RHS judging: an interview with an RHS judge by Victoria Summerley

April 2, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

It may seem difficult to believe in the current wintry climate, but the Chelsea Flower show opens in a few weeks’ time. For the past few months, while the show garden designers have wondered whether their plants will survive the winter, the RHS has been re-examining the way it awards their medals. Victoria Summerley talked to Andrew Wilson, who has been part of the judging process at Chelsea for the past 16 years.

Victoria wrote two previous pieces for thinkingardens on this topic – The RHS Consultation on judging at Chelsea Flower Show and Strictly Come Chelsea. See also Christopher Bradley-Hole on the ‘Best in Show Award’

I apologise for not naming the gardens and designers below. Time pressures. I have (rightly) been told off.

Anne Wareham, editor

Andrew Wilson portrait copyright Andrew Wilson for thinkingardens

Andrew Wilson portrait

Victoria Summerley interviews Andrew Wilson:

Back in February last year, designers, judges, growers and nosy journalists were invited by the Royal Horticultural Society to a forum to discuss whether changes were needed to the show judging system, and, if so, what these should be.

It was an interesting day, not least because of the catalyst that had set the process in motion.

The Chelsea Flower Show the year before – 2011 – had resulted in a huge postbag of complaints from designers about the judging, the medal decisions and the feedback they got. People were angry.

You might have been tempted to think that the impetus for change was the result of frustration with the same old routine. At the time, the Royal Horticultural Society’s development head Bob Sweet announced that the system would be reassessed following the end of the show season.

“We are reviewing the whole judging programme – we’ve not had a thorough review for 10 years,” he said. “There are more sophisticated ways of judging now compared to how we looked at things in the past. Floral marquee judging has moved a long way, and on gardens we can do more.”

Chelsea garden 2010 2 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Ironically, however, Chelsea 2011 HAD seen a change to the judging line-up. Andy Sturgeon, who won Best in Show the year before, hinted at this on his blog at the time, saying the problems had been about inexperienced judges, not the system. “The knee-jerk reaction from the RHS following complaints has been to change the process rather than just go back to the tried and tested system using experienced judges. I’m still not sure what was wrong with the old system,” he wrote.

You might also be tempted to think that perhaps the Chelsea judges have become slightly too small a gene pool, with very few of them having absolutely no links whatsoever with the designers. On the other hand, if you eliminated everyone who had ever worked with or trained a designer, how many judges would you have left? Not many, I suspect.

A Chelsea Garden 2010 3 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

A Chelsea Garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Tom Stuart Smith, for example, used to work for Elizabeth Banks, the current president of the RHS. Robert Myers, whose Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden has brought drama and sophistication to what was a very boring bit of Wisley, has taken over the Elizabeth Banks design practice. (She is still listed as a consultant.)

Andrew Wilson taught the garden designer Luciano Giubbilei. Mark Gregory, another Chelsea medal winner, is co-director of the garden design school Wilson founded, the London College of Garden Design.

Rosemary Alexander, head of the English Gardening School, is a regular judge at Chelsea and also taught Joe Swift and Jo Thompson. And on it goes.

Now, this is not to say that any of these people have shown favouritism or have benefited from undue influence. Far from it – they would be horrified at the suggestion. All judges have to declare an interest which may be a business connection or a supply issue.

Mark Fane of the online nursery Crocus, for example, supplies plants to some of the show gardens, but although he is an RHS judge, he doesn’t judge in that particular category. Crocus typically build two gardens in the show garden category at Chelsea which means he would probably judge at another show – Hampton Court or Tatton for example. But it does show that eliminating “conflict of interest” is not quite as simple as you might think.

A Chelsea Garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

A Chelsea Garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

At what point, asks Andrew Wilson, who has been involved in the review process, can you be deemed to have lost  any vested interest in your former students?  Two years after they graduate? Five years? Ten years? What about a former colleague?

Andrew Wilson has judged at Chelsea for 16 years, and believes that the judges have to inspire trust and faith. “It’s important to identify judges and be able to state what their credentials are, because their decisions are much more high-profile, and receive much more media attention,” he said.

When he began, he worked alongside the then chair of assessors, John Sales (now retired). He describes it as a sort of apprenticeship, and says the continuity provided by Sales and his regular team meant that there was a sort of consistency. People came to know and understand the system and how to deliver clear assessments and feedback.

A Chelsea Garden 2008 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

A Chelsea Garden 2008 copyright Charles Hawes

Before this, says Wilson: “If a garden had a judge’s favourite plant in it, they would give it a gold medal.” (This could explain the historical prevalence of so many inappropriate azaleas.)

The Chelsea judging system is a three-fold process. On the Sunday before the show opens, the assessors look at the gardens in detail, like a kind of advance guard, and make recommendations to the judges. The judges debate the gardens in the light of the assessor notes on press day – the Monday – and make their deliberations. These are then submitted to a moderation process, which is intended to act as a kind of external examiner, ensuring that awards are consistent, and fine-tuning a decision where the judges are split.

After the medals are awarded, the judges deliver feedback, if it is requested, to the designers.

Wilson admitted that he is not totally happy with the moderation part of the proceedings. He feels it’s a grey area and that the job of the moderators should be to monitor the judging process, rather than get involved in medal decisions.

Feedback, he thinks, is a delicate and diplomatic process for judges, who face having to tell a designer (and perhaps their sponsor) why they didn’t get a gold medal. “Some people worry that they will get it thrown back at them.”

Wilson believes that the solution to this is to move towards a criteria-based marking scheme, rather than a numerical one. “Let’s say you’ve just invented the Chelsea Flower Show. What process would you use? How do I assess my students, give one an A rather than a B?

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

“At the moment, we award marks, but that can be a bit meaningless. Someone might give planting for example 22 out of 30, someone else might say 24. What do these different numbers mean? How do you calculate a difference of one mark? It’s better, surely, to ask, is this a gold-medal garden – or a silver gilt or a bronze?

“The RHS should decide what it wants a gold medal garden to be, and how it would differ from a silver-gilt medal. We need to identify what we are looking for before we see it. Plant associations, for example – does this combination work, are there any dodgy inclusions?”

The aim would be to remove, as far as possible, any ambiguity, so that the award, and the reasons for it, would be clear to everyone – the designer, the sponsor and the general public.

“As a judge, you’ve got to be able to explain your decision, because a designer will be saying to you, ‘Where are your criteria for saying that? What feedback can I can pass on to my sponsor?’”

It’s natural, said Wilson, that designers might be upset by the judges’ decisions. But a clear set of criteria would eliminate many of the potential arguments and deliver a more transparent result.

“Sarah Eberle had a fantastic attitude, and she’s a good example of someone who uses feedback well,” he said. “When she won a gold medal and Best in Show for her Mars garden, she still asked for feedback.  She had discovered that she’d got 96 per cent and immediately quipped, “well, what did I do to lose 4 per cent?” She wanted to use the feedback to improve.”

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Interestingly, a gold medal garden – even a 96 per cent one – is not necessarily a best in show garden, said Wilson, and it seems that even the most sophisticated criteria might not be able to validate this particular award.

“A gold medal garden is a head decision, a Best in Show garden is more of a heart decision,” he said. “You’re looking for a level of achievement that evokes an emotional response in judges – completely unpredictable.”

Victoria Summerley with thanks to Andrew Wilson

Victoria’s blogs = Tales from Awkward Hill (with puppy pictures) and Victoria’s Backyard

Victoria Summerley portrait for thinkingardens copyright Anne Wareham

Victoria Summerley with wheelbarrow



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