The RHS has just held a forum to discuss and get responses to their thoughts about changing the judging process at Chelsea. Victoria Summerley attended on behalf of thinkingardens and here is her response and her suggestions. I hope that the RHS will take note of her thoughts. I have never found it quite so hard to resist putting parts of the article into bold type.
(see also Victoria’s follow up piece)
Anne Wareham, editor
When Royal Horticultural Society president Elizabeth Banks opened the forum on the RHS show gardens judging review on Monday, she remarked that she knew she could only be in Britain, because most of the audience were huddled at the rear of the hall in time-honoured Britannic “let’s not look conspicuous” fashion.
By the same token, when Mrs Banks remarked that the debate over the medal awards at Chelsea last year had been “livelier than most”, you knew that this was British for huge rows and screaming tantrums.
It’s tempting to wonder which particular tantrum, or garden, or medal, sparked the review. But anyway, here we all were – designers, judges, press and sponsors – to hear the proposals and give our views.
I have to confess that the news that the RHS was revising its show gardens judging procedure inspired both enthusiasm and ennui. Enthusiasm, because I’m always intensely nosey about how adjudicatory machinery works. And ennui, because I suspected that the changes would be so arcane, and so minuscule, that they would be quite irrelevant to normal gardening life and to the 383,046 members of the RHS.
I’ve included that figure deliberately, because the RHS membership is at an all-time high. It’s partly fuelled, I suspect, by the grow-your-own movement. I’m fairly confident it’s NOT fuelled by a massive interest in contemporary garden design. We’ll come back to that later.
One of the objectives of the review, we were told, was to “ensure transparency for all”. What did that mean? Did the RHS need to be more transparent about how they were going to be transparent?
I’m not being flippant (well, all right, a bit). Transparency is an uncomfortable process. It involves the whisking away of metaphorical fig-leaves, the ripping down of figurative net curtains, and it leaves people gasping and blinking in the hitherto unaccustomed glare of public scrutiny. Did they really know what they were letting themselves in for?
The process of judging show gardens is possibly the most convoluted set of arrangements that has ever given me a migraine. A selection committee choose which garden designs will be included in a show. At the show, Assessors do a preliminary round of the gardens, reporting to Judges, who then make their pronouncements. These are then discussed with Moderators, whose job is to ensure a consistency of judging across all the shows.
Once the decision is made to award a gold, silver-gilt or whatever, verbal feedback is given to the designers.
As you can imagine, the verbal feedback bit is not very satisfactory. The judges say it’s difficult to pin down the designers, who may be busy with sponsors, visitors, press, suppliers – or just having a quick fag somewhere.
If a designer has done less well than they hoped, they are not going to harbour overly warm feelings towards the judges. They may feel more like punching them in the gob.
Why not have written judgements? To my astonishment, the designers in the room seemed – on the whole – to think this was worthy of consideration. “But,” said someone at the back, “if you are going to publish the judgement, you also need to publish the brief.”
Well, publish that too! Publish the initial sketch, publish a picture of the finished garden, publish the critique from the judges. Publish everything. On a website you can do all that – you don’t have to worry about printing costs.
And the reason the RHS should think about putting it all out there is not to please the designers, or the sponsors, or the judges, but those 383,046 members. Remember them?
The vast majority of RHS members prefer cosmos and columbines to Cor-Ten steel. Many think of themselves as being more interested in plants than they are in design, which they regard with misgivings. Look at the People’s Choice award at Chelsea every year; it invariably goes to some exercise in nostalgia that brims with cottage-garden flowers and roses round the door.
Nothing wrong with that – but it’s hardly cutting edge. How do you educate people about design – and more importantly, eliminate the lurking suspicion that they’re somehow being “had” – without giving them the guidance that helps them form and develop their own aesthetic judgments?
I feel very passionately that the RHS should be about information and communication. That doesn’t just mean doling out bits of advice to the public on slugs and snails, or sudden oak death, or climate change every now and again – although they do that very well indeed.
It means giving people answers before they’ve even asked the questions. How do you expect them to know why a garden has been deemed worthy of a gold medal unless you tell them what the judges thought?
And how do you expect them to respect that decision unless you tell them who has come to that conclusion? All those ladies from the Home Counties who hate rusted steel and minimalist planting might think differently about it if they knew that lovely Raymond Evison, the patron saint of clematis, was on the judging panel that awarded it Best in Show.
To be fair, as part of the changes, the show garden judges will be “prominently identified” from this year onwards. And just in case the RHS definition of “prominently identify” is to write their names on a piece of paper and then secret it somewhere in the Chelsea showground shrubbery, we’ll be watching. Oh yes.
(Further thoughts on this topic from Victoria here)
Victoria Summerley is an executive editor of The Independent, and edits the Saturday edition of the i newspaper. She opens her garden in Wandsworth for the National Gardens Scheme.