Sunday, December 8, 2013

Eavesdropping in Mr. Huntington’s Gardens


Occasionally I am invisible. If I sit in one place long enough and draw, people start treating me as part of the environment. This is good when people don’t ask me questions while I am trying to draw. This is bad when people step right in front of me and block my view. This is what happened last week at the Huntington Library.

So there I was sketching a fountain on the North Vista lawn with Mr. Huntington’s mansion in the background, and I must have been making myself very invisible because an entire tour group walked right in front of my view and turned their attention to a rather pedantic looking older gentleman in a tweed coat, barely ten feet away from my spot on the grass.

I had just finished the block in and was starting in on the details, only now all I could see were a bunch of big touristy backsides. I tried craning my head awkwardly to get a view between their legs, and you think at least one of them would take the hint, but my view was completely blocked by yards of khaki. So I waited. And it turns out I was rewarded with a bold bit of fabrication.

The older gentleman stroked his mustache and beard and nodded very seriously and tapped a finger to the temple of his glasses. “Now this lawn wasn’t part of the original plans," he said. "Mr. Huntington created this lawn for a beautiful young French girl, Arabella, who was Mr. Huntington's mistress for many years. The young lady was a frequent visitor to the house, but Mr. Huntington could never convince her to leave her beloved France. ‘No, I could never leave the beauty of Paris,’ she would tell him. Arabella would stay with Mr. Huntington for a while, then go back to Paris for months and months. Now you should know that Arabella was very beautiful. And Mr. Huntington very much in love with her. So he began collecting art to impress her. Every season, he would buy some new painting or sculpture or furniture, and he would travel to Paris and go straight to Arabella and say, ‘You must come back to Pasadena and see this marvelous thing I have bought for you.’ Flattered, she would always accept his invitation and travel back to Pasadena with him. And they would have a wonderful journey. She would arrive at the mansion full of excitement for this new marvelous thing and for Mr. Huntington. Mr. Huntington would host a grand party to show off his new acquisition, and he would parade Arabella around on his arm, and they would seem to be radiantly in love for a few weeks. Then Arabella would begin to miss Paris, and she would go to Mr. Huntington and say, ‘I cannot stay. Your house and its art and its grounds are beautiful, but I miss the gardens of France.’ Soon afterwards, she would pack up her bags and leave.”

“As you can imagine, Mr. Huntington was distraught. Every wall in his house was full of fine paintings, and every possible space held beautiful sculptures and figurines. The furniture was rich and wonderfully French. His house was full of artworks for Arabella. Yet it was not enough. She always left him and returned to Paris. One day, Mr. Huntington sat in the window on the second floor and looked out over his grand driveway running through his woods to his grand gate. And he almost gave up. Then an idea came to him and he smiled. If Arabella wanted gardens, he would turn the grounds around his mansion into gardens that would rival Versailles. Then he got to work. This lawn we are standing on was the first of Mr. Huntington’s gardens, and he filled it with fine statues from around Europe.”

One of the women raised her hand and asked, “Did it work? Did Arabella come back to stay?”

“No,” said the older gentleman, “It did not work. Arabella came to see Mr. Huntington’s lawn, then returned to Paris as before. He tried again and again and again. He built the Lilly Ponds, and the Australian gardens, and the Rose gardens, and Arabella came to see them all. And she was always excited at first. But in the end, she always returned to Paris. Frustrated and hurt, Mr. Huntington took Arabella back to Paris, and left her there. He wanted to be alone for a while so he went on a journey to far off Japan. He stayed in a small village for a year and a day, in an old wooden and paper house that he came to think of as a second home. When it was time to return to Pasadena, Mr. Huntington decided to build a new garden just for himself. He brought the old wooden house back with him from Japan, and had it rebuilt on his grounds, board by board. And around the house he created a garden that reminded him of the small village where he had stayed. When all was done, Mr. Huntington looked over his new garden with pride and love, and he thought no more of Arabella until he saw her at a party in New York. They talked, awkwardly at first, then spilling into their old affection for each other. At some point he invited her to Pasadena and she accepted, but Mr. Huntington did not think she would visit. He went back to Pasadena alone. To his surprise, Arabella followed him a few days later. It was a beautiful autumn day and they walked through all of the gardens Mr. Huntington had made for her. Then they came to the garden Mr. Huntington had made for himself. Arabella gasped and gripped his hand. She fell in love with the Japanese garden, and with Mr. Huntington, and she stayed with him here in the gardens until his death. Now if you follow me, we will go and see the gardens that Mr. Huntington built for his one great love.”

After that the older gentleman waved the tourists on towards the mansion. I caught his eye as he turned, and I raised an eyebrow at him. He gave me a mischievous wink and smiled and trotted off with a new spring in his step. With my view of the fountain clear, I finished my sketch. I laughed to myself and wondered what other tall tales that old trickster would tell his audience as they walked around the gardens.

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