Visitors will discover an expansive new way to look at miniature trees in “Lifelines/Timelines: Exploring The Huntington’s Collections Through Bonsai,” on view March 14 through June 15 at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. The exhibition, one of the keystone events of The Huntington’s yearlong Centennial Celebration, asks the question: How do five venerable bonsai trees relate in age and historical significance to masterpieces of literature and art?
Thematically linking works across The Huntington’s broad collections, this interdisciplinary exhibition traces the march of time by comparing the age of selected California juniper bonsai trees to benchmarks in the institution’s 100-year history and to significant pieces on view in the library and art galleries—among them Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, and Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, painted in 1770. One bonsai tree and a related didactic display will be positioned outside each of five gallery entrances: the Mapel Orientation Gallery, the Library Exhibition Hall, the Dibner Hall of the History of Science, the Huntington Art Gallery, and the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.
“One of the most common questions we get about our bonsai collection at The Huntington is ‘How old is that tree?’” said curator Ted Matson. “In this exhibition, we will not only reveal how we can estimate the ages of some of our oldest bonsai trees, but demonstrate how a lifeline for a tree’s survival builds a timeline into history.”
A Bonsai’s Lifeline
While a stylized, miniature tree may have been in cultivation as bonsai for only a few decades, the original plant material from which it was grown is usually much older—often by many centuries. California juniper (Juniperus californica), a popular local species for bonsai, is native to the Mojave Desert and has adapted to the extreme conditions there. During extended droughts, a juniper’s branches and trunk may die, but a living vein of wood survives and can keep the tree alive for hundreds of years.
Enter the bonsai artist. Searching for a promising specimen from which to style a miniature tree, a bonsai enthusiast will often reclaim a nearly dead stump found in nature, coaxing new growth from a withered branch or a slab of trunk in which a living vein of wood still grows. The skeleton-like trunk becomes the foundation—both structurally and aesthetically—for the bonsai’s design. Within the grain of that natural deadwood, the tree’s “lifeline” of living wood not only becomes a visual element of the design but also will produce new branches and foliage, which will be painstakingly shaped and trained under the bonsai artist’s patient care.
That lifeline can also be used to calculate the tree’s age, Matson explains, in much the same way that the rings in a cross-section are counted—but externally, without cutting into the wood.
In “Lifelines/Timelines,” visitors will be able to explore how the life histories of five trees correspond to other works in The Huntington’s holdings, offering an entirely new perspective on the collections. Each of the exhibition’s five bonsai installations at gallery entrances will include an illustrated timeline highlighting three significant items on display inside the respective gallery. Flags pinned to a point on the tree’s deadwood will indicate how old the plant was when the gallery objects were created. Visitors will be encouraged to find each featured work inside the galleries to make those historical connections. The installations will also include interactive elements geared toward children, along with other interpretive materials.
“Trees tell many stories, and their annual growth rings document climates and events going back thousands of years,” said James Folsom, the Telleen/Jorgensen Director of the Botanical Gardens. “Bringing these bonsai specimens to the library and art galleries speaks to the many ways The Huntington’s collections keep important elements from the past alive and meaningful. As bonsai, these trees represent art, nature, and science, reminding us that our collections—even when as disparate as books, plants, and artworks—tell the human story, advance knowledge, and promote creativity.”
The first installation in the “Lifelines/Timelines” exhibition will be located outside the Mapel Orientation Gallery—a natural starting point for many Huntington visitors. The display will be anchored by a bonsai tree styled from a California juniper more than a century old. Objects inside the gallery that loosely correspond to the juniper in age include three early photographs that are featured on the institution’s Centennial Timeline. One of the photographs, dated ca. 1928 (the year The Huntington opened to the public), shows a group of visitors arriving for a tour.
A majestic juniper estimated to be nearly 1,800 years old (trained as bonsai for the past 30 years) will preside over the east entrance to the Library Exhibition Hall. In the broad blade of its original deadwood, small markers in the grain will pinpoint the approximate dates of three treasures in the Library: the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400); the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays (1623); and John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827–38).
Near the entrance to the Dibner Hall of the History of Science, another venerable bonsai, collected and styled from a juniper stump that was approximately 500 years old, will reference three rare works from the Library’s history of science collections: Pliny’s Natural History (first printed edition, 1469); Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1743); and William Bateson’s groundbreaking work on genetics, Mendel’s Principles of Heredity (1909).
At the Huntington Art Gallery, visitors will be able to examine the lifeline of a bonsai’s 1,000-year-old trunk to estimate when, within its span of centuries, Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden painted the Virgin and Child (ca. 1450); Gainsborough created his iconic portrait of The Blue Boy (1770); and Arts and Crafts firm Morris and Company designed the beautiful stained glass masterpiece known as the David Healey Memorial Window (1898).
The exhibition’s final installation will be situated outside the Fielding Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. A 500-year-old juniper—which started its new life as bonsai some three decades ago—will make historical connections to John Singleton Copley’s portrait of The Western Brothers (1783); Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental landscape Chimborazo (1864); and Sargent Claude Johnson’s exquisite ceramic sculpture of an African American child, Head of a Boy (1928).
Related to the Exhibition
Family Curator Tour of “Lifelines/Timelines”
March 14 (Saturday) 10 a.m.–noon
Bonsai master and exhibition curator Ted Matson, who oversees The Huntington’s bonsai collection, will lead a family tour of the “Lifelines/Timelines” exhibition on opening day, exploring some of the connections the five installations make across the art, library, and botanical holdings. The program will also include a demonstration of bonsai wiring techniques, providing an inside look at how these living masterpieces are created. Ages 7 and up. (Fee includes one child and one accompanying adult.) Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Advance registration is required. Registration: huntington.org/calendar. (Registration opens Feb. 14.)
Visitors are also invited to self-tour The Huntington’s permanent bonsai collection in the Japanese Garden’s Bonsai Courts, where some 70 masterpieces trees are on public display year-round.
The Huntington’s Centennial Celebration is made possible by the generous support of Avery and Andrew Barth, Terri and Jerry Kohl, and Lisa and Tim Sloan.
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at huntington.org.
The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is open to the public Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Information: 626-405-2100 or huntington.org.