Report on The Chelsea Flower Show 2010

Chelsea’s Got Talent

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This has been my 6th consecutive year as a spectator at The Chelsea Flower Show. What’s quite interesting is that I think Chelsea’s become as much about the people as the plants. It’s kind of an institution really – terribly British and full of quite fierce grannies on the one hand, but also strangely coupled with the fashionistas, Japanese tourists and an increasing celeb contingent. It’s enlightening overhearing conversations on the tube – “what did you see at Chelsea?” “Oh I saw Helen Mirren, Simon Cowell and Bill Bailey”.

But what about the designs? The plants? I hear you cry. Well frankly if you go on a public day it’s quite hard to get anywhere near the gardens for tidal waves of strident comfortable shoe wearing types. And if ‘The Titch’ is anywhere in sight – then you have to run in the other direction to avoid being trampled by the stampede. Even going on member’s day, after a couple of hours of hard garden gazing, even I’m usually forced to retire to the champagne tents where the non-comfortable shoe wearers hang out away from the crowds.

That said, there are in fact still many beautiful plants. And some stylish designs too. Stylish designs IMHO are in the minority though. The likes of Andy Sturgeon and Tom Stuart Smith do build gardens that are beautiful – there is no question about this. But I seem to come away more and more each year feeling very slightly cheated, that it’s all a bit the same, and that Chelsea is crying out for an overhaul. It needs to catch up with its more contemporary design cousins like the MOMA show or even Grand Designs. Garden Design is a form of art after all – yet the show gardens don’t feel like innovative art installations; many of them (not all) feel like variations on cottage gardens rammed into a smaller space. And there’s also too much ‘tat’ about in the form of twee twinkly things to put in your garden.

There are of course always notable exceptions. I thought the Green and Blacks Garden was somewhat of an inspiration. It conjures up a rainforest family home and has been made, in part, by Cameroonian indigenous women to raise awareness about the threats that they and the rainforest are facing. That’s more beautiful, meaningful and contemporary to me than a show garden full of cottage flowers and sparkly fake butterflies.

Interestingly – you don’t read many critical write ups of The Chelsea Flower Show, but I suspect, a bit like Henley regatta, no journalist’s going to be critical enough to jeopardise their free press pass to get to drink bubbles in a pretty space for next year. (Full credit to Robin Lane Fox by the way though, whose review of Chelsea in The Financial Times was spot on). This is my personal view of Chelsea, and I do have high hopes that it will change and progress into the stylish art show it deserves to be – without losing its strong heritage and quintessentially English culture. The photos accompanying this post represent my view of Chelsea this year.

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