This of course, is not entirely true. However, with Chelsea Flower Show just around the corner, now seems a good time for me to have a good moan. Chelsea’s hegemony of the horticultural and garden design world seems just about complete. The scale of this is quite extraordinary. The number of visitors is limited (principally by the 11 acre site) to 157,000; but this belies the hours of TV coverage (audiences for the BBC alone are 2.2m), acres of press coverage and tens of millions of pounds in revenue. A show garden on Main Avenue costs around £250,000 to design and construct, although some are rumoured to have cost as much as £1 million. Not bad for a five day show.
Many designers have launched their careers on the back of Chelsea. It is a bit like a number one chart hit– for some people it is their launch pad, others sink without trace following their moment in the sun. The received thinking is that if you want to hit the ‘big time’ then this is the way to do it; but is that right, is it the only route?
In any conversation about designers, their record at RHS shows inevitably comes up fairly early on. Hampton Court, Tatton and the like tend to be seen as mere staging posts in the road to the Holy Grail that is Chelsea Main Avenue. What is more; most years, many of the gardens on Main Avenue look a little – well, samey? You know: an arrangement of something down one or both sides in a sort of formal procession, the end piece, the water feature, the pavilion – have I forgotten something? I am not for an instant suggesting that I would do better – I have never designed a garden at Chelsea and would jump at the chance. Nor am I sneering; it’s just that if you have the same sized plots on roughly the same date year after year, then inevitably many of the solutions offered by designers will be very similar. Especially if the garden is only going to be there for five days and cost as much as a small house – many sponsors will want to play it safe.
This is not to say that good (even great) garden design is not in evidence at Chelsea. Nearly all the designs are good and some are great. I have been walking around during the build-up this year and there is some subtle design. What is more, over the years there have been some really ground breaking pieces of work done there. Everybody is agreed that Christopher Bradley-Hole’s 1997 garden was a game-changer.
Some of Andy Sturgeon and Tom Stuart Smith’s best work has also been at Chelsea, free of the restraints of clients.
However, despite all the TV coverage, column inches, analysing and chatter, Chelsea is in the end no more than a catwalk. It has all the excess, brilliance, crass bad taste, recycling of ideas and yet ground-breaking thinking that one sees in London Fashion Week. It also has a much inflated opinion of itself.
Would we have it any other way? Yes! But of course like everyone else, I will still feel irresistibly drawn to go there next week….