“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.”
It’s a sun-filled Saturday morning in San Diego, and the sky is the color of a peaceful cerulean sea. The relentless rains of winter have finally drifted away, leaving behind a scene of luscious emerald hills, setting the stage for spring to make its most welcome entrance.
Herb and I are driving about two hours north to The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino. It seems that no matter how far away or close to home we travel, we find ourselves walking through gardens. From grand destinations like Giverny to beautiful city botanical gardens to the parks we pass through on our way to somewhere else, following the flowers never fails to weave itself into the day’s itinerary.
We arrive about fifteen minutes before our entry time, pick up a map at the ticket window and begin our walk on a beautiful tree-canopied road lined with wooden benches and 18th-century marble sculptures and vases. The road spills out onto another pathway leading to the Palm Garden in one direction and the Huntington Library and Art Museum in the other. We decide to explore the interior exhibits first, thinking they will be more crowded later in the day.
A Little Huntington Gardens History
The Huntington was the vision of California railroad and real estate magnate Henry E. Huntington, whose uncle Collis P. Huntington was one of the “Big Four” investors responsible for building the first continental railroad in the United States. In 1903, Henry purchased a parcel of 500 acres called the San Marino Ranch with the goal of transforming the land into a showcase for his three passions: rare books, art and botanical gardens.
In 1919, Henry and his wife Arabella founded the Huntington Library as a collections-based research and educational institution. Today the library features highlights from their collection of more than 11 million items. The Huntington Art Museum displays paintings and pieces from the couple’s collections of 15th- through 20th-century European art as well as American art from the 17th century to the present. And the Huntington Gardens portion of Henry’s triple-passion dream showcases botanicals from around the world in a variety of themed gardens spread over 130 acres.
The Huntington Art Museum
Our first stop is the Art Museum, housed in the former residence of Henry and Arabella. It’s an elegant space, filled with antique furniture, hand-knotted carpets and delicate tapestries. Paintings in elaborate gilded frames line the walls, hallways and the galleries beyond the furnished rooms. There are also collections of landscape paintings, silver tableware, tiles, lighting and a series of monthly garden-themed engravings transferred onto glazed earthenware plates.
The museum’s most famous resident is The Blue Boy, Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 oil painting known for its portraiture as well as its glimpse into aristocratic clothing of that time. In 2021, a modern take on this painting style, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman by Kehinde Wiley, was added to the collection and is displayed directly across the gallery from The Blue Boy. Wiley is the artist who painted the portrait of President Obama that hangs in the Smithsonian.
The Huntington Library
We walk a short distance across the road to the Huntington Library’s Exhibition Hall, where highlights from the collection are displayed. The space exudes the warm feeling of an old reading room, with display cases on the main floor and wooden bookcases lining a second level. The prized collections include one of the 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible; an elaborately decorated manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; a large format book of John Audubon’s 435 species of birds; and hand-written manuscript drafts of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
The Huntington Gardens
Back outside, we begin our walk through the botanical gardens. The Huntington is quite sprawling, with hills and winding roads and pathways that sometimes take you in a circle. The visitors’ map is helpful, but signage can be a little sparse in places. And with sixteen themes, 83,000 plants and 130 acres, it’s fairly safe to say that we will not be able to take in everything the gardens have to offer!
I love the idea of gardens representing different parts of the world. A travelogue of the botanical kind, in a way. We decide to begin in the desert, then head to Japan and finish the morning in China. Each of the main garden themes is surprisingly vast, with multiple levels and pathways, and it’s immediately evident that we could spend hours getting lost in the landscape.
Shakespeare and Roses
After a quick lunch at the Chinese Garden’s Jade Court Cafe, we head back to the main entrance by way of the Rose Garden. The Shakespeare Garden is in this part of the Huntington as well, and except for spotting a quote from Romeo and Juliet, it’s hard to determine where one theme ends and the other begins. The entire area has the ambiance of an English garden, with vine-covered trellises, elegant columns and glorious flowers.
We’re a little too early to see the rose gardens in full bloom, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s spring, after all!