I don’t want to go to Chelsea

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.

Christopher Bradley-Hole's Latin Garden at the 1997 Chelsea Flower Show.

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.

Tom Stuart-Smith's Garden subtle exploration of green at Chelsea

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….

20 responses on “I don’t want to go to Chelsea

  1. Claudia

    You are not alone – some very good points. It’s a bit like a drug (never take any I have to say) you feel you have to go but then u wonder why and also if you should be showing there too! Planting from tweets looks all a bit same this year so let’s see what is on each catwalk!

  2. Philip Rusted

    Excellent article. I had the pleasure of working on a gold winning garden 20 years ago as part of a college project. We as a company have supplied many award winning gardens with plants – RobinTacchi plants. But interestingly, when the calls come in for Chelsea plants we generally say ‘No’. It is so far removed from commercial landscaping that it is indeed just a Catwalk.
    I was offered two tickets, free of charge, and said no.
    The gardens are pretty much of a muchness, everything is too perfect, manicured and, well, just fake. Like something real, but then too good.
    So – good article and I hope you get to design one soon – make it different and move away from fake perfection. Now I have ‘Fake Plastic Trees (Radiohead) in my mind….)

    Phil Rusted

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Thanks Phil. I admire your resolve. I always think I would like to turn my nose up at Chelsea, but each year I am sucked willingly into it! I am in two minds as to whether to do a garden there – everybody keeps saying ‘When are you going design a garden here then?’. It would be even more difficult now!

  3. Jacquetta Menzies

    I absolutely agree with you John. Chelsea and the other RHS shows have become media fodder. While I welcome the opportunities for designers who are just starting out, the dependency on sponsors and publicity has pushed the show gardens towards “look-at-me!”. It’s less than inspirational. Guess what? I’m not going this year. Though I already feel like someone who has flounced out of a great party and no-one’s noticed!

  4. Darren Skidmore

    Excellent artical John and some good points made . I have never been to Chelsea but would like to go one day, the thought of 150k plus people squashed into a 5 day event is rather off putting though. I’am also suprised you have not designed a garden, maybe you could design one with the China cycle ride In mind, I’ll build it and Matt could maintain it!! I might even have an old rusty bike somewhere we could utilise.
    On a serious note though, it seems that money is the root (paron the pun) of all evil and seems its putting more and more stress onto Chelsea’s designs. If your an up and coming designer what chance have you got to show your talents without the backing?
    I suppose Chelsea has a certain element of kudos and every year it has to be bigger and better, for which our industry friends have done a fantastic job of doing looking at recent posts.
    Catch up soon

  5. John Wood

    An excellent article. It’s so cathartic to hear someone else ranting like this. Cat-walk really is the perfect analogy as Chelsea gardens are no closer to being ‘real’ than a Milan fashion week parade is to the clothes we wear. Interesting point about the house-style, sameness of so many of the main avenue gardens. I was looking through a John Brookes book the other day and the style you describe was firmly established by Brookes in around 1972.
    (I have to admit I’ve bought a ticket and wish friends who are involved all the very best for a great show)

  6. Peter Thurman

    I agree Chelsea is a ‘catwalk’. The show gardens have more to do with theatrical stage-set production than garden design. But, I admire the designers who try and take the risk of failing. Not for me.
    John, the outstanding garden [‘game-changer’] I remember was Preben Jakobsen’s garden in around 1979. Sadly, I didn’t take any photographs and I have lost the plan.
    The reason I don’t go to Chelsea is that I am to short to see the gardens.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Nice to hear from you Peter. I do (just about) remember Preben Jakobsen’s Garden at Chelsea in 1979. I was in my first year studying Landscape Architecture at Manchester Polytechnic.
      I also admire those designers who stick their head above the parapet; it is easy to mock gently from the sidelines but it does take courage to put your work up to be judged by your peers and the public.
      I know what you mean about not being able to see the gardens – a stool perhaps?!

  7. Andrew Wenham

    I think you’re right john, brilliance and crass bad taste (gardenesque WW1trenches) within easy walking distance of each other. There is another factor that drives designers and sponsors decisions: what the punters want to see, which is more Dermot than Bradley Hole I fear. Perhaps this will change in 5/10 or 20 years? Or will it always be this way! there’s an onus on the RHS to protect design integrity and urge sponsors to take risks, but will they whilst they have such a successful show?

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Yes – funny how the peoples choice is normally ‘the lock-keepers cottage garden’ or the like! I think it is for the same reason that gardening is so popular in the UK – it is seen as an escape and is therefore eternally linked in peoples minds to some idealised Victorian/Edwardian past. that is changing as garden design has found its way on to TV more in the last 15-20 years, but we are certainly not there yet!

  8. Mynhardt Potgieter

    Great article John,

    Like so many I admire you for saying here, what I have been saying ever since my first Chelsea visit. It was overcrowded ten years ago and is even more so now. It is a society “Do” more than anything else to me and as succesfull as it is…
    As far as sound horticultural design at Chelsea is concerned…it is an unattainable dream world to me. The Gardens are impossible to achieve on a shoe string and the planting…well, any plantsman would have a field day critisizing some of the plant choices…but…before it starts to sound like sour grapes!

    I am going to book my tickets to Hampton Court!

  9. Gillian Bodman

    An excellent article and very close to mine and my partner’s heart. Every time we go, I feel the rush of anticipation only to feel bitterly disappointed at the end of the visit. Why do all the garden designers seem to choose the same plants and even, generally the same colours. However, Milan Fashion Week is a good analogy and we can always take away little snippets of ideas to use in our postage stamp gardens on a threepenny piece budget.
    One thing I always remember Cleve West saying in an interview when asked what had surprised him most by his success at Chelsea was that success didn’t always bring you work! We’re trying Hampton Court this year at their preview – another bug bear of mine.Why do all the Tom, Dick & Harry celebrities get to see Chelsea on the preview day ?

  10. Helena Dennison

    I do so agree with a lot of the comments so far. I too will not be going to Chelsea as it’s impossible to see the show gardens and they are mostly a bit John Brookes in derivation. This is not to decry John, but to point out that his method of designing is one the dominates the garden design schools’ curriculums. It is easy to teach, gets lots of ‘ticks’ when submitting projects but is a bit mechanistic. I didn’t go to design school. I learned to garden from childhood upwards and went into the fashion business, then into consulting and then into garden design rather by default. A book my son gave me has been my greatest inspiration in terms of garden design: ‘From Concept to Form in Landscape Design’ by Grant Reid (pub Wiley). Based on this great book, I have designed a garden based on air bubbles in ice among other ideas. I also love plants, and would now class myself as more of a plantswoman than a garden designer. Where are all the plants at Chelsea? There is such a palette to use and we see so little of it. I often draw inspiration for colour schemes from paintings -subtle or bold depending on the client. The colour range is unlimited, so let’s please see more art and less commercialism at Chelsea. (PS I love Hampton Court; – it’s a buyers show with lots of good ideas, and you can park!!)

  11. Nick Coslett

    John – many in the Landscape world will agree with your points. It is a catwalk and the product of one builder with 2 gardens and different designers produced gardens so formulaic you had to check the map to see where you were.
    I’ve helped build a couple of gardens in past years and enjoyed the buzz and crack. This year Palmstead supplied most of the perennials for the Stoke Bartholomew Garden, which had more colour in it than most show gardens ventured to use and were very pleased with a Silver Gilt. However the season forced plant choice changes and my lesson learnt is that it has to be entered into purely on a commercial basis and no dreams of glory and future commissions. It also takes big chunks of time out during the industries busiest time of year. So go out and find a well heeled sponsor.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Nick – thanks for your comment. I agree with you about time, which is one of the reasons historically that B&W have never pursued the design of a garden. We do of course build them for other designers, although it is done (as you suggest) on a purely commercial basis. I think there are some commercial advantages to ‘being there’ and definitely some advantages for staff, who all like to be part of the buzz. I take your point about planting supply. It is perhaps one of the factors behind the slightly samey feel of many of the gardens. I would still like to have a crack at designing one of the main avenue gardens, although I might find it more difficult after this blog post!

  12. Gerald Abrahams

    I like your article John. I was deeply uninspired by the top show gardens this year, indeed some possibly formulaic planting and designs. The Artisan gardens were far more rewarding and surely went some way to capturing the flair and imagination that Chelsea requires.
    On the flip side though, every show garden has a role to play. What we like and why we do not like something helps galvanise our own thoughts and individual style. This year was the first year I have been in about 10 and it is for that slightly twisted reason of going to see what ‘I do not like’ I will probably make and effort and go again next year.

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