Late July 2014.
September of 2008: As I was displaying my garden furniture in a rather grotty convention hall in Birmingham, England, I was invited by a representative of the Royal Horticultural Society to exhibit my designs at their next Chelsea Flower Show. And so, in May of 2009, I found myself and my creations arranged in an elegant tent, on the grounds that surround Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital, in London. I’d made it to Biggest Gardening Extravaganza on Earth. With that invitation to be part of the Show, my life changed, but not in the obvious ways. Certainly, I was honored to have my furniture recognized: when the Trade Stand Manager first settled herself onto one of my hand-crafted, wrought iron and steel chairs, she exclaimed “there’s nothing else in the World like what you design! I’d like you to come our Show next year.”
But what my nine days as an Exhibitor then really began — as I witnessed the hard labor and significant sleight of hand that went into assembling the nearly-instant Show Gardens at Chelsea, and later on began to learn about what the judges of the Royal Horticultural Society deemed prize-worthy — was a train of thought about the purposes and methods of creating ornamental gardens…one that has consumed me ever since, and which has compelled me to delve deeper and deeper into the huge inventory of REAL gardens that grace England’s landscape.
When one visits the Chelsea Flower Show — held each May, as it has been for 101 years — the hope is always to see the most ingeniously designed and most impeccably planted examples of the gardener’s art. The Chelsea Flower Show also can serve as a master class in fads, techniques, and horticulture. On May 21st of this year, I accompanied my dear friends, Anne and David Guy, to the Flower Show. (For a look at Anne Guy’s garden designs, follow this link
Per usual, when I’m with Anne and David, part of the Show’s entertainment-value comes from comparing notes about our favorite displays, and, more entertainingly, kvetching about our LEAST favorite Show Gardens. Yes, every Show-Goer becomes a Critic! This article will be the third that I’ve written about Chelsea. In the summer of 2009, I described my experience as an Exhibitor, for New York Social Diary. Two summers later, yet another NYSD article appeared about that year’s Show (If, after you’ve finished this article, you’re not totally gardened-out, you can read my 2011 report by following this link. www.nysocialdiary.com/node/1906745 )
Being fortunate enough to see the workings of the Show, from the different perspectives of Exhibitor, and later of Spectator, and also to have photographed and analyzed a succession of Chelsea Flower Shows, has caused my attitudes about the Show to evolve. Here now, my report on the most recent Spectacle, held in Chelsea, on the banks of the Thames.
The first order of business for a stay in London’s Chelsea neighborhood is to secure a comfortable perch. As I’ve done for the past six years, I perched at the Sloane Square Hotel ( www.sloanesquarehotel.co.uk ) ,
a place that has become my home away from home, whenever I’m in London. The Hotel is on the north side of the Square, and the best of London’s museums, historic buildings, parks, shops and river-scapes are all either close at hand or within healthy-strolling distances. An Underground station is nearby, and the Square also has two taxi stands, so nabbing a cab is never a problem…as can often be, in many other parts of the city.
Fine cafes and restaurants abound in Sloane Square. For refueling at various times of day, my favorites are these: Cote Brasserie (within the Sloane Square Hotel) for breakfast; the Top Floor Cafe at the Peter Jones Department Store (diagonally across the Square from the Hotel) for late-morning coffee; Coco Maya (on the pedestrian-only stretch of Pavilion Road) for early-afternoon lunch; and Gallery Mess, or Manicomio (both on Duke of York Square), for dinner. Good Traveling MUST be accompanied by Good Feeding.
The most delightful surprises for a Visitor to Sloane Square during Chelsea Flower Show week come from the flower-bedecked storefronts. For the past nine years, local merchants, with the blessing of the Royal Horticultural Society, have transformed their street-scapes with flowers, as they’ve sought Gold (aka, First Prize) in the Chelsea in Bloom competition. The sidewalks come alive with color and fragrance….and often also with a pure and very-welcome exuberance which the garden designers at the nearby Chelsea Flower Show either do not—or cannot—allow themselves. All in all, this neighborhood celebration can be less stressful and more joyful than visiting the Flower Show itself. Even better, the storefront displays of Chelsea in Bloom are free for all to admire…unlike the Show, for which tickets are scarce, and costly.
Here’s a ramble ‘round the streets near Sloane Square, with a look at some of the most charming floral concoctions. I always enjoy watching the assembly of those displays, and so this picture album will begin with peeks at the delightful and eccentric presentations of two next-door neighbors on Pavilion Road: Basia Zarzycka, and Moyses Stevens. Basia hand-crafts life-like silk flowers, along with nearly-over-the-top wedding tiaras (many of which I’ve purchased over the years….that would be her flowers… NOT her tiaras, because getting married just once was enough for me), and Moyses Stevens stocks some of the most beautiful REAL flowers in all of London.
On the morning of Monday, May 19th, I lingered on Pavilion Road, as a posse of florists worked their magic in front of these two shops…
Now, for a look at some other finished displays, in and around Sloane Square.
The Peter Jones Department Store, which was constructed in 1936—1938, is one of the finest buildings of that decade. As Jones & Woodward’s GUIDE TO THE ARCHTECTURE OF LONDON states, this is “a rare example of a modern building solving the complex problem of relating both to existing street and square frontages, and to a corner. Although it was not London’s first curtain wall, the façade remains one of its finest examples.”
To continue with the GUIDE TO THE ARCHITECTURE OF LONDON, ”The top floor is set back, like an ocean liner. The interior has a large, glazed spiral staircase. In the 1960s, a splendid seven-storey interior atrium was created. “ The Top Floor Café that I recommend for morning coffee provides two spectacular views: one, down into the atrium; the other, out over the rooftops of Chelsea.”
Onward, to the Main Event: my day-long visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, on May 21, 2014. I hope these photos will make you feel that you too were there with us in London on a cloudy and cool-ish Wednesday.
First, a survey of the Show Gardens, in the order that we encountered them. Bobbing and weaving through the crowds at the Show is an art, one which I’ve learned from observing the quiet, no-body-contact way in which Anne Guy sidles her way through the press of people at the ropes which separate Spectators from Show Gardens. Taking photos at the Show is NOT easy. For every tranquil-looking image you see here, there’s been quite a bit of waiting and maneuvering done beforehand.
To introduce each of the Show Gardens, I’ll begin with a page taken from the Catalogue. It’s always interesting to compare the Designers’ drawings–and their various manifestos—with the actual gardens.
Done with our surveys of the Show Gardens, we threaded our way through the crowds toward the Artisan Gardens, which are arrayed along the eastern edge of Ranelagh Gardens. But first, we passed the RHS’s own contribution to the Show Garden area, titled “From the Moors to the Sea.” This garden was made to mark the 50th anniversary of their Britain in Bloom program, along with their colleague Alan Titchmarsh’s 50 years in horticulture.
After “From the Moors to the Sea,” we crossed Eastern Avenue, which is the Main Retail Drag of the Flower Show. The press of Humanity there had achieved a daunting density, which would be maintained for the remainder our day. Truly, Chelsea isn’t for the easily-exhausted, or faint-hearted.
We arrived at Serpentine Walk, where we craned our necks to catch glimpses of the Artisan Gardens. Here’s how the Royal Horticultural Society explains
their Artisan Garden category: “The Artisan Gardens engage visitors with their artistic and naturalistic approach. These small plots are crafted with incredible workmanship, maintaining traditional skills, and enhancing the beautiful surroundings of Ranelagh Gardens.”
At #7 Serpentine Walk: The Topiarist Garden at West Green House. Designed by Marylyn Abbot.
At #6 Serpentine Walk: Togenkyo—A Paradise on Earth. Designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara. The RHS gave this garden a Gold Medal, and also named it Best Artisan Garden, and justifiably. The exquisitely detailed space, which seems to occupy a far larger area than its small footprint, can teach a careful observer a lifetime’s worth of gardening techniques.
At #5 Serpentine Walk: 75 years of the Roof Gardens in Kensington, designed by David Lewis (which apparently made NO impression whatsoever upon me, thus my Lack of photographic record!).
At #4 Serpentine Walk: Tour de Yorkshire. Designed by Alistair W. Baldwin.
Alongside RHS Judgment-Passing, the BBC conducts its own Peoples’ Choice Survey. Tour de Yorkshire won Best Artisan Garden, in that populist contest.
At #3 Serpentine Walk: Arita. Designed by Shuko Noda.
At #2 Serpentine Walk: The Dial A Flight Potter’s Garden. Designed by Nature Redesigned.
And at #1 Serpentine Walk: The Viking Cruises Norse Garden. Designed by Sadie May Stowell.
Worming our way through the crowds at the Artisan Gardens had made us very hungry…time to get some lunch. We walked past the Ranleagh Gardens
Bandstand: an oddly sedate audience sat there while a band did some serious rocking-out (perhaps mostly only Old Farts who don’t dance…or tap their toes… attend the Flower Show?).
Our attention was riveted by an enormous, upside-down packing crate, which we later learned was one of the entries in the recently-established
Fresh Gardens category of small Show Gardens. The RHS describes the Fresh Gardens as: “Welcoming new ideas and the latest in contemporary materials and design. Innovative, unusual, informative and sometimes challenging, the Fresh Gardens are the cutting-edge face of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.”
Little did we know that, after enjoying The World Vision Garden, the rest of the Fresh Gardens (which were all clustered on Royal Hospital Way, next to the Great Pavilion) would prove to be disappointing…. but you’ll eventually get to decide if you agree with me, in a bit.
We lunched in Plateau Picnic Area, where the food trucks were serving surprisingly good grub, along with gallons upon gallons upon gallons of Pimm’s Cup (a gin-based potation, with orange and cucumber slices thrown in as garnish).
Revived by our meals, ‘twas time to for us to get to the Heart of the Horticultural Matter — otherwise known as The Great Pavilion—which the RHS calls: “The centerpiece of the Chelsea Flower Show. The Great Pavilion is a horticultural haven of stunning floral displays from the UK and around the world, complemented by floristry and informative scientific exhibits.” When Elizabeth II makes her annual visits to the Chelsea Flower Show, she takes a fast trot through the major Show Gardens, but then spends the lion’s share of her time in the Great Pavilion, where the folks with dirt under their fingernails—the ones who actually GROW things— explain their work.
Years now of Chelsea-going have taught me that there’s no systematic way of touring the Great Pavilion, where displays are organized on a grid which is separated by many, too-narrow, grass walkways…which eventually turn into mud. The point is to keep progressing along any path where movement is possible; but sometimes foot traffic grinds to a halt…especially when folks gather to gawk at the various and competing displays of towering delphiniums. The Great Pavilion is a Slow-Motion-World of BIG and BRIGHT and MORE!
Here, a record of my random prowling through the Great Pavilion.
Done with the Great Pavilion (or, in my case, Brain-Scrambled-and-Generally Done-In–By… ), we ambled outside toward Royal Hospital Way, in search of an energy-boost, which we soon found in the form of strong tea, accompanied by warm scones and clotted cream. One last mission remained: we needed to explore the Fresh Gardens area. But I was distracted by our view of the central portion of Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital, which loomed ahead… serene and unbothered by the nearby Flower-show Fray.
Since I’m never one to forego an opportunity to inflict a little architecture-history-lesson, let’s pause for a moment, with another excerpt from the GUIDE TO THE ARCHITECTURE OF LONDON. Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital was built from 1681—1691. His colleagues on the project were Nicholas Hawksmoor, (of whom I’m a Great Fan) and John Vanbrugh.
“The hospital was established to house army veterans [note: as it does, to this day], imitating Louis XIV’s building of Les Invalides.”
“It gave Wren one of his largest secular jobs, and while the planning is that of the traditional closed squares or Oxford colleges, the courts are open, the largest looking outwards to the river [Note: Or, during the Chelsea Flower Show, looking outwards toward the Great Pavilion]. The style, in brick, is more Dutch than French, although each façade is equipped with a triple-height Tuscan portico or centerpiece in stone. King Charles II and Christopher Wren provided a model for institutional and collegiate architecture which has proved workable for three centuries in all the English-speaking countries.”
Perhaps the clarity and elegance of Wren’s buildings had made it impossible for my eyes and brain to then adjust to the visual chaos and intellectual confusion of the nine, small-scale Fresh Gardens that were arrayed nearby. Reassessing one’s assumptions about what good design is—or what good taste is, for that matter– is always invigorating, but these Fresh Garden entries seemed all to be trying too hard (I’ll spare you, and will not quote the various statements-of-intent which accompanied each garden). The Fresh Gardens left me with the feeling that what I’d seen had been mostly sophomoric attempts to explore gardening’s new frontiers. However—on the positive side: the general absence at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show of what the RHS advertised as the “cutting-edge face” of gardening means that a Fresh Face or Two may indeed appear, in future years. Here’s hoping….
I’ll (mostly) let these pictures speak for themselves.
Now, back to that Train of Thought about the purposes of ornamental gardens, and the methods of creating them. Whether or not the Chelsea Flower Show in any given year seems edifying or entertaining, seeing these massively costly and nearly-instant-gardens causes anyone who loves gardens to wonder if the designs that pop up from the earth around the Royal Hospital every May are either representative of the realities of British garden-making, or harbingers of the fashions to come.
In early July, Tim Richardson, who is arguably the most accomplished garden writer in England, published his post-mortem about the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show. Here are the most salient points of his article, which he titled “GOING FOR GOLD LEAVES GARDEN DESIGN IN A RATHER DULL STATE. WHERE IS THE VERVE?”
“The widespread perception among visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show this year was that it was once again afflicted by ‘samey-ness,’ with the planting in the main show gardens appearing to be almost interchangeable. In addition, the much-heralded cadre of ‘exciting new designers’ failed to materialize. They may well have been inexperienced, and several were in their 20s, but some were clearly inhibited by their sponsors’ eagerness to secure a gold medal.”
“The RHS’s reforms to its own judging procedures—a new ‘tick-box’ structure for judging that is supposed to lend transparency and accountability—may end up simply exacerbating the problem: those designs which commit fewest sins in the eyes of the judges could end up winning the day, as opposed to those which show the most imagination. Is it the case that the desire for medals is leading to garden design which, literally, simply ticks the right boxes?”
“I wish designers and sponsors could be allowed to relax a little, to stop worrying about gold medals and concentrate instead on originality, verve and fun. Risk-taking should be rewarded. The obsession with horticultural quality, complexity, and ‘sophistication’ – as opposed to the overall impact of the space – has led to a strange subgenre of garden-making that is only seen at Chelsea and the other RHS shows.”
“The designers themselves have to take their share of the responsibility for this. The ‘naturalistic’ turn in planting has led to many of them resorting to a style of planting which is situated somewhere between a wild garden….plus the….prairie look, mingled with a fantasy vision of wildflower meadows.This naturalistic look tends towards uniformity, especially if many examples are seen cheek by jowl, as they are at the shows.”
“Charity gardens have become almost self-parodic: they always seem to be journeys either from darkness to light or from turbulence to tranquility.”
“I wish the RHS could do away with medals for show gardens altogether. The paradox is that the result would be better design. Designers and sponsors could calm down, and visitors might be able to enjoy a little more dash and daring.”
Although daring-and-dash seemed in short supply this May, in past years there have indeed been some exuberant, impractical, and yet gloriously inspiring Chelsea displays. Here’s a sampling of sights from 2009 through 2012, when wildly different Show Gardens nevertheless shared the quality of being fully VISIBLE to normal visitors.
Every visitor to the Show should realize that every garden at Chelsea has first had to pass serious muster with the admissions board of the RHS. The multi-page application form for garden designers is wide-ranging, and also quite specific. Here’s how the RHS Application Form begins its inquiries:
“DESIGN INTENTION. 1) Who is your imagined client and what are their requirements for the garden, including its intended use?
2) What inspired the garden’s design?
3) What is the intended character/atmosphere of the garden? You may want to consider describing this as how the garden will be experienced by your client walking through the garden and/or the visitor looking into the garden.”
The application form considers the possibility that visitors might indeed want to SEE into the gardens! Please now recall the nearly impenetrable veil of foliage on the edges of the Brewin Dolphin garden…which inexplicably received a Silver Gilt (meaning: a 2nd prize that’s just a HAIR short of deserving a Gold Medal) from the RHS. Or consider how the interior details in many of the other 2014 Show Gardens were impossible to discern, from behind the ropes.
Here’s the criteria which the RHS claims to use when judging garden exhibits:
“DESIGN. The layout of the garden, including spatial balance and scale, is a key element for judging.”
“ATMOSPHERE. Each garden has its own unique character that evokes a certain atmosphere, depending upon the originality and flair featured in the garden.”
“DELIVERY. Have the design objectives of the garden been achieved? How challenging is the design of the garden?”
“PLANTING. The plant associations must be relevant and correct, giving fantastic coverage of the garden, with bold visual impact adding texture and form.”
“CONSTRUCTION. A high quality of build is expected, with superb finish and attention to detail across the whole garden. The selection of materials and craftsmanship featured in the garden are also important factors.”
And the unspoken RULE for all gardens (except in 2013, which was the 100th anniversary of the Flower Show, when concessions were grudgingly made….) is that ABSOLUTLELY NO GNOMES ARE ALLOWED! Of course, each year, rebels sneak garden gnomes onto the premises, but the RHS-Gnome-Busters
invariably find and then eject the offending lawn ornaments….and sometimes also the humans who’ve smuggled them in. I confess that when I spot what seem to me to be some especially bad-looking garden ornaments or statuary (which the Royal Horticultural Society HAS deemed acceptable to be displayed at the Show)….something, for instance, like this giant, snarling boar, which Anne Guy photographed at the 2010 Show….
…I think that, instead, a Gnome or Two would actually seem quite tasteful in comparison.
Since its founding in 1804, the Royal Horticultural Society’s objectives have been clearly stated: “Our core objective is to be the world’s leading gardening charity by inspiring passion and excellence in the science, art and practice of horticulture. In everything we do, we will aim to use our guiding principles, which are to: 1) inspire, 2) Involve, 3) Inform, and 4) Improve.”
Show Gardens at Chelsea are not so much gardens as performances done in the service of the laudable aims of the Royal Horticultural Society.
But instead of using actors and dialogue and theatre flats, garden designers direct flowers and trees and stone and water as they try to tell us stories about the ways in which gardens can transform our lives.
If nothing else, attending Chelsea Flower Shows has given me an insatiable appetite to visit as many of England’s REAL gardens as I can. In a country such as England, which has a thousand years of horticulture under its gardening-belt, finding grand gardens—both ancient and new—isn’t difficult.
Now….imagine that you’ve shelled out a substantial sum to pay for a ticket to see a play that’s being performed by a venerable British theatre troupe. You’ve settled yourself down into a too-narrow seat in a packed auditorium, but feeling a bit crowded is alright with you, because you know that you’re about to see a performance by the most famous theatre company in the world. The lights go down, and the curtain rises. The action begins, and you smile…certain that, whatever unfolds, you’ll still be thinking about it for days and days afterward. But odd things begin to happen onstage. A scrim is unfurled, and then another…until many of the actors are hidden. It seems the stage designer has devised a set whose purpose is to make the actors intermittently invisible. And during those scenes when the players are visible, they begin to whisper, and seem timid about projecting their voices; it almost seems as if the playwright is afraid of what the critics might decide, if they could actually hear his words. You know that there must be a complete story unfolding, and you lean forward, puzzled: eyes and ears straining, but to no avail. When the lights finally rise, you turn to your companion and ask, “did YOU see it all?” He shrugs and says: “Nope. When we get home, we’ll turn on the BBC. They’ll have a review of the play.” Later, it turns out that the BBC’s cameras were allowed to film the performance in its entirety…even those scenes that were played out behind the scrims. The commentator’s report makes it plain: there was indeed a plot, albeit one that seemed a rehash of many, older tales. You think: “How perverse to have had the performance hidden from the folks in the seats.….how unsatisfying….and what bad showmanship! “ You wonder if by next year, when the theatre company again rolls into town, you’ll have forgiven them for tonight’s sloppy performance. The next morning, after you’ve slept and your disappointment about the play has faded, you laugh and realize that you’re a hopeless optimist. Certainly, when the theatre company has returned, you’ll once again find yourself sitting in another lumpy seat, in the same overheated theatre….hoping, this time, to be amazed, by a better, newer story….and one that you can actually SEE.
I have many, MANY new articles in the pipeline. Coming soon:
“Of Onion Domes in Albion: Sezincote, and the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.”
And later, “My Recipe for a Stress-Free Week in Rome.”
Copyright 2014. Nan Quick—Nan Quick’s Diaries for Armchair Travelers.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express &
written permission from Nan Quick is strictly prohibited.
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