tip: ask for samples of your preferred fabrics (which comefree), and then sew a lovely big quilt out of them. What brilliant thinking.

I won't say too much about Queen Mary's Rose Garden, except try to time your visit for mid or late June, when the roses are in bloom. It's one of the largest rose gardens in England with more than 12,000 roses. Take a picnic or a packed lunch, or grab something to take away from the little cafe. On a sunny days, it's a scented heaven.

I discovered Chiswick on this last trip. I went to visit the Emery Walker Trust before it closed for renos (a wonderful shrine to William Morris), then realised there was an entire neighbourhood of design finds, from William Morris' own house, above, to enchanting cottages and pubs like The Dove, above, which has the smallest bar in the world.  There's a riverside path you can wander, which takes you past rowers racing down The Thames, riverfront mansions and historic cottages, a leafy vista to look at on the other side, and gardens that look like they should be in the countryside. 

And then, when you've finished, there are all the lovely boutiques and restaurants of Chiswick High Road to visit. Don't miss The Old Cinema for antiques and High Street House for a drink. One of London's best-kept secrets. No wonder Colin Firth and others have bought homes here. It's a pocket of pure bliss.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Glorious Gardenalia


Like many gardeners, I came to gardening late in life, after the passions for fashion, shoes, socialising and foreign cities had waned. Both my mother and my grandma had beautiful gardens but the plantswoman's gene seemed to skip over me. The closest I ever came to gardens in my twenties and thirties, working abroad as a journalist, was admiring Gucci's floral frocks.

Fast-forward a decade and how the earth turns. Not only have most of my friends become mad about everything botanic-y and begun ordering their Le Chameau boots (each one is handcrafted by a ‘maître bottier'; reportedly the Duchess of Cambridge is a fan), but I, too, have started to realise the sheer, Elysian joy of being in a garden. Suddenly, I'm obsessed with old roses, and the Diggers seed catalogues, which I've just discovered, have overtaken Cabana and Porter magazines in the weekend reading heirarchy. (Seed catalogues make you think that your garden will look like Mottisfont, above, but of course that never happens.)

The curious thing about gardens—the thing that nobody ever tells you—is that once you start, it becomes quietly addictive. An obsession, even. 

When I photographed Carolyne Roehm's garden a year or so ago for a future book (still in production), the most interesting thing wasn't her enormous picking garden and its elegant obelisks and wicker planters (see above) but her immaculate planting schemes on her potting shed desk—each flower image carefully cut out and pasted in a garden plan to show how they'd eventually look in the spring beds.

The attention to detail was astounding. It made my trug stuffed with random bulbs look like an amateurish mess.

And when I photographed designer Jeffrey Bilhuber's weekender in Oyster Bay, Long Island, for a design book, it was his stunning kitchen garden that made my day, rather than his beautiful, rather Gatsby-esque mansion. You can't go back to a mere vegie patch after wandering through Jeffrey's potager (Please forgive bad pic above as it's one of the off-cuts.)


After that, I began studying Gertrude Jekyll's garden plans at the Lindley Library in London, trawling Instagram for garden inspiration, and reading Russell Page, Claus Dalby, Anna Pavord, Monty DonDamon Young (above), even the eccentric but expert landscape designer Sir George Sitwell (a great character who tried to paint his cows in blue Chinese willow patterns because they looked better in the green landscapes. A fantastic bio of him is here. You'll adore him.)

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned—the thing I love most—is that gardening is good for the soul.  Winston Churchill (himself a keen gardener) once said that we shape our building and then they shape us but I suspect he was also referring to his beloved gardens. We try to create our green spaces by giving them form, depth, dignity and character, but in the end, I think it's our gardens that give those things to us.


For the past two months, I've been organising garden tours, not just for friends who requested personalised itineraries but also a small private group of people. (Note: The tour this year was a small private affair, but there may be professionally-run ones next year: please email me or see for details.) I have also seen gardens on my own; gardens that have been so beautiful they almost seemed painterly. Like a Pierre Auguste Renoir study. Others felt more 'real'—Dame Elizabeth Murdoch's garden, above, was surprisingly pragmatic. (For all the Murdoch money, she abhorred expensive beds and 'show-off' plants, such as Prunus Elvins, which I quite like and have in our garden but am clearly Doing The Wrong Thing.)

The language of gardens was very important to Dame Elizabeth and her gardeners still use her terms today, including "slips" (cuttings). The underside of a tree was called a "skirt", and while some skirts were "too lovely to hem", others faced a trim. "We need to trim some of the branches to show that tree's good legs" was her oft-said instruction.

"Language brings a garden to life," she used to say. "It creates characters within that garden. It gives a garden dignity and respect." Just as Churchill used to say.

This Friday, I am off to see yet more gardens, this time in England, that grand, green, gardening Mecca. After a week of business appointments in London, I'm off on a lovely, loose, so-casual-it's-not-even-really-planned garden tour of picking gardens, potagers and private idylls. (NB Will try and post pix of all the gardens seen, past and future, here, when time permits.)

As always, feel free to follow on Instagram here — 
or here (LINK).


London is exploding with gardenalia at the moment, as it does this time each year, with the Chelsea Flower Show, the Russell Page exhibition at the Garden Museum, Buckingham Palace's exhibition Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, above (link) and of course the Chelsea Fringe Festival, which gathers strength every year.

I've also secured, with much luck, entry to a few amazing, slightly secret, places, and will post about them so you, too, can try to snavel a visit on future trips.


High on the List of English Country Gardens To Visit This Year is Mapperton Garden in Dorset, which is where the new Carey Mulligan film Far from the Madding Crowd was filmed (released this month), based on Thomas Hardy's famous tale.

There's a helpful website here trailer and a trailer for the film herewith a haunting song sung by Mulligan with the ominous line—"Beware, beware keep your garden fair".

Oh yes, because we know what happens in Hardy tragedies.

Curiously, Thomas Hardy described Dorset and its landscapes as “partly real, partly dream”, although modern journalists have been more brutal—Bridport (now home to residents like Martin Clunes and Ben Pentreath — IG link here) has been called "Notting Hill on Sea" for its glamorous boutiques, restaurants and hotels such as the Pig on the Sea (which a friend tells me has its own kitchen garden, above, as glamorous hotels do).

Also on the Country Garden List is Iford, the garden created by my new gardening deity, Harold Ainsworth Peto. (link) It's an Italianate garden and although it features Italianate touches—colonnades, terraces, cloisters—it's also deeply romantic. Many gardeners say it's their favourite.

There's also Woolbeding, the garden of the late Sir Simon Sainbury (of the supermarket family), reportedly one of England's best-kept secrets, which is rarely open but apparently worth the trouble.

Plus several other hidden horticultural treats. I wish I could take all of you along.


If you can't get to the northern hemisphere this summer, there's another flowery treasure in the form of the new film Tulip Fever, starring Judi Dench, based on the bestseller by Deborah Moggach. (No trailer yet but a link to author's site here.)

Set in early 17th-century Holland, during the period of the Tulip mania that gripped the Dutch in the 1630s, it's about an artist who falls for a married young woman while he's commissioned to paint her portrait by her husband. The two invest in the risky tulip market in hopes to build a future together. As one does.

On her author website, Deborah Moggach explains that the story is a "love-letter to Dutch painting and that lost world of serene and dreamy domestic interiors".

Judi Dench will no doubt be beautiful and brilliant. But it's the tulips I want to see.


There's another glorious book due out soon in the form of Arne Maynard's much-awaited monograph (one of my favourite garden designers), which is published by Merrell in September 2015.

 If you're visiting England, you can stay at his Welsh home and garden, Alt-y-Bela. Details here – link.

He seems like such a lovely man. All gardeners are lovely, I think, but Arne seems particularly personable.


Another man who's won my heart is my partner. While I've been pre-occupied by various work projects these past few months, my darling other half has installed a new cutting garden for me. Cutting gardens (or picking gardens) are all the horticultural fashion at the moment, although some people prefer potagers: mixing flowers and produce together.  I longed for a blue garden—like Gatsby's—and when I heard that they're best planted outside a sunroom so the view is cooling to the eye on hot days, well, there was no saying "no". Out went the grass and in went the beds. I even found some blue anemones for it, above.

This is it in the early stages, on a wet winter's day as the grand Elm tree sheds its leaves. It doesn't look much now, but come spring, all of the bulbs and plants, including the salvias, roses, lavender and nepeta, will hopefully be flopping with gay abandon over the raised beds. I wanted a simple garden because we have a simple two-storey, Georgian-style house (this was shot from a top window), with Georgian-style geometric lines, and this clean-line style of garden seemed to suit it. I was going to plant Chanticleer pears along the border but have been told they're horticultural pests. So we're still considering the outer framework.

We've already sat out there on sunny evenings, drinking in the golden light and relishing life. It's been well worth all the hard work! (You can see the other potager/picking garden behind the grey picket fence, which has been planted using shades of pink and red.)

We also had lots of figs from the fig tree's bumper crop this year, which I tried to give away when I could. Friends and neighbours were a bit figged out this year, I fear.


Lastly, I want to leave you with a gardening story. It's sad but it's enchanting too. I think you'll like it. It involves art, gardens, life, longings, and other enriching things.

A few weeks ago, a close friend emailed to let us know our old neighbour Roger Streeton (whom she also knew) had died. We had lived near Roger for several years in Range Road, Olinda, and had kept a (neighbourly) eye on his property when he was away. Roger was the grandson of the famous Impressionist painter Sir Arthur Streeton, and his house, our neighbouring property, was Arthur Streeton's former home, 'Longacres', where he painted many of his masterpieces, which now sell for millions.

Streeton bought Longacres in the Olinda hills so he could paint en plein air but also so he could find peace and contentment in his life.  He had achieved career success at the Royal Academy in London and the 1892 Paris Salon, but what he really longed for (as many of us do) was a garden and pastoral views.  He had found himself in middle age without a wife and family, a home or even financial security and Longacres was his quiet gift to himself. It soon became his escape; his idyll, and also his inspiration.

Streeton painted much of his best work at Longacres, ensconced in its garden studio or the gallery inside the main house, which was lit by three large skylights and featured a 20-foot ceiling, fabric-covered walls (a luxury at the time) and an unusual picture window that created the illusion of viewing the outside garden as a painting. He also planted an Impressionist's garden, much like Monet's at Giverny, and filled it with drifts of delphiniums, foxgloves, larkspur, lupins, hollyhocks, violets, primroses, bluebells, daffodils and snowdrops, narcissus, lavender, and a grand avenue of Linden trees.

It was there he could be found most days, in his artist's smock, capturing the botanica in light brushstrokes. The garden eventually became so extensive, he built a gardener's cottage, and hired a gardener, Mr Griffin, to manage it.

Streeton died in his bedroom at Longacres in 1943. His clothes, easels, paintbrushes and even tubes of paint, are all still there. My friend (the one who emailed) remembers visiting Longacres 15 years ago, 60 years after Sir Arthur Streeton's death, and said Streeton's painting were still stacked in piles – "just  exactly as he left it..."

Streeton's garden, however, didn't fare so well.  Many of the plants, perhaps out of shock, died with him. When his grandson Roger Streeton (our neighbour), took over Longacres, he faced a derelict and long-forgotten place, with a garden that had been lost to blackberries. Locals often said they saw the old artist's ghost, forlornly wandering the overgrown paths. (The house has the dubious distinction of being classified by the National Trust as an official “haunted house”.) Roger Streeton spent the next 15 restoring it, with the result that buildings and garden are now both classified by National Trust and Heritage Victoria. (link here)

Roger Streeton's death last month makes me wonder what will happen to Longacres, and to Sir Arthur Streeton's garden? My friend walked down our old road on the day that Roger died, to pay her respects, and said the heavy carpet of woodland cyclamen made the grand old trees look like they were growing out of pink snow. When she stopped to admire the estate, a huge stag stood, very still, at the top of the drive, all alone in the empty property. "He was magnificent," she said, clearly moved by the sight.

It made me wonder if he, too, paying his respect to the father of Australian Impressionism? A painter who became a gardener, and a man for whom gardening, rather than art, made him truly happy.

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