Tag Archives: Chelsea

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?

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….