Taste and Themes at Chelsea by Daniel Bristow

May 5, 2016

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

Quite a few of us have ideas about themes and taste at Chelsea (see ‘Do themes help?). But we rarely hear a critical comment from a designer who is actually showing a garden at Chelsea. It takes bottle.

Here is Daniel Bristow, (“Propagating Dan”)with his first garden at Chelsea this year, speaking out for thinkingardens.

Anne Wareham, editor

PS My sympathy for those who have been refused press passes to Chelsea. If it’s any consolation, there seem to be a lot of you.

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Daniel Bristow:


What’s in a theme? The commonest query I get asked when I tell people that I’m designing a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show is “Oh, what’s your theme then?” Unfortunately, I really dislike the question.

Why should a garden design have an overt message? Does the visitor really need to cling on to an external motif to have an engagement with our creations? It is so reductive. Would we be able to shoehorn a Henry Moore, Virginia Woolf or Igor Stravinsky creation into a neat ‘theme’? What about layers of inspirations? Surely, you take in the work and respond to it. So the same should be said of garden design. It shouldn’t be neatly dissectible into its constituent parts, this plant ‘symbolising the battlefields of the first world war’, this winding pathway embodying ‘the path to recovery for a former drug addict’. It’s so embarrassing.


A creative use of sculpture at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 2012.

We, as garden designers, should of course try to create feelings and sensations in the visitor, but this has to be done directly through the medium we’re working with, not via a guidebook. To be honest, the art world, with which I have had fleeting relationships over the years, suffers a similar malaise. I don’t want to have to read the blurb on the wall to understand that the reason we’re looking at a stooped papier mâché gorilla is something to do with a long-debunked theory penned by Nietzsche’s godson. It should speak to me (not the gorilla, literally, mind) itself. But at least, in the art world, real critics do exist. They surely would tear apart the dour, worthy figurative sculptures that ‘adorn’ many a show garden. Let’s put sculpture in that is fresh, or seamless, or even jarring, not these dreadful Giacometti pastiches that somehow pass without comment.


Along with tenuous metaphors and third-rate sculpture, my current unholy trinity of garden design bugbears is taste. I think taste is the enemy of creativity. I love walking past front gardens in council estates or suburbs, seeing what their owners have come up with using unsuspecting plants or materials. A brick wall where lobelias have been planted into the round hollows in the top brick course. An unnatural array of various decorative aggregates, arranged into neat lines. A yucca that’s had its lower leaves curled back on themselves and tied in so that the plant resembles a pineapple.

Yucca ananananifolia Copyright Laura Mannering. @shitgardens


This is where I see creativity. It’s not necessarily cohesive, or even considered, but I find these interventions infinitely more pleasurable than yet another show garden with polished stone and slick lines.

It seems to me that the big budget show gardens want to pander to the lowest common denominator. Their designer’s rough-hewn ideas have all been smoothed off, leaving a smooth but soulless experience. They mostly even use all the same plants. There are countless incredible plant species that deserve an outing in show gardens, but are ignored for the current on-trend Iris or Digitalis. How dull.

In the garden we’re designing at Chelsea this year, I’m trying to explore the further possibilities of garden design. I love juxtaposing various influences, whether from nature or south London suburbia. I’d prefer to fail having tried something new rather than get a gold medal for ticking all the boxes. To revive that old art school cliché, it’s better to have strong reactions both positive and negative, than have everyone say “that’s nice”.

Daniel Bristow

Website here

Daniel K17A7158

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