Wild about Chelsea?

Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year's Chelsea Flower Show
Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show

The gates have closed on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, I thought that 2016 was quite a good year. True there were some ‘oddities’ – Diarmuid Gavin’s Great British Eccentrics Garden perhaps? Anyway, it was a pretty diverse bunch and a lot of really good gardens. One interesting theme which started in 2015 and gathered pace this year was the ‘reconstructed landscape versus designed garden’ debate. Last year’s best in show – Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth Garden – was a clear example of the former. It was a brilliantly skilful piece of design and construction, but there were mutterings amongst the garden design ranks that it was ‘not really design, but just a piece of landscape re-creation’. I think this undermines the skill and dexterity of the designer. How much of this was sour-grapes at not winning best in show themselves was not clear; nonetheless, there is a serious point here. The implication was that all other things being equal, original design should be valued more than re-creation.

James Basson's Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016
James Basson’s Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016

This year’s winner (Andy Sturgeon’s Jurassic garden for the Telegraph) was firmly in the ‘designed’ camp. It was a head and shoulders above the other serious contenders and was a supremely confident piece of design, down to the last detail. Interestingly, the other two clear contenders for the title (in my opinion) were Cleve West’s garden for M&G and James Basson’s recreation of a parched Provençal landscape for l’Occitaine. The three gardens together almost make up the spectrum from one end (James’) to the other (Andy’s), with Cleve’s garden occupying a deftly executed middle ground.

Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon's garden
Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon’s garden

There is of course a great deal of precedent for this in English Garden Design. In the C17th, garden design in this country had been largely pale versions of continental renaissance creations. The English landscape movement swept much of that away in favour of what was essentially the modernism of its time – based on simple natural forms and recreation of paintings of landscapes. However, what is more relevant to today’s ‘re-created landscapes’ is the picturesque movement that followed. This was based on an essentially romanticised appreciation of the savage side of nature – wild rock formations, twisted trees and magical woodland dells. To me, Dan Pearson’s 2015 garden speaks directly from this tradition. This is not surprising, partly because the garden was based on a piece of historical landscape design, but also because Dan has always had a great affinity with and appreciation with nature. This is evident in much of his work, but never in a cloying way. By contrast, Andy Sturgeon’s designs whilst rooted in the natural world are much more conscious design statements.

My own designs are also conscious statements of form where geometry plays a strong part, even if it is sometime distorted (Spokane) or curved (Pavilion Apartments). Recreations of natural landscapes can be subtle, beautiful and clever, but I wonder whether Chelsea Show Gardens shouldn’t be more about pushing the boundaries of design? Most of the great gardens that stick in my mind certainly fall into this category.

Or perhaps the two ends of the spectrum are equally valid, just different – what do other readers think?

4 responses on “Wild about Chelsea?

  1. Andrew Fisher Tomlin

    You designers are a funny bunch! There is a long history at Chelsea of recreating wild landscapes and gardens. There is seldom a year when this doesn’t happen in the Artisan Gardens and I even did it back in 1995 on the rock bank. It just hasn’t happened in a while in the Show Garden categories probably because it’s much harder to pull off than a ‘designed’ garden.
    The Laurent Perrier garden last year was far too ornamental and ‘designed’ to fall into that landscape category with many plants which would have to be intensely managed to be successful so I’d dispute that it was very different from anything else we’ve seen in recent years. L’Occitaine’s gardens this year and last were far more successful in taking me away to another region, another form of, yes, landscape and do what gardens do best, take us out of our day to day lives and transport us somewhere else. They both would survive on their own and that is the genius of the designer as well as the place.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      When you say ‘you designers’ – surely you’d put yourself in that category? (just poking fun!)
      I don’t dispute the genius of any of the gardens I discussed above. I described Dan Pearson’s garden as ‘a brilliantly skilful piece of design’ and I would put James Basson’s garden in that category as well – I loved it. I genuinely thought that for best in show it was between his, Andy’s and Cleve’s garden. I think it is fair to say that Main Avenue leads the design field though, and I would say that there haven’t been many gardens truly in the ‘natural landscape style’ (if I can call it that) for some years, although my memory is probably not as good as yours and I might be forgetting some! I would like to make it clear that I’m not standing on the sidelines throwing stones here. I pay tribute to anyone who is brave enough to be selected for and complete a garden on Main Avenue – which as I am sure you will notice is more than I have done. John

  2. Stuart Gibbs

    The turning point for me with regard Garden Design and Chelsea had to be Christopher Bradley Holes 1997 Latin Garden based on the poet Virgil.

    This garden showed us how to look at and use combinations of hard material that had really never been considered together before. The sharpness of detail in design and the materials used created a serene space that for the time was (I consider) unique. The limited palette of plants and colour made us suddenly look at our previous use of plants in a new light.
    At the same time it brought a new meaning as to how we view the design of a garden and Chelsea gardens quite differently.

    The choice, selection and use of materials grew exponentially from this time compared to garden design and use of materials before. Therefore I need and want to see the innovative, different and possibly controversial approach to design and the catwalk that is Chelsea. One is waiting to see the latest “look” from Andy Sturgeon, Ulf Nordfjell, Luciano Giubbilei and new designers like Hugo Bugg are going to bring to us.

    It is said “there is nothing new under the sun” a garden design still has to work with function, shape, space and movement we just want to see what new frock it is going to be clad with this year.

    Outright recreations and pastiches of garden design whilst brilliantly executed I do find slightly tiresome and lazy. I don’t really want to see a leafy country lane or period pub garden replicated at Chelsea. At best they can only be considered as part of a garden that you might use. That said I thought the attention to detail and light touch of “design” in Dan Pearson’s garden was exceptional.

    Now I am going to probably bring this argument” around full circle. The other garden at Chelsea that will forever remain in my head is the 2012 Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden. For what it represented and the exquisite attention to detail down to the leaf litter and the remnants of war beneath the plants was both memorable and emotional.

    There is a place for the recreation of a landscape at Chelsea just give it reason and life!

  3. Gabino Carballo

    I am glad that both CBH and Jihae Hwang creations have come up in the comments. They are the two hallmarks that Mr. Gibbs justly highlights. Nothing to add to Bradley-Hole’s contribution to Chelsea. However, “Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden” was a cerebral piece of work charged with emotion (something rarely achieved) that had the qualities of a proper art work, not just a piece of design. Back then I thought of it in terms of Hyperrealism, and I think it had a profound influence in the work that has been exhibited since, particularly last year, when the gardens on show were labelled as “transported landscapes” by Richard Miers (I was visiting with him). This term is used in ethnobotany, by the way, which should take us to interesting places. Garden designs at Chelsea sometimes rise well above average design to wander into de realm of art and possibly further, but I am not so sure that critical analysis is up there to capture what is truly relevant. I am glad I found it here.

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