The Love of the Familiar by Alison Levey

June 5, 2013

in Articles, Chelsea 2013 Competition

Post image for The Love of the Familiar by Alison Levey

A nearly – winner  in the Chelsea 2013 competition. Nearly!

Anne Wareham, editor

Diarmuid Gavin pyramid Chelsea 2012 copyright Alison Levey for thinkingardens

Giant Diarmuid Gavin pyramid c.2012

Chelsea – a little bit familiar? by Alison Levey

When I tell people I am going to The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show I generally get one of two reactions: either “ooh, I’ve always wanted to go there, I am intending to do it when I retire”, or “was it a vintage year?”  I have been going to the show now for eleven years and in those eleven years I can say that my gardening knowledge has grown vastly; but can I point to one and say it was a vintage year?……no.  Was this year a vintage year? ….. no, it was not.  It was in some ways better than last year but possibly in the most important way it was not.

It was not in my opinion because it did not challenge me, it did not make me think.  Do I want a giant Diarmuid Gavin pyramid c.2012 as my garden, no I do not.  Do I admire the challenge and inspiration that created it, yes.  That garden did not work well at Chelsea largely as it crowded out some gardens that were around it making it difficult to see any gardens including Diarmuid’s that were near it, it was stealing their real and their lime-light.

Do I want a James Dyson’s 2003 ‘Wrong Garden’ as my garden, no again I do not, but I liked that it made me think, I liked that it made me consider possibilities.  How about the 2007 Mars landscape of ‘600 Days with Bradstone’ by Sarah Eberle?  It won Best in Show, yet it is probably fair to say that a lot of visitors were not that keen on it, they could not identify with it or see it placed in their garden.  Maybe though it was the best in show as it was different, it was not the norm.

This year you could see plenty that you could picture in your garden.  It was generally comfortable and familiar.  Whilst we can quibble as to whether some had too much hardscaping they were all beautifully and skilfully planted; ferns and cow parsley abounded.  The garden that showed that something different, that clear originality of  thought was the Best in Show Trailfinders Australian Garden.  Why was this different?  Did it show groundbreaking design?  No, it was a diorama of an imagined Australian landscape and I liked it, I could not accommodate it in my garden yet I enjoyed the spectacle nonetheless.

DSC_00452007-05-23 copyright Alison Levey

The most innovative design I saw at Chelsea was found in the Fresh gardens.  These are smaller, more entry level gardens but where the explicit intention is to think outside of the box.  Sadly this is limited to a small area, an almost missable area and certainly not an area high on the agenda of the television coverage (I could write a whole lot more about the television coverage but then I might start seriously ranting, I will just say that it appears to be quantity not quality).

It is possible that there is no such thing as a vintage year and that if there was it would only be identified through the rosy tinted spectacles of nostalgia.  Of course one person’s vintage year could be another’s dull as ditchwater, it is, after all, a subjective opinion.

So does this make the quest for the vintage year futile?  Should we be asking what the purpose of Chelsea Flower Show is?  Is it to show us what we like or is it to challenge our assumptions and make us consider something new?  Currently it seems to be to show us what we like, to reinforce this view they even present a ‘People’s Choice’ award so that just in case the judges do choose something a bit out of the ordinary, ‘the people’ can still have they say and choose something pretty that they like.  Not that there is anything wrong with pretty as such, I like my garden to be pretty, I enjoy going to see pretty gardens, I am not averse to pretty at all.  Maybe that as two of the gardens I have mentioned were just a little different points to an RHS that wants to celebrate the new and the different but also has to keep an eye to its membership that it cannot afford to upset?

Maybe what I am hoping for is a Chelsea Flower Show that is akin to London Fashion Week?  Most of will never aspire to owning a piece of haute-couture design fresh from the catwalks, but we do know that the designs will be watered down and translated and a distant but recognisable cousin will turn up in our high street shops some time later.  This is what innovative design is for, to extend our thoughts but also percolate through to our daily lives.  Do not only show me what I know I can have, show me what could be.

Except as I write this I realise immediately what the barrier is.  The designers who exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show do so to some degree to show what they can create, they want to enhance their reputations and ultimately garner business for themselves.  They will not do this if they show things that are too outlandish, too beyond what people might wish to look upon every day as their garden.  Also who would sponsor such a garden?  The show gardens rely on their sponsors and the sponsors want their brand to be associated with something that people like.  So there is the quandary, how do we get to see the new, the unusual and the challenging when what people want to present and what the majority want to see is the familiar?  .

Chelsea Flower remains a spectacle I am sure I shall continue to enjoy.  I shall do so with the knowledge that the consumer is sovereign, the paying customers will get what they have paid for which is comfortable and pretty with the odd bit of exotic and daring, but all within a very safe zone.

Alison Levey  


Alison Levey portrait copyright Alison Levey


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