Monday, 19 May 2014

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014, part 1

To the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, for the 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. An early start, as the RHS Press Office were good enough to give me a pass, meaning that not long after seven a.m. I was working my way down main avenue, camera clicking furiously, getting a good look at the gardens before the crowds, the celebs and, most importantly, the heat arrived.

I’ll try to give an account of those features which made a positive impression on me. In very brief summary, a good show; some interesting show gardens, a handful of exquisite artisan gardens, and, as always, sterling works of wonder being performed by the nurseries and growers in the Royal Pavillion. Although nothing overtly outrageous was to be found, there was a certain smattering of ‘high concept’ in evidence, a phrase which a friend of mine suggested as a kinder way of describing those gardens which I, in my somewhat earthier style, had been referring to as a load of old…

Balls of box were much in evidence, and also in places of beech – the favoured form this year being a slightly squished pebble, rather than a perfect sphere. Imagine a perfect sphere, but with an overly fat, invisible person sitting on it. There are no surprises here, formal elements interspersed with frothy, softer plantings have been with us for some time now, but I did think there was a discernible shift this year, particularly on main avenue, with historical periods in garden history notable for their strong formality explicitly referenced in the design, but softened by a more contemporary understanding of naturalistic planting. This was clearly seen in Cleve West’s M&G Garden, a 21st century interpretation of a Persian paradise garden, but also in the Italianate roots of both Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent-Perrier Garden and the Telegraph Garden, designed by Tommaso del Buono & Paul Gazerwitz.

Most unequivocally this was evident in Paul Hervey-Brookes’ garden for Brand Alley, which combines the three periods of the Italian Renaissance in a single design, an immense, long reflecting pool with an ox-blood red loggia at the far end, formal hedging and statuary to the left, softer, mediterranean planting to the right. It’s bold, almost stark when viewed from the front, and I’m not sure most visitors to the show will get it, but I rather like it, particularly viewed from the side, which gives a more nuanced prospect.

The Brand Alley Renaissance Garden, by Paul Hervey-Brookes
Three of these gardens shared essentially the same structural element – a tall evergreen hedge running the entire length of the long boundary of the garden, unbroken except for a full height stone panel at some point along the length. Ok, it’s not the same panel, or the same hedge, and it doesn’t perform the same function within the respective designs, but it’s something I found rather odd pouring over the visuals before getting to the show today, and haven’t found any less odd having seen the gardens up close. Just one of those things and entirely coincidental, no doubt, but especially notable when two of the gardens are on adjacent plots.

Cleve West’s Persian-inspired garden for M&G
The Telegraph Garden, by Del Buono/Gazerwitz
The Laurent-Perrier Garden, by Luciano Giubbilei

It’s at this point I realise that I should have earlier mentioned the inevitable caveat when talking about show gardens, namely that it’s impossible to judge the success of a garden – any garden – while being unaware of the intention of its creator, and that without having had sight of brief to which a designer’s been working noone can say how successful they’ve been. All I can comment upon is how a particular garden makes me feel, and whether this or that aspect appears to me to have been well executed. It’s a personal response, and yours may well be entirely different. Which brings me on to some of the planting.

I’m a big fan of the gardens of Luciano Giubbilei (he does contemporary formal with great skill), and I’m sure I’ve seen or heard him comment in recent years that he’s only recently beginning to embrace flowers in his designs. This year’s Laurent-Perrier garden is a much more feminine garden, with far fewer straight edges and more natural forms in evidence. The clipped forms are still there, but now we have the rounded, loose forms of beech, and the branching of the two amelenchiers is pleasingly informal. It’s still all tightly controlled by the hard landscaping, though, framing the trees, the water courses and the pool, and tightly confining the herbaceous planting to two rectangular areas. And it’s these areas of planting that didn’t quite work for me – here I must slip in to describing feelings again – adjectives like ‘competent’ and ‘stolid’ spring to mind, almost as if the individual plants were being placed by an informed and precise hand, but without the fluidity and finesse in evidence on, for example, the Cloudy Bay Sensory Garden from the Wilson McWilliam Studio.

Clearly, this is a comparison of apples and pears, but it’s nonetheless one I’ll persist in making. Photos tweeted showing the progress of the planting here have been making me drool all week; a monochromatic layer of blueberry mauves, alliums, verbascums, salvias and aquilegias, all nestling among swathes of delicate deschampsia, with brighter splashes of oranges and reds above, wending their way around two multi stemmed hazels – a crazy meadow that made you want to sprawl out in. Of course in reality you wouldn’t want to for fear of snapping or squashing some choice specimen, but the truly skilled manage to create the impression of a community of plants; even if it’s a bonkers community, they look like in some world they could exist growing together. The colours here were illustrative of the fruitier notes within the sponsor’s wines, a theme continued with the towering charred oak panels creating the backdrop. The scale of these panels was bold, several metres (four?) high. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it managed to entirely avoid any feeling of looming bulk. Across a rill in which bottles of wine were being invitingly cooled, a limestone terrace provided space for socialising. This too worked, though the shift is rather sudden, wafty colourful meadow to unapologetically crisp, clean cut terrace. Perhaps that’s why it worked – audacity. And a simple concept clearly articulated, which prevented it from being a garden of two halves.

Talking of which, there was Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘From the Moors to the Sea’, a garden celebrating 50 years of Britain in Bloom and the designer’s half century in horticulture. Aside from the sudden transition from the moorland element (which was beautifully realised, wildflowers, drystone walls and all) into the coastal environment, complete with echiums and beach hut, I very much liked this garden. I wonder if a more gentle transition – salt marsh, perhaps? – might have established a greater rapport between the two. Splitting hairs really, I liked it.

The Brewin Dolphin Garden, designed by Matthew Childs grew on me during the morning, perhaps in spite of the hard landscaping materials – square, copper arches and slate grey stone, all very grrrr. But either the sun made it come alive – suddenly all the different textural details were thrown into relief – or by mid-morning I'd finally woken up. This was a garden with real depth, which is a feature I always enjoy in a show garden – the longer you looked, the more you found yourself drawn in. The planting was lush and had that fresh May green look, which the flowers of Viburnum plicatum (a plant much in evidence this year) complemented beautifully. I was also rather taken by the mounds of Cryptomeria globosa nana used throughout, which echoed the low, rounded boulders within the planting.

The Brewin Dolphin Garden, by Matthew Childs
The Brewin Dolphin Garden, by Matthew Childs
The Brewin Dolpin Garden, by Matthew Childs
There’s a lot to see, and as I’m keen to post something this evening, I’ll continue in another post tomorrow!

What are your thoughts on Chelsea this year? Do leave a comment below.