Aghast or Amused? Questions of Taste at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

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Planting on Diarmuid Gavin’s garden. Exuberance turns to barminess when the box balls start bobbing.

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Carmel Duignan watering the twirling topiary

My legs still hurt a bit. On Monday I spent eight hours walking round Chelsea Flower Show and only sat down once for a cup of coffee.

I had to collect a press pass, so I started at the Embankment end of the showground instead of my usual route from the Sloane Square end and Diarmuid Gavin’s garden was one of the first I saw. Now I already knew that opinions were divided on that one. I like the very slightly bonkers planting in a formal framework but I know that some people dislike it. I’m not keen on the tall building at the end but I loved the giant topiary behind it, and as the whole garden is a tribute to Heath Robinson, whose eccentric invention drawings have long delighted me I was predisposed to like it.

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Inventor’s shed

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Charming automaton in the shed

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The garden got a silver-gilt medal. Will the public vote for it as the People’s Choice, I wonder?

This was the day I witnessed the promised twirling and bobbing topiary and the circulating flowerbed for the first time and it made me laugh out loud. It was hilarious. All around me people were smiling and laughing – and most of them were more or less jaded journalists and horti-people. We agreed among ourselves that it was pleasantly barmy. Funny that it takes an Irish garden designer (and, I think, a mostly Irish team) to bring English eccentricity and a sense of humour back to Chelsea. I wouldn’t want all the show gardens to be like this one but I think Chelsea Flower Show has been taking itself a little too seriously for a while and a few jokes are just what we needed. It set me off up Main Avenue with a smile on my face.

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Hilarity all around as Diarmuid is tickled. Well all right, fitted with a mic.

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Looking at the W. Heath Robinson garden – it makes everyone smile.

Later on I spoke to someone else who thought Diarmuid’s garden was ghastly, and was unmoved by the twirling and bobbing. I was slightly crestfallen. As usually happens in a conversation like that I began to doubt my own opinions – but then I shrugged and thought “Well, you can’t please everyone, especially at Chelsea!”

After a while I started thinking about what tickles some people and what irritates others.

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OK, I might possibly object if my neighbours installed a huge giraffe.

OK, I might possibly object if my neighbours installed a huge giraffe.

All right, this ages me, I know, but the phrase "For mash get Smash" pops into my head when I see these.

All right, this ages me, I know, but the phrase “For mash get Smash” pops into my head when I see these.

As I walked along with a journalist friend we squawked at some of the garden statuary and bemoaned the fact that there seems to be very little good garden sculpture. By good of course we meant sculpture that WE like. I paused to take a photo of a bear and she declared that that sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed. Well you see, I beg to differ, because that bear will make someone somewhere smile. I thought it kitsch but others may find it cute. And why not?

 

 

The stuff of nightmares to me. But to you?...

The stuff of nightmares to me. But to you?…

I am a firm believer that people are allowed to do what they blooming well like in their own gardens and if they want a garden full of gorillas they can have it. As long as the gorillas aren’t peering right over next door’s fence. And there isn’t a home cinema in their garden. Or bright lights. Or wind chimes…

 

 

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Should this lady buy this for her friend?

Should this lady buy this goggly bird for her friend?

If silly statuary and amusing accessories are what we want we can jolly well have them. At any RHS show, including Chelsea you will find garden hardware that makes some people go “Yay!” and others go “Yuk!” and that is as it should be. As long as the items are well made and not a total rip-off then the RHS has no business being the garden taste police, neither do we, so I’m glad to see a wide variety of merchandise at the show. If we like it we may buy it. If we don’t like it we can amuse ourselves by criticising it. Whatever floats your boat.

 

 

20160523-DSC_8733One way a sense of humour – or at least the willingness to look a bit silly (often for a good cause) – is displayed at Chelsea is the outfits people wear on Press Day. If you are bold enough to wear a wild outfit you’ll make people smile.

 

 

Clothing needn’t be too outrageous but a bit of floral wit goes down very well. I think Matthew Pottage, the new curator of RHS Wisley, got it spot on.

Matthew Pottage, curator of RHS Wisley and snappy dresser.

Matthew Pottage, curator of RHS Wisley and snappy dresser.

As most people in London seem to dress entirely in black it is refreshing to see some bright clothing, but colour in plants and gardens is a more emotive issue – I met people who were agitated by the popping colours of the M&S display in the Pavilion, and others who loved it. There was plenty of prettiness  in the Pavilion, but it was balanced with some good dollops of garishness. If it was all tasteful and beautifully blended we’d all be bored silly in no time, I bet you.

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M&S

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Birmingham City Council

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Writtle College

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Pheasant Acre Plants

At first I wasn’t keen on Ann-Marie Powell’s planting (“Pink and orange – aaargh, my eyes!” I hear you cry) in her Greening Grey Britain garden for the RHS, but it is balanced by colourful structures and accessories and a general exuberance of styling – so it does what it is supposed to do, it banishes drabness and gets people out and active and CHEERED UP! Even if for some the preferred activity might be pulling out all the orange flowers. Or all the pink flowers. Anyway, I thought the finishing touches were great fun and it’s definitely the kind of space which would get people talking. Plus there was some container planting, which always attracts my eye.

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Sky-brights on Anne-Marie Powell’s Greening Grey Britain garden feature for the RHS

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Stimulating colours in AMP’s GGB.

 

Anyway there was lots more “tasteful” stuff but it was nice to see some bravado, brightness, wit and humour at Chelsea. I’m very, VERY tired now, so I’ll leave you with a few images from my visit which made me smile for various reasons: 20160523-DSC_8805 20160523-DSC_8814 20160523-DSC_8816 20160523-DSC_8844 20160523-DSC_8846 20160523-DSC_8870 20160523-DSC_8887 20160523-DSC_8911 20160523-DSC_8916 20160523-DSC_8939 20160523-DSC_9005 20160523-DSC_9008 20160523-DSC_9021 20160523-DSC_9033 20160523-DSC_9150 20160523-DSC_9182 20160523-DSC_9215 20160523-DSC_924120160523-DSC_8985 20160523-DSC_8605 20160523-DSC_8618 20160523-DSC_8620 20160523-DSC_8643 20160523-DSC_9173

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27 thoughts on “Aghast or Amused? Questions of Taste at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

  1. Thank you very much for your very interesting article about the Chelsea Flower Show. You don’t like orange with pink? Me either… We could try Pink and white or purple isn’t it?

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    • Thanks Xavier – well actually I don’t mind orange with pink if the pink is very clear and bright. I think if we dismiss any colour combinations we may deny ourselves some opportunities!

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  2. Intrepid reporter that you are…thanks for sharing this beautiful behomoth of a show….I agree that people should be free to garden as they like, barring extremes of privacy invasion, and of course, windchimes : / Love your photos : ) Certainly some rather eye-catching footwear, human and horticultural. Would like to see more of Diarmuid Gavin’s and Anne-Marie Powell’s gardens… as well as some of the others, (she said, hinting…).
    Seems the very fact of a design provoking a diversity of reactions and stimulating thoughts about gardens actually IS the desired object. Heaven help us if we all had the same views. zzzzz. Thanks again for sharing Harriet…now feet up and have a well-deserved glass of wine : )

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    • Yes Jo, Chelsea has had a bit of a “safe” phase recently, so I’m glad there’s a wide variety to see now. I’m going to blog abt Rosy’s garden & what it was like working on it next, and then some inspiration for gardeners from the gardens & displays. I think others are covering the show gardens in general quite well. Have you seen Andrew o’Brien’s blog?

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  3. great photos which really capture the Chelsea you don’t see on the TV. I liked Dairmuds garden just because it was fun and everyone around me was smiling, and that included some stalwarts of the establishment. I was at a dinner last night and talking to someone who had also been there on Monday and who had done show gardens back in the day. I think her husband has a Veitch medal, anyway they thought it was great and it was nice to have fun rather than all the snobbier and stuffiness you get.

    I was also struck with the garnishness of some of the displays which was more than I remember in the past, but great but I was disappointed that I didn’t find the pink gorilla as I kept telling my friend about sequinned gorillas and he didn’t believe me.

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  4. I have been following the RHS shows on twitter. Lots of build-up photos and on-the-day shots too.

    They mentioned a lot of the clash of opinions too. In the main I liked what I saw, some were funny and some were serious… Just like people, no two are alike and neither are wrong.
    I didn’t mind the nudity, or the insane choices of colour schemes… Oh be still my aching eyeballs! >.<

    My favourite of what I saw was the Craig House Cacti, at least I think it was them… Nice couple, always in matching tops! (I'm sure someone had a fashion comment about that, too!)

    One day I will go to Chelsea…. But then I am probably not going to enjoy it because of all the pomp… *sigh*

    Awesome post, loved the photos!

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    • Thank you! It’s definitely worth going to Chelsea. I really wish I could go more than once to the show now it is finished because I would like more time to find new (to me) plant varieties. But even with eight hours of constant looking there were quite a few things I missed!

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  5. Oh Harriet I wish we had had the chance to walk round Chelsea together. We would have laughed all day long. I did think Chelsea was a lot more fun this year. And in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that. Actually, the more people complained about poor taste- the more I laughed. I had a good day out, and it was nice to be surrounded by smiling faces.

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    • Thanks Josh, I think the big show gardens get plenty of coverage elsewhere, so I focus on my own experience and on ideas I (and others) can glean from these shows. Can’t beat a bit of people watching!

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  6. Haha, brilliant! Back in 2014 I remember thinking “who on earth would by that gorilla?” and two years on, I have my answer: no one! I’ll be sad if he isn’t there next year though.

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  7. Thank you for a refreshing take on the show, I am quite encouraged to see more variety in plants, colour schemes, styles this year in the show garden, and for everybody that has a laugh by mocking the ornaments etc there are, as you say, plenty more who will go home excited by their new purchase. I’d be tempted by the purple gorilla just to horrify the neighbours 😉

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