Having trod some of the most elegant grounds in China, I could easily justify my criticism of the Huntington’s Garden of Flowing Fragrance right after its opening a few years ago. Being neither a horticultural pundit nor an architectural savant, I do not seek impeccability in nascent developments. What was unfathomable in my eyes back then was how a well-publicized endeavor that claimed to follow the rich tradition of ancient Chinese gardens could produce such a barren, insipid landscape. After that very first trip I did re-visit the Huntington a few times, and I avoided the Chinese Garden every time, simply because I did not wish to further disparage the project.
It just happened that I was at the Huntington again last month to see a painting that most of us had visually dissected in Art 101. What led me to the Garden of Flowing Fragrance I could not recall. The premises seem to have acquired, finally, all of the characteristics that I, a horticultural and architectural layperson, deem essential for a fine Chinese garden: Greeneries so verdant and dense that a game of hide-and-seek could be conducted onsite; the pond-side rocks’ moss and the pavilion columns’ chipped paint teleport one to those yesteryears when literati pondered, lamented, and composed about moss and chipped paint; the malleable willows, or willow-like organism, sway coquettishly alongside the willful, noble bamboos in the same gust. And peonies! They look somewhat different from the ones in my oriental recollection – could it be that the SoCal environs have triggered a mutation?
“It takes time,” is the lesson I learned that day at the Huntington. It takes time for a garden like the Garden of Flowing Fragrance to age gracefully.
The Huntington’s gift shop has also received an identity-altering facelift. It now devotes a considerable section to all sorts of tea-related tangibles. The flagship fixture, whimsically adorned with bone china tea cups, however, could be spotted only when one does those head-tilting, neck-strengthening exercises. I nearly missed it.
That day, neither the gift shop nor the Chinese garden brought me to the Huntington. I re-visited solely for the special exhibit of Gallery of the Louvre (no longer available) whose artist, Samuel F. B. Morse, was better known for his inventions, and unfortunately, for his myopic political views. The Huntington’s latest acquisition, Henry Fuseli’s The Three Witches (no longer available), also garnered my gaze, but only for five seconds.
Images provided and copyright held by author
See also: Revisiting the Huntington in 2021 by Ifang Hsieh