The Fellows and Friends of the Virginia Robinson Gardens were treated to a wonderfully informative and entertaining lecture by Ron Fleming at the Beverly Hills Hotel on November 2, 2018. Fellows Chair Jeanne Anderson introduced Fleming as “A recognized authority in the role of creating vibrant, livable places, adding luster to Newport’s worldwide reputation as a showcase of art and architecture.” Almost 20 years ago, Ron purchased Bellevue House, a 1910 Federal Revival mansion, designed by architect Ogden Codman, Jr. for his cousin Martha Codman, a Boston heiress.
A fourth-generation Californian, Ron told the attendees, “As a native son, I am so glad to be visiting back here. The warmth of your group is so encouraging and supportive.” Bellevue House features 12 gardens on three and a half acres, adorned with beautiful plantings, that are a true labor of love for Ron. He has erected many follies – whimsical or extravagant garden structures that set off the beauty of the landscape. So exceptional are these gardens that Scripps College Professor Eric Haskell pronounced Fleming’s garden as “the greatest Folly Garden in America.”
The French formal garden was designed originally in the 1920s by Achille Duchene who also worked on the restoration of the gardens at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Courances. Ron designed the gardens to impart a sense of surprise and discovery as one explores the space. The Oriental Garden features a stunning red Chinese Chippendale bridge. Whimsical structures of monkeys abound. Ron showed slides of beautiful allees, specimen trees, ornamental pools, mosaics, pergolas, trelliswork, gazebos, a greenhouse, a coach house, a two-story library, an octagonal structure with a cupola, marvelous tea houses, and cabanas for visiting artists, dancers and polo players. In the Nymphaeum, (a shrine dedicated to nymphs), as a humorous touch, monkeys wearing glasses are chasing nymphs!
Fleming’s extensive travels to Japan and Europe have further inspired his designs. Motifs from Het Loo in Holland, Hever Castle, Villa Lante, David Hick’s The Grove in England, and Jacques Wirtz’ gardens in Belgium have all been re-imagined in various places in the landscape. One unique and personal folly is entitled Cascade: the Year of Living Dangerously, which was just completed two weeks ago. Three Cascades with carved volutes (spiral ornaments) are mounted with small sculptures, along with inscriptions, representing dangerous moments in his life. Among these are a car accident and a sniper’s near miss during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War.
Elsewhere, in the Children’s Garden, as lessons of moral instruction, are the words: Integrity, Courage, Resourcefulness and Style inscribed on four ascending steps of a stairway. According to Ron, the word Integrity at the base of the stair reinforces this quality as being the most important.
Besides giving so much pleasure and enrichment to the community through his garden and many charitable events held there, Fleming has also beautified Newport with his inspired campaign for planting daffodils. Thanks in part to his largesse and also private fundraising, over 1 million daffodils –a daffodillian — have been planted, creating a stunning impact on Newport’s spring landscape.
After this remarkable lecture, the guests enjoyed lunch amidst Jeanne’s gorgeous floral centerpieces, resplendent in tall silver vases, decorating the tables. The Fellows are so grateful to Jeanne for arranging such a fabulous event for all to enjoy!
Post by Linda Meadows
Robinson Gardens Board Member
Photos by Dana Reston Lyons and Linda Meadows