Strictly Come Chelsea by Victoria Summerley

February 18, 2012

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

This piece is another act of dedication and concern from Victoria Summerley, who should have been packing for a much needed holiday rather than writing for us – and hopefully, for the RHS judges. (Her holidaying around means she will be unable to respond to any comments of queries on this piece)

Her last piece got record responses, in both viewing numbers and comments, so it is clear that this is an issue the thinkingardens readers – amateur gardeners, bloggers, garden designers, editors and writers – care deeply about. A strong message came over to me for the RHS regarding the judging and that is – publish. 

And then this – well, thinkingardens readers – we say yes????

Anne Wareham, editor

Chelsea 8 copyright Anne Wareham

Victoria Summerley:

So, Strictly Come Chelsea? Or perhaps the The Gold Medal Factor? Or what about Britain’s Got Garden Design Talent?

I’m being mischievous, of course. However, the idea of having guest judges at the Chelsea Flower Show was one of the issues raised at the RHS Show Garden Judging Review Forum last week, and as you can imagine, it provoked quite a lot of discussion.
First, the practical points. Some people (mainly judges, I seem to recall) felt that guest judges might not use the same criteria – they wouldn’t be singing from the same hymn sheet, to employ a useful cliche.

This is quite an important point. Chelsea show gardens are not judged against each other – the judges do not come along and say: “That garden is better than this one, so that garden gets a gold and this one gets a silver.”

The designers are competing with themselves: they submit a brief, and the judges decide whether they have succeeded in bringing that vision to life. The level of medal indicates how well they’ve succeeded.

It’s a bit like when you do a music exam, if any of you remember your Grade Two clarinet, or the hell of piano arpeggios. The examiner doesn’t compare your performance to anyone else’s, they just assess how well you measured up in the various sections – pieces, scales, aural tests, sight-reading etc. You’re awarded points out of a certain total for each bit, and the examiner writes comments on each section as well.

(Incidentally, I think there is a very good model here for providing judging feedback, but we’ve been there and done that, so I’ll move on.)

Chelsea 9 copyright Anne Wareham

Therefore it’s important that the judges know what their job is supposed to entail. It was felt that this might be even more problematic if judges from abroad were invited to take part because they were likely to be least familiar with the Chelsea ethos.

The next point was: should these guest judges – whom, one assumes, might not necessarily be expert in landscaping, horticulture or construction – be given a vote? (My personal view is, yes, of course they should. What’s the point of having a judge who doesn’t vote? It’s only one vote – and if it’s a very eccentric one, then that’s what the Moderators are there for: to make sure that judging is consistent.)

Last point: who should these guest judges be? You couldn’t just invite any old Tom, Dick and Simon Cowell along, or it would damage the credibility of the RHS judges.

Suggestions from the floor seemed to favour people who had some background in the visual arts, such as architects – Richard Rogers, for example – designers or photographers, and I think these would be logical choices.

There is a precedent for guest judges at Chelsea – I know the judging panel for the trade stalls usually has someone who is an expert on retail display, such as the person in charge of window-dressing at one of the big London stores, such as Harrods or Selfridges. This makes perfect sense, because they have a knowledge of the subject.

What would be the point of a guest show garden judge, though? Would they actually bring anything useful to the debate? Personally, I think they might, and more importantly, they might bring with them a whole new audience for gardening.

That’s important, because gardeners tend to preach to the converted. If I was the RHS, I would want to see Chelsea migrating from the green and pleasant ghetto of the gardening pages, and onto the fashion spreads, the sports sections, the arts pages.

Chelsea 10 copyright Anne Wareham

But it would depend who they were.

Let’s take Terence Conran as an example. He has a distinguished design background AND he’s won gold medals for his Chelsea show garden designs. It’s difficult to think of anyone on the British design scene who has a better knowledge of the Chelsea routine without actually being a judge or a member of the RHS.
On the face of it, he’s the perfect choice – but would he be able to offer anything new, or surprising?

Wouldn’t it be better to have someone like shoe designer Jimmy Choo (“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” murmured Jekka McVicar) or Vivienne Westwood, or Stella McCartney, who might – in the process of a celebrity interview, say – be able to play a more evangelical role outside the horticultural box?

Or Elton John, whose mini-Alhambra at his home in Windsor was installed at the instigation of Rosemary Verey. Or Julian Clary, who is restoring the garden of Noel Coward’s 15th century manor house in Kent, which he bought five years ago.

When people started batting names around at the forum last week, one of the judges said, in somewhat Lady Bracknellesque tones: “This isn’t Strictly Come Dancing, you know.”

No, but just think! Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli screaming at each other alongside Michael Balston and Andrew Wilson. Mud-wrestling match, anyone?

All right, all right, I’m only JOKING, for heaven’s sake.

Victoria Summerley is an executive editor of The Independent and edits the Saturday edition of the i newspaper. She opens her garden in London for the NGS.

blog – her blog is Victoria’s Backyard

PS. This post, like the last,  has attracted a great many readers and a lot of comment. But I do wonder why that is all taking place here rather than on the RHS’s own website? Members and fellow professionals could have been/could be invited to discuss the issues there. editor

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

All Seasons Gardener February 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm

It’s a fascinating debate. I can no longer tell if I’m a writer who gardens, or a gardener who writes … and by training I’m a philosopher/historian, so the cross fertilisation, for me, ranges from etymology (shrubbery, for example, first used in 1731, best known, to the modern world, via Monty Python’s insane Knights Who Say Ni) through to issues of plant genetics and the effects of breeding temperate climate tolerant versions of flowers that used to be imported from tropical zones (which is better, do the cash crop flower farmers out of their money altogether, or do away with the carbon footprint resulting from flower importing, or neither, or both?). My view of Chelsea is jaundiced, because I want people to get marks for their environmental impacts in designing, creating and dismantling show gardens, but I also want amateur gardeners to be able to develop new ideas of gardening that will add herbage, and maybe even community verbiage to urban and suburban spaces. I am all in favour of intelligent interdisciplinary judging: how about William Boyd, or Matthew Bourne as judges? That could be exciting, maybe even dangerous!


GH February 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm


I feel that we are getting ahead of ourselves somewhat; are we not looking to ensure that the judging system is plainly and simply consistent and clear? I’ll set aside views (including my own) for the moment surrounding the conflicts of interest that sometimes raise their head when discussing Chelsea and judging…and add my two pennies worth.

As far as I can tell, the RHS is quite capable of ensuring their judging system is comprehensive and consistent, and an increase in transparency is not beyond them. The points system is quite transparent as it stands, detailing how the marks are awarded, and from the outset, exhibitors are plainly told that their own ‘brief’ is paramount – if the final exhibit doesn’t reflect it, then that’s the designer’s fault, the brief can be altered up to the last minute if necessary.

Feedback is given to the exhibitor, in verbal form – this is where I’m sure exhibitors would welcome an increase in transparency – written feedback and a break down of points would be welcome.

As for the public – there’s always that intrinsic reaction upon viewing a show garden, a ‘wow’ or an ‘eek’ – you look, you like (or not) and you think, “I bet that did well…must have been a Gold” – only to see it wasn’t, alongside one you didn’t personally ‘like’ as much, but which received a higher award. That’s when the public start questioning – if they too had access to the break down of points, and judging comments, they might agree…but then again, they may not.

Which is surely the point…there’ll always be exhibitors who feel hard done by, regardless of who is judging, and i’m sure the RHS must feel in some cases that they reside in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” scenario. Guest judges will surely only dilute any consistency that we’re aiming for here, and as long as we all know how we are being judged, and that we’re all being judged by the same criteria, then that consistency is already in place.


karen gimson February 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm

I’ve got the laptop propped in the kitchen, so all friends, relatives and visitors can see twitter and the bogs I am reading. And the awards at Chelsea subject has so far caused the most arguments! Everyone has a strong opinion. And the opinions are all wildly different. No one so far has said it doesn’t matter. What has struck me the most from this is how much we have all become obesessed with competition in general. You can hardly turn on the telly or radio without hearing of some award or competition. Just think- there’s skating, singing,dancing, books, films….and gardening. We are all starting to award each other points- we have all become judges. I was always told when I was growing up that it’s the taking part that is important -not the winning. What do you think?


Felicity Waters February 19, 2012 at 9:24 pm

To add value guest judges really need to be design literate.
Surely there is benefit in cross fertilisation of ideas and ‘benchmarking’ garden design with architecture/product designers etc – especially given the recent blur of architecture, plants and products

We may find Chelsea begins to redirect the design world (and visa versa)


Charles Hawes February 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Maybe I am missing something here, but I don’t see the point of having guest judges. Apart from introducing the X Factor frisson of A Famous Person being involved. Which I am sure would be very attractive to the RHS as the press would get even more excited than they do already.

Surely, the point of Victoria’s last piece here was to seek to persuade the RHS to make their judging process and criteria more open and for everyone to be reassured that the process and criteria are being applied consistently. Yes, of course there would be differences of view within the judges about their assessment but given that there are a number (I don’t know the number but there always seem to hoards of them huddling together when I have observed the judging) of judges, such differences should even out.

If the criteria and process is clear, I don’t see that it matters very much who is doing the judging. Have a celeb if you like. And a pleb or two. (they could have a lottery each year for someone chosen from the RHS membership). Why the big fuss about just how experienced they are or whether they are familiar with the show? Just make it clear to us all what is being judged.


Sacha February 19, 2012 at 6:29 pm

It only works if the guest judge is somehow interpreting the gardens to the public at large, who are not expert gardeners or designers. To do that, the guest judge has to be someone who knows about gardens to some extent and about design but doesn’t make their living from it. I’m afraid I can’t see e.g. a shoe designer doing that unless he is a very knowledgeable amateur gardener, too. Would we ask a garden designer to tell us that a high heeled shoe works well, or not and why?


annewareham February 19, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Err.. if they were wearing or looking at the shoe – I think we could very well ask a garden designer to judge a shoe.


Helen February 19, 2012 at 4:57 pm

I think guest judges is a terrible idea – it would remove the little credance us everyday gardens give to the judging process.

I havent studied design and I am at heart a plantsman but I have a passing interest in the show gardens. Personally I don’t get vexed by whether I think a medal is appropriate or not and the few times I have been aware that there is discent and have seen the garden in question I have agreed with the judges. I dont understand why this discussion has even started. I dont really think the average RHS member or even nonRHS gardener loses much sleep over the judging of gardens. Its a distraction and something to ponder briefly over a cuppa but I suspect most, like me, are more interested in what plants have been used and with what and maybe what trends are apparent.

Designers already get feedback from the judges and I know they sometimes choose to share this with each other.

Some have said that publishing the designer’s brief and a precise of the judges decision would be useful to the public. Maybe it would but this doesn’t take into account the marks lost for small details and I suspect would raise more questions than it answered.

Personally, my attitude is that the RHS should be confident in what it does and retain its standards and expertise and not downgrade its judging to a version of Strictly or the X factor. Why do the general public always have to have a say just for once we should keep something that works and is good as it is and not dumb it down


Arabella Sock February 19, 2012 at 4:10 pm

What a shame you don’t have those little boxes you can ‘tick’ to say you agreed with someone’s comment. This would give a much better picture of the opinions from the numbers of people you say have read Victoria’s posts but can’t be arsed to leave a comment.

I would certainly have added my agreement to everything Crowe’s has written above.

Interesting choice of illustrative pictures on both blogs regarding judging. You certainly picked ones of the more ‘contentious’ gardens rather than those that might more roundly represent the full Chelsea spectrum.


annewareham February 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Tick boxes would have been great, you’re right. Don’t know if they can be done, but too late.

Chelsea pics – some chosen in great haste – are a little random and not all are even gardens. Regretted I couldn’t find one of judges judging…


Arabella Sock February 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Should just say that my “can’t be arsed” comment comes over as too harsh – I just meant can’t be bothered or even don’t have time – which is what makes tick boxes so useful.


annewareham February 19, 2012 at 7:26 pm

I don’t know if WordPress do tick boxes, but sadly it’s now too late for it to be useful for this feedback. I have to ask people if they’ll comment – even if just to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ maybe…


Crowe February 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Oh dear.

It is to be hoped that the RHS has the strength and leadership to dismiss the suggestion of ‘guest’ judges. Populist tom-foolery, inviting a ‘guest’ judge along will further polarize opinion and reaction.

Who started this debate? So, last year people were unhappy with awards awarded (“What a surprise!”), let them publish to all their specific grievances and propose alternatives, be they “designers, judges, press and sponsors” who were invited to the review meeting last week.

When has there ever been a year when someone did not have a different opinion to a judge in any sphere of life, let alone…. a show garden?

If transparency is desired then let it commence with those who are most aggrieved being transparent and going public. That would be far more entertaining and informative.

Oh dear, oh dear.

It’s a flower show, they are show gardens, it’s a theatrical performance, it’s a show, nobody dies! (Certainly shouldn’t with all the Health & Safety, Risk Assessment and associated documentation and procedures.)

The trouble is that ‘money’ is what is behind the real driving of this debate or review…..

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.


John Warland February 19, 2012 at 11:18 am

My vote goes to a Mr Kevin McCloud to be scooped onto the panel…

– Personal experience running his own design/architecture companies
– Understanding of construction detailing & build quality
– Wide appreciation & knowledge of various styles & genre
– Industry respect (mostly)
– Media friendly face & ability to convey high-end concepts for TV audience
– Never seen wearing a panama hat?
– Bet he has a lovely garden!

Not everyone may love or agree with him, and he might be a slightly short on in-depth horticultural knowledge, but if anyone even mentions Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen getting in on the action then the world will surely be doomed…


Alison February 19, 2012 at 10:57 am

Great article – I don’t understand why it was thought problematic if the judges came from abroad as they might not understand the Chelsea ethos? There are plenty of exhibiters from abroad who seem to cope?

Guest judges is a great idea – getting new views and new expertise to round the judging panel cannot be a retrograde step.


Sacha Hubbard February 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm

I think guest judges would bring a fresh look to the whole affair. There would of course, be furious arguments as to whom to choose and why. And then there would be furious arguments about what they said afterwards! But there are two queries I would have. Are these guest judges actually going to judge and have a vote, or are they to be commentators only? And secondly, would they be people with some knowledge of plants and planting? I feel that the latter would be necessary to at least some degree, if their comments are to have any meaning in the context of the brief. From what angle are they going to be asked to approach? The overall design is pleasing, harmonious, inspiring, tasteful, provocative, or the right plants have been used in the right way and have, or have not, achieved all of the above? Should they be told the brief in the first place, or should they simply give an unconstrained view of each garden as it appeals to them?


Felicity Waters February 19, 2012 at 10:07 am

great article anne


annewareham February 19, 2012 at 10:18 am

Thanks, Felicity! XXXXX


Felicity Waters February 19, 2012 at 9:46 am

Anne – could you please write a letter to Terance Conran, Jimmy Choo et al and invite them to the Thinking Gardens Chelsea Panel – is there any need to sit around and debate this issue? more pressing issues hey?


annewareham February 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

Good plan – a thinkingardens Chelsea panel anyone??? Meanwhile you could entertain yourself with this instead if we’re boring you, Felicity –


Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

The RHS could certainly get non-gardening designers involved in judging special categories – for example the chic gardens at Chelsea or the visionary gardens at Tatton as an experiment.

Having said that, my perception is that the RHS judges are good at judging high end design – I take a particular interest in the visionary gardens at Tatton each year and think the medals for that have been spot on. The issue is that the public often don’t understand the results, because they don’t see the garden brief and the judging response, other than the medal.

Involving celebrity designers may add to the judging process, but may also end up as a media sideshow. The big prize in this review process is transparency and we must not lose sight of that.


Zoe February 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Don’t forget Zhandra Rhodes – always love a bit of vibrant colour in the garden!


Victoria February 19, 2012 at 1:01 am

Good idea – she used to have the most amazing roof garden, I seem to recall


Paul Steer February 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Wonderful idea, what about David Hockney, or landscape artists and sculptors such as Andy Goldsworthy? The possibilities are exciting, perhaps I would join the RHS .


Victoria February 19, 2012 at 1:01 am

Andy Goldsworthy! Brilliant!


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