Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Celebrating Flowers, London and Life

One of the lovely projects I've just finished photographing and writing is a new guidebook about London, called LONDON SECRETS, which is to be published later this year by my former publisher (and employer, when I was a book editor), Images Publishing. It's designed to be a companion to the bestselling PARIS SECRETS -- details of which are here. London is going through a huge design revival at the moment, and it's always a joy to return to this city, which seems to look beautiful regardless of whether it's drizzling and grisaille grey or shimmering under silvery sunshine. 

I'm now working on a beautiful garden book for a major publisher, which involves writing abut gardens in the UK, France, Italy, the US, the Caribbean and other destinations. So if the blog and Instagram posts are sporadic, that's why, and I hope you'll forgive me. As compensation, here are some glorious garden bits and pieces to celebrate the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. (And a few travel tips for London, too.)

(From the new LONDON SECRETS book, published by Images in late 2016)

I love London. It's my second home. But the city is changing so fast at the moment that it feels like there's something new going up every week. Of all the new architecture appearing in London, some of the most exciting buildings are the new hotels, which seem to be sprouting like spring bulbs at the moment. Two of the most talked about are the Hotel Costes on Sloane Square (still to break ground, but not far off), and a new hotel planned by bestselling writer Alain de Botton called The Philosopher's Hotel. The latter project is tucked away in the serene, leafy streets of Hampstead, and is being billed as "the thinking person's hideaway". Spaces include a library (which Botton has dubbed 'Keats' Living Room'), a study (naturally called 'Freud's Study'), and an art studio, named after Constable. (You don't want to turn up with a low-brow book here!)

If you can't wait for these two boutique hideaways to be finished, there is a new, superbly named hotel called Batty Langley's, which is the third hotel from the gentlemen behind the equally quirky Hazlitt’s in Soho and The Rookery in Clerkenwell. The theme was inspired by the eccentric English garden designer and writer Batty Langley, who was famous for producing 'patterns' for Gothic structures, including summerhouses and garden seats, in the mid-18th century. He was particularly fond of cabinets de verdure, but all his garden designs were popular. His book New Principles of Gardening, in 1728, was a surprise bestseller. Even George Washington was a fan. There are likely to be many fans of this new London hotel, which is arguably one of the most charming retreats in the entire city.

There is also a newbie in Notting Hill -- The Laslett Hotel (although I was a bit underwhelmed by it), and another cutie in Marylebone, the Zetter Townhouse in Marylebone, which is sister to the much-loved Zetter in Clerkenwell. The latter is probably the best bet for those who love textiles, antiques, books, and beautiful rooms, although its location -- right in the middle of Marylebone's magnificent shopping quarter -- is pretty irresistible too. Like Batty Langley's Hotel, The Zetter Marylebone is modelled on a character, only this one is fictitious gent called Uncle Seymour. The idea is that it's meant to represent the London townhouse of a well-read but slightly eccentric gentleman, whose books and antiques are all still as they were when he resided here. (It's a tradition: the sister Zetter in Clerkenwell was the townhouse of 'Great Aunt Wilhelmina'). There's an extraordinarily beautiful restaurant / bar called 'Seymour's Parlour', which is cosy and claret colored, and filled with things that look like they should be in the Soane Museum. The best suite is the Rooftop Apartment with its own terrace, outdoor bath and an (indoor) bathroom decorated with an enormous vintage map -- all mad but so fantastic too!

As for horticultural havens, there are a few of those in this new book. My favorite new discoveries include the Isabella Gardner Plantation in Richmond (stunning azaleas in spring!), and Duck Island Cottage in St James's Park. (There is a fantastic story behind this cottage; too complicated to include here, but do look it up if you love gardens and history.)


Speaking of London, and gardening, and all things charming and quirky and quintessentially British, it's fantastic to see that Jo Malone's new spokesperson is the eighty-year-old model and gardening cover girl Gitte Lee. (Christopher Lee's widow.) She's so beautiful. Look at her, with her three hats, her silk scarves (she's wearing two, just to be sure!), and her diamond brooch. What glamour! 

She's also the perfect person to spruce the company's new limited edition collection of fragrances, 'Herb Garden' , which are designed to be the best kind of casual scents. The descriptions alone make you want to try them -- 'Lemon thyme crushed in soil-covered hands; cool earth encasing ripening carrots and fennel; the aromatic artistry of herbs -- verdant, crisp, juicy and sweet...' Just the thing for weekend spritzes.


It could be argued that Jo Malone's team has taken inspiration for the above photo shoot with Gitte Lee from Rhoda Birley's famous photo in the fantastic book Garden People: The Photographs of Valerie Finnis  (Thames and Hudson). 

Many gardeners know about this book and the colorful characters in it (Rhoda -- Lady Birley -- was shot in her garden at Charleston, in Sussex), but what's interesting is how it continues to inspire people -- and photo shoots -- years after it was published. 

I recently came across these sublime illustrations by New York illustrator Maira Kalman, who loves to paint gardens and gardeners, and perfectly captured Rhoda (above) in her now-legendary gardening outfit. 

Maira Kalman also painted an exquisite study of Sissinghurst's garden (above).

Maira is now so highly regarded that many people are commissioning her to do books and magazine covers. The New Yorker has been asking her to design their covers for years. (This week's issue of The New Yorker; a pink-hued, petalled study of a green-mustached man to celebrate the advent of spring, is by Maira.)

Here's one of her spring covers here --

For more information on Maira Kalman, there's a TED talk here -- The Illustrated Woman. Or there are lots of articles on various sites around the Net.


There are some gorgeous books being released this year, including an enormous tome of all of Karl Lagerfeld's theatrical catwalk shows for Chanel, published in May (LINK HERE), and a new Thames & Hudson title called Floral Patterns of India -- a must if you love design (and India!). 

However, I've been quietly buying a lot of vintage titles, as much for their charming covers and design as for the stories inside. 

The favorite so far has been Vita Sackville-West's English Country Houses, which she wrote while London was being bombed during the Blitz, and entire areas of southern England were being destroyed. It was her hymn to a way of life that was fast disappearing, not just because of the war but because of the changes that were taking place in society. 

Beverley Nichols' books are well worth reading, too -- although perhaps start with his biography first, to better understand him. Warning: Once you start reading his books, you'll find it difficult to stop!


One of the best magazines in the world is Gardens Illustrated, the beautifully produced UK publication that's also sold elsewhere in the world. The photography is always superb, and the articles always feature under-the-radar gardens, interesting landscape designers and gardens, and beautiful flowers and plants. 

The latest issue, No 229, is a special edition that features an enthralling story written by Sissinghurst's head gardener, Troy Scott Smith, about Vita Sackville-West's lost roses. (Released Feb/March in UK; March elsewhere, including Australia.) 

Vita Sackville-West was famous for her roses. And when she noticed that many cultivars and species were dying out across England, she made it her mission to save and protect as many as she could. Unfortunately, of the 300 roses that she saved at Sissinghurst, only 100 were still alive in 2013, when head gardener Troy Scott Smith took over the estate. Cognizant of Vita's horticultural legacy, he took it upon himself to find "Vita's lost roses" and reinstate them into the garden. He used Vita's diaries and notebooks to identify where the roses had been in the garden, and what their names were, although head gardener Jack Vass' detailed garden plans were also helpful. Sadly, some of the roses seemed to be lost forever, but Troy tracked down more than 200 of Vita's original plants and brought them back to Vita's beds. 

Gardens Illustrated has a lovely story on the search for the lost roses, as well as four wonderful pages showing 44 of the best roses grown in Vita's garden. (And also specialist suppliers where you can source rare roses.) 

If only Vita were alive to see her rose beds restored to their original glory. She would no doubt be very pleased.

Link to article HERE.

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