There is, close by The Beverly Hills Hotel, six acres that will forever be Los Angeles County; and there is, in this island of County jurisdiction, just north of Sunset Boulevard, the world's largest King Palm forest outside of Australia and there is too, set in this lush pleasure garden, a tennis court with a faded pink aggregate surface backed, at the east end, by a wall flamboyantly draped in pink bougainvillea originally sourced almost a century ago from South Africa: and it was here, in phalanxes of white chairs, that we were seated to celebrate the life of Bridget Hedison.
This is the Virginia Robinson Estate, deeded to L.A. County in the 1970's by the widow of the department store magnate. Bridget is my erstwhile landscape partner who died on February 22, after being diagnosed with stage four cancer some three years ago. Carleen Cappalletti, a former client of ours, and friend to Bridget, organized the event with all the precision that she brings to her professional work producing entertainment, corporate, political, and fashion events around the world for a division of AEG. But here the tone was muted - a quiet remembrance of a remarkable soul, in the grounds of this garden paradise.
Bridget wove her career in and out of ‘Hollywood’ – that chimeric society that insinuates itself throughout Los Angeles, but finds its apotheosis in Beverly Hills - both in film production and later in garden design. Deeply influenced by her Italian heritage, an English insouciance (where she was educated) and profoundly impacted by the Islamic sites she had visited in Spain, her work as a garden designer exhibited an understanding of the transcendence afforded by the rigorous pursuit of an abstract order. Her work aspired to achieve the impact that Vincent J. Cornell captures, writing in Voices of Islam, 2006,
“at the sight of glittering waves or of leafage trembling in the breeze, the soul detaches itself from its internal objects, from the ‘idols’ of passion and plunges, vibrant within itself, into a pure state of being.”
So we got along just fine. In our Laguna project, where she and I worked most explicitly in an Islamic idiom, those glittering waves were not incised within a field of tilework, but were simply spread before the garden in the bay below. Bridget provided the trembling leafage in generous swathes of citrus, olives and Ligustrum lucidum (a tree privet); I provided a stepped and terraced way down the precipitous site and the destination of a walled pool which Bridget surrounded with olive hedges and punctuated with giant palms craned in from above. Bridget plotted to install fountains and rills, but in the end the sparkling cerulean waters of a lap pool and a spa, both plastered in white with an aggregate of tiny pearl pebbles and shell fragments, had to do the work of transporting the viewer into a pure state of being (or not).
She worked then, in the tradition of Southern California as a tabula rasa upon which could be installed fantasies of an earthly paradise. By the time I came to work with her I had already come to the conclusion that the riches of Los Angeles landscape, afforded by extravagant sprinkler layouts, hid a more authentic layer of paradisial planting that was revealed only at the edges of the great conurbation - in the native chaparral. But here in Beverly Hills, Virginia Robinson spent six decades directing her ample garden staff to create a lush, notionally Italian style Mediterranean garden on a knoll graced with ocean breezes, and views of the Pacific and Catalina Island beyond - banishing, in this process, all traces of the indigenous chaparral.
Great human energy, water and financial resources continue to be expended in maintaining this alien, although reasonably climate adapted, plant community plucked from the global, Mediterranean biome (of which, of course, California’s chaparral is a part). More capriciously, Robinson let her close friendship with Coco Chanel dictate the signature color of the garden as Chanel Pink – echoed in camellia plantings, a garden of pink David Austin Roses, the bougainvillea, and the faded pink of the tennis court surface.
The idea of the garden as a paradise was first developed in Persia and was subsequently adopted in Islamic cultures and, in a mutual exchange of ideas, became incorporated into the Renaissance gardens of Italy. As Barbara Bend notes in Islamic Art, 1992, “every vision of Paradise which Islam offers is that of a garden with running waters, and every garden in the Islamic world tends to be seen as a metaphor for Paradise”. Persian gardens and their Islamic successors inspired subsequent gardens around the Mediterranean - their aesthetic principles eventually dominating their generative symbolic underpinnings. So it is that in the Virginia Robinson Estate, in southern California, there is a water rill of upturned clay roof tiles that runs down the middle of the brick steps that descend from the top of the knoll, through four terraces, each with a fountain or water trough (with crudely carved lion’s head spouts) to the foot of the site in a classic Islamic gesture originally adopted from the desert paradise gardens of Persia……..via Italy! Bridget would have loved it.
On the occasions that Lorrie and I visited Bridget and David at their aerie on Trudy lane, high in their City’s eponymous hills, it always gave me pleasure to see her copy of Mirrors of Paradise, The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho, 2000, laying in the living room, somewhere close to hand. I had recommended it to her (the book was introduced to me years ago by Sarah Munster) because I believed it spoke profoundly of what Bridget achieved with apparent ease (that English insouciance born of an ethos that preaches: ‘don’t let them see you sweat’). Her design solutions arrived, she said, via her muse - some ethereal garden sprite perhaps, that would whisper, at the very last moment before a critical client meeting, a list of appropriate trees for the site. In reality, I knew that many hours of subliminal thought and a few sleepless nights went into finding just the right solution.
She intuited much of what Caruncho learnt through his study of philosophy. She understood the dualities of the visible and invisible, the sacred and profane, the light and the dark, without reference to the ancient Greeks. Many moons ago, she studied astronomy at UCLA, and this choice of discipline reflected, I think, her practical approach to the mysteries of the cosmos. She did not employ metaphysics in her work, nor even metaphor - just plain speech and she mostly let her landscapes do the talking.
Caruncho works with massed plantings usually organized in some sort of grid or linear arrangement. Flowers are almost entirely incidental to his designs. He works in greens and browns and ochres; his groundscapes of stone, gravel or decomposed granite resonate with intense shadow from heavy penumbral foliage or reflect the fierce light of Spain; water becomes an earthbound sky. Ditto Bridget, southern California substituting seamlessly for the Iberian Peninsula.
Bridget’s commitment to her muse’s vision was breathtaking. Rick Passov was a fellow student alongside of Bridget back in the day: he tells the story of her upbraiding a professor for failing to adequately explain Vectors of Force in her UCLA Physics class. The professor had no need. Bridget had ample self-knowledge – and she, intrinsically, was a Vector of Force. With great strength of will and an unerring sense of purpose she pursued her design objectives with a powerful focus.