The Gardens of Bunny Mellon: A Book Review

My most favorite gift at Christmas this year?  A book titled The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, written by Linda Jane Holden with photography by Roger Foley

Born into wealth and eventually marrying into one of the greatest fortunes our country has ever known, Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon was a true tastemaker for her generation up until her death at age 103 in 2014. Not only is the book a testament to the great beauty she created at her beloved Oak Spring Farm near Upperville, Virginia, it also showcases important American and French historical landscapes of her own design.  

Mrs. Mellon designed the White House Rose Garden at the request of John FitzGerald Kennedy, worked at Versailles restoring the famed Potager Garden, and assisted famed designer Givenchy with his gardens at Chateau du Jonchet southwest of Paris.

A sense of place was the thing Mrs. Mellon seemed to love most, whether it be Virginia, Antigua, Cape Cod, or Arlington Cemetery, the site of President Kennedy’s grave, which Mellon designed. “Gardening is a way of thinking,” Mrs. Mellon once said. “Landscapes must put together things of nature that correspond to the person as well as the place. It must inspire calm and peace.”  

In all of her designs, Mrs. Mellon not only wove together a history and was almost maniacal concerning proper proportions, she instilled character unique to each setting. Her oft-quoted mantra – “Nothing should be noticed, nothing should be obvious” – is evident in almost every soothing scene displayed in the book’s sumptuous photographs.

Mr. Foley’s photography couldn’t be more inspiring. There are archival photographs I love, but the prize belongs to Foley, whose photographs, especially those at Oak Spring, allow the reader to perhaps see just what Mrs. Mellon might have been thinking when she designed this world.  The light, the negative space around trees and shrubs... why, even the air and shadow all shine.

What inspires me most about this book is the fact that while she spent most of her working days attempting to achieve perfection, Mrs. Mellon often found horticultural nirvana in the imperfect. Perfectly built walls were allowed to mellow with age and mold, those weedy dandelions (which I can never seem to get rid of in my own garden) were allowed to peek through the cracks of terraces at Oak Spring and she would gleefully show them to her guests, and her beloved apple trees were many times intentionally planted off-center to keep things from looking too “done.”

Mrs. Mellon wanted nothing in her gardens to shout, only whisper, so that as one goes away, there is only peace to be felt.

Lionel Smith-McGehee

In addition to his work with Kinship, Lionel Smith-McGehee is a husband and father, a gardener, and lives in a restored mid-century home in Maitland, Florida.

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