Design, In the Garden

Bunny Mellon’s Potting Shed

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There are potting sheds….and then there are greenhouse vestibules! At Bunny Mellon’s Oak Spring gardens, this “shed” was as much a draw for me as the exquisite gardens created by this passionate, self taught gardener. To actually gaze in person upon the trompe l’oeil artwork creations covering the walls of the small space was the highlight of my trip (see feature image above).

The entrance to the greenhouse is at the end of the arched tunnel of ‘Mary Potter’ crab apples leading from the 1 1/2 acre garden. Two functional greenhouse wings, one connecting at each side, are fronted by rectangular pools providing a gracious complement to the estate’s lawns, meadows, orchards, and gardens as well as a discrete swimming area for the family in times past.

The small vestibule is lined with cupboards and the potting space (for cultivating seedlings and horticultural experiments) is concealed behind a pair of folding doors. When created in 1959-60, trompe l’oeil (faux painting) in the French tradition of the genre was enjoying a popularity, giving Mrs. Mellon an opportunity to transform this space into a work of art reflecting her vast interests. And while otherwise a very private person, her “realm” (the gardens and lands of Oak Spring) and these paintings provided her the occasion to tell her “story,” to capture her personality, and the people, objects, and world of plants that brought her joy. Each had special meaning for her, whether it was a shell from her property in Antigua to a treasured piece of china to baskets of rare fruits; most especially, replications of books in her storied collection at the Oak Spring library along with personal letters scattered or collected in a basket. And let’s not forget her signature favorite gardening coat and hat.

It was such a delight to be lost in these oil paintings, created by French artist Fernand Renard, intended to recall the Renaissance “cabinets of curiosities.” When viewing them you must continue to remind yourself that every inch is paintwork, a medium of fantasy and imagination intentionally meant to deceive the eye!

The seeming busyness of the small space is offset by the soothing blue-green paint shade and bamboo latticework in soft honeyed tones on both walls and ceiling.

One can only imagine the thought and time that went into this project by this discerning patron…selecting the objects to be included, deciding on the conceptual theme linking the various parts, segregating the vignettes, and finally, sequencing of the visuals around the room.

In each corner is an animate object that captures Mrs. Mellon’s lifestyle when she resided here…an old wooden wheelbarrow as a counterpart to the favorite tools (i.e.) represented in the paintings…

an intricate iron garden chair with a collection of old baskets stacked beside it (and then repeated in the painted panel)…

a small metal set of steps (perhaps to gain access to a book on the top shelf).

The iron cupboard door pulls are actually real, replications of antique designs in the form of a hand clutching a rod.

Outside this room, a flurry of color greeted me in both greenhouses; I enjoyed the fact that many of the plants had been allowed to self seed in the cracks, or spill over their edges, giving the pleasing impression that the garden had been brought indoors, rather than a greenhouse that is dedicated to just formal pots.

The last image left me speechless (and beyond envious)…the finial atop the vestibule, created by none other than the visionary French jeweler, Jean Schlumberger (of Tiffany fame). A dear and devoted friend of Mrs. Mellon’s, his sophisticated taste (which included a vein of whimsy when interpreting nature) is seen in an eighteenth century style floral arrangement elegantly wrought from several different metals (perhaps the lone flower blew off in the high winds that greeted us that mid-April day).

And so ended my day at Oak Spring farm, with Bunny Mellon’s ethos echoing in my mind…“A garden, hovering always in a state of becoming, sums its own past and its future.”

With appreciation to the OSGF for the enjoyment that they make possible through their 2 open days and further workshops, conferences, exhibitions, and residencies.

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

5 thoughts on “Bunny Mellon’s Potting Shed

  1. I’m such a fan of Bunny’s and of this “potting shed” in particular. Thank you for sharing your visit.

  2. Oh, my, goodness…and now “we” have seen thanks to you! I’ve looked @ details & marveled at the minutiae. Oh, my, everything is just stunning. franki

  3. A lovely treat to join you albeit virtually on this special tour. Thank you for sharing this post.

  4. This is my favorite of your posts of all time. Who wouldn’t have a ball digging in the dirt in this potting shed?

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