Spring break is glorious. My family came to LA to visit me, and this past weekend, we went to The Huntington, a sort of museum/botanic garden in San Marino that comprises a research library, art galleries, and extensive gardens. The place is vast, and I feel as though we only scratched the surface of everything there is to explore there. We first visited the Library Exhibition Hall and then wandered through the Chinese Garden and a bit of the Japanese Garden.
The Huntington Library has huge collections, including many rare books, and a selection of the most dazzling specimens are on display in the Exhibition Hall. The prospect of seeing these treasures was, for me, the biggest draw of The Huntington, and I was not disappointed. The first glass case I approached upon entering the dim hall contained the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, believed to have been produced around 1410, and that’s when I knew this visit was going to be amazing. Illuminated manuscripts make me really excited.
The Exhibition Hall contains twelve mini-exhibits, each of which is organized around one stand-out item. For instance, the contextualizing documents for the Ellesmere Chaucer included an exquisite book of hours and a legal document recording a transaction by a London widow named Emma. The next exhibit featured an original edition (I believe) of Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as a variety of documents related to the English Civil War (there were lots of cool seals attached to these). Did you know Milton held the position of Secretary for Foreign Tongues? What a fantastic title.
The trove of books, manuscripts, documents, and letters in this one room was almost too much to take in, and I couldn’t possibly list every extraordinary thing I saw. There was the Gutenberg Bible, the Declaration of Independence (which, I noticed, had a note scrawled in the margin, perpendicular to the original text, saying that this copy had been found among so-and-so’s possessions and could it be kept in the family, please), the Shakespeare First Folio, the letter Susan B. Anthony wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton right after the former voted illegally in the 1872 presidential election, the documents related to Chinese immigration to the United States in the early 20th century… But I think my favorite piece was the copy of the First Book of Songs of John Dowland, an English Renaissance composer who wrote music for voice and for lute. This book was opened to a page that showed the bass, alto, and tenor parts to a song all oriented in different directions so that musicians could crowd around the book and each read their own part.
After leaving the library, we stopped by the North American Clivia Society’s show, which featured prize-winning clivias whose flowers ranged in color from green to pale yellow to peach to deep red.
We then strolled through 流芳園 (Liú Fāng Yuán), the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, which is The Huntington’s Chinese Garden. It is not yet complete, but already it’s very large, with a pond, several bridges, multiple pavilions… There were pink blossoms on still leafless branches, water lilies in the pond, wisteria heavy with purple flowers, and even a tree peony in full bloom!
These carved panels depicting traditional Chinese instruments are inside 清越臺 (Qīng Yuè Tái), the Clear and Transcendent Pavilion. This is a pipa (left) and an erhu (right):
And this is a qin (left) and some sort of flute (right):
The tree peony! In March! No wonder I never know what time of year it is in Southern California.
Finally, we took a quick look at the Japanese Garden, which was equally lovely. Here is a glimpse of it:
So that was my first visit to The Huntington. Many gardens remain to be explored, and I didn’t even start on the art collections, but really, I would go back just to pore over Middle English manuscripts and Renaissance music scores!