Hampton Court Health Warnings by Helen Gazeley.

June 25, 2012

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

“Most artists aren’t that philosophical or conceptual. They’re just artists who work within a certain style and if you took their so-called concept into a 6th form debating society, it would be ripped to shreds.” Grayson Perry, RSA Journal, Autumn 2008.

Quite. This year, at Chelsea we saw a shining example of a garden with meaning,  the DMZ Garden, which confronted all the Conceptual Garden and Sponsored Garden’s ‘themes’ with their vacuity. Here are Helen Gazeley’s thoughts on this topic as exemplified at Hampton Court Flower Show..

Anne Wareham, editor

Five a Day copyright Helen Gazeley

Five a Day


Helen Gazeley:

Messages, messages, all is messages. Is a simple garden no longer enough? With the Hampton Court Flower Show just around the corner, we already know that plenty of messages, and wagging fingers, await among the blooms.

Early press releases tell us that we’ll be met with communiqués about conservation, political prisoners, dyslexia, communities and drug companies’ patents on plant-derived compounds.

Being a simple garden is no longer enough. We need a a reason, a campaign, a telling off; each design must “say something” to award it credibility.

Think! Cover Up copyright Helen Gazeley

Think! Cover Up


The rise of the campaigning garden swelled disproportionately, I believe, with the rise of the Conceptual Garden, a big category for Hampton Court, Britain’s largest flower show. However, the one message that emerged from last year’s show was that the distinction between Conceptual and Show Garden is now so blurred as to be invisible. Show Gardens held messages, Conceptual Gardens held messages, and the original intent of Conceptual has dwindled to no more than the desire to lecture, a “concept” that has been enthusiastically adopted by the Show Garden category.

Chris Beardshaw said, “A conceptual garden is…when all the intellectual exploration takes place; it’s the start of the journey and it should pose more questions than it offers solutions.” What actually happened was that most of these gardens asked no questions, just told us what they thought. To traverse the Garden Walk (the avenue between these categories) was to run the gamut of campaigns and politics.

Why we care about Chalk streams copyright Helen Gazeley

Why we care about chalk streams


What did we have? Why we care about Chalk Streams: overuse of water; Copella Plant and Protect: loss of native orchards; I am, because of who we are: the need for co-operation between communities and countries; World Vision: poverty; Precious Warning: problems with sustainability.

And then there were the disease gardens. Coppafeel!: breast cancer; Think! Cover Up (another dictatorial exclamation mark): wagging the finger over skin cancer. Across the Garden Walk, amongst Show Gardens, was A Matter of Urgency, highlighting the problem of Overactive Bladder. This year will be the third in a row that OAB is featured, with Bridge Over Troubled Water’s whirlpool feature. Are we not hearing what they’re saying?

A Matter of Urgency copyright Helen Gazeley

A Matter of Urgency


Many of these gardens were lovely. A Matter of Urgency had a gardening message all its own, showing that in the blazing sun brightly coloured walls work a treat with brightly coloured flowers. I am, Because of Who We Are offered a simple palette that blended colours beautifully between the plants and hard materials. But loveliness, and a demonstration of design and planting to be taken home for consideration, is no longer the main consideration.

You may think that I am exceptionally curmudgeonly. Beautiful gardens, some good ideas; let them make a point if they want. But a cloud is hanging over my anticipation of Hampton Court this year. By the time I’d seen everything in 2011, I felt brow-beaten and, frankly, depressed by all the wails of woe and calls to action. In fact, I found myself crying out, for the first time in full understanding, the Aesthetics’ mantra, “Art for Art’s Sake!” They were railing against the Victorian desire to fill paintings with moral and historical messages.

The garden that stood out above all was the entry in the Small Garden category by The British Heather Growers Association. What was it about? Heather. No message, no meaning, no campaign, just a lovely design focussing on what you could do with their favourite plant.

Heathers in Harmony copyright Helen Gazeley

Heathers in Harmony


Burgon and Ball almost achieved the same, with a display of deep-bed containers demonstrating the vegetables that could be packed into a courtyard garden. But they couldn’t resist calling it Five a Day, with overtones of Nanny State.

This year Hampton Court has a new section: World Gardens (read Travel Promotion), showcasing The Azores, Jordan, Russia and Switzerland. However, I can’t help feeling the show organisers missed a trick. Last year the disease gardens numbered half those of the category dedicated to English Poets. With a little application 2012 could have announced the Health Warning Gardens.

How appealing is that?

Helen Gazeley

Helen’s blog: Weeding the Web and twitter – @helengazeley

Helen Gazeley portrait copyright Helen Glazeley

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