Gardening, like Art, is Big Business. The show gardens cost untold amounts of money and need big sponsors, to say nothing of the RHS itself, a charitable organisation, who rely heavily on M&G Investments for financial support, and whose own garden only gained a silver-bronze medal, which must have irked them somewhat. Like all events these days, sportive, social, musical or arty, they have become ‘corporate’, so that firms can thank their employees, suppliers and themselves, or sweet-talk potential clients, with a glass or two of bubbly and a slap-up lunch, with a peppering of minor celebs.
In spite of what they may think, the stars of Chelsea were not the celebs, however, but the plants themselves, with some breathtaking displays of sweet peas, begonias, fuchsias and some extraordinary hybrid irises, the colour of damsons and vanilla ice-cream, with another like an ink-splattered airmail letter. The RHS Plant of the Year was won by Burncoose Nurseries with their delicate apple blossom pink-flush Viburnum plicatum, ahead of a stunning purple polka-dot cape primrose, Streptocarpus, from Dibleys Nurseries. Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants won two gold medals for a pink Antirrhinum and a Chinese foxglove Rehmannia. There were globes of chrysanthemums, larger than space-hoppers, and the fragrance from the hyacinth display was almost overpowering. Flowers could be described as some of the most beautiful living things on God’s earth, and yet, there are those that are determined to uglify them with grotesque displays in the name of floristry. It being the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, Interflora took no time in cashing in with a theme ‘Time for Tea’, and created a twee exhibit comprising a giant, suspended teapot surrounded by oversized cupcakes and jammy-dodgers, all decorated with thousands of flowers. Other homages to Lewis Carroll’s work were littered about, with more hideous, cluttered displays, involving piles of books, more teacups hanging on string, perspex leaves and pages and pages from the book. What were they thinking?
For the third year running, Birmingham City Council’s parks department have achieved the impossible, by coming up with a stand that was even more kitsch than the last two. In 2013, they had a replica of the Town Hall, the Bullring bull made of willow standing atop the new Selfridges building, a canal barge, lock gates, alongside a Mini covered in carpet bedding plants. Last year, they had a floral chuff-chuff, floral bi-planes, a wicker BSA folding bike, oversize Hudson whistles and a trench, it being the centenary of the First World War. This year, they decided to commemorate 300 years since the Baroque Cathedral was built, and they have crammed every conceivable facet of the building onto the stand, with the floral clock tower dominating in the middle. I was trying to work out the significance of the time shown on the clock face at 8.15, but then, on another dial, it showed the time at 5.15. At the other side of the big tent, Alice could easily be saying, ‘curiouser and curiouser’. The nine Bishops were represented by nine grass-cushioned pews, with carved wooden croziers, which actually looked more like nine graves with tombstones. Water was flowing down the nave from a waterfall inside the church, while, more water was bubbling out of organ-pipes outside amongst the profusion of flowering plants and foliage. They seem to like wicker in Birmingham, as there were not only bells, loaves and fishes, from the feeding of the 5,000 reference in Matthew’s Gospel, but also the Archangel Michael blowing a horn from the Burne-Jones stained-glass window of The Last Judgement. More floral interpretation, with the Baskerville Bible, sitting under a fine olive tree, made of bedding plants. For all this, Birmingham City Council were awarded the The Diamond Jubilee Award and a Gold Medal, so they must have pleased the judges.
There was one puzzling stand called The Positive Power of Plants, which sounded intriguing, but was overwhelmed with meaningless technology and completely failed to deliver. Sparsholt College in Hampshire got into bed with the brewers Wadworth, and produced a stand called The Hop Cycle, that explained the social history of hops and the brewing process in an innovative and entertaining way, earning the students the Best Discovery Exhibit. The Best Fresh Garden went to Dark Matter Garden for the National Schools’ Observatory, which, rather grandly, brought the mysteries of the Universe to Chelsea through innovative structures and planting. A warped lattice of steel rods somewhat fancifully depicts the bending trajectory of light around massive objects in the universe, implying the presence of dark matter. The team comprised an eclectic mix of astronomers, horticulturalists, construction experts and an architect.
The best show garden by far, and rightly winner of Best in Show, was the Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden, sited in the prominent ‘triangle’, designed by Dan Pearson, returning to Chelsea after more than a decade. He has created a representation of a more wild part of the 105-acre garden, with Pearson’s passion for naturalism shining through, the exhibit being inspired by the estate’s ornamental trout stream and Paxton’s rockery. L’Occitane once again produced a charming evocation of Provence with A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse, designed by James Basson, while the remainder were pretty much as previous years, with the usual mix of ‘polite’ planting and hard landscaping.
Once again, the Show was marred by some truly awful sculpture, featuring prancing balletic figures, cute animals, characters lifted from Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Graham cast in bronze, dragons, goats and galloping horses made of driftwood, a unicorn made of sea-shells and loads of coloured glass leaves. Presumably, there is a ready market for these horrid über kitsch aberrations, even though they are well-carved or cast by talented artists, otherwise the exhibitors would not return year after year. There was one seriously good artist at Chelsea, however, who was in a different league from them all, and he was Adrian Gray, a stone balancer, performing the most astonishing feats, placing large and impossibly shaped rocks on top of each other. Its very simplicity needs no explanation and is a paradox of fragility and solidity.