Chelsea 2017 – this ghastly fame phenomenon, by Catharine Howard.

June 6, 2017

in Events, Shows

I had intended to join the sponsors and give Chelsea a miss this year, but I can’t turn down a good offer. Catharine was less than delighted by Chelsea 2017…..

 Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes
Anne Wareham, editor
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 1.

Chelsea 2017 – this ghastly fame phenomenon, by Catharine Howard. 

Chelsea is the mother of all flower shows but this year it got a kick in the teeth from sponsors pulling out.  Part of a post Brexit wave, so they say. It is the sponsors who pay the cost of the show gardens and pretty often dedicate them to a good cause.
As a press visitor I was given the show Catalogue.  Very useful – even more so if you put it together with the Photo-call Notice.  This is a rather whimsical document which lists by time and venue a series of jolly japes to attract publicity and the press.  There will always be the naming of a new rose – (this time for Judy Dench),  bevies of beautiful models tricked out all flowery and some random stunts.  My favourite this time – and I quote in full:
“Sculptures of three magnificent horses thunder down a winding mountain stream fed by a curtain of water that tumbles over a huge stone waterfall.  Grizzly bears stands five metres high with an eagle circling overhead.  In the middle, Philip Mould, well known art dealer, broadcaster and author will stand beneath the hooves of two larger than life rutting stags which form the arched entrance to the exhibit.”  (Doing what?)
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 2I love that this flower show offers  its profile to draw attention to some really important charities and things that matter  – this year  the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, nurturing  good mental health, breast cancer, horse welfare, the importance of pollinators  and a children’s hospice featured in the long list.  
And some of it is flim-flam. 
At the high end Linklaters had sponsored a garden for Maggie’s Centres – these are tranquil homely, support centres for cancer sufferers. The garden was hidden behind tall hedges and was a haven decked out in highly fashionable dark grey concrete.   
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 5

Maggie’s Centre Garden

In the lower budget Fresh Gardens category, Ian Price created a garden that is a symbol of the depression that he has lived with.  “Mind Trap” was very clever from name and concept through to the planting.  The centre of the small site gave the sense of entrapment.  Ian was out to confront the stigma and secrecy that surrounds mental health. 

Chelsea 2017 Copyright Cath

Mind Trap Garden

So you can see a goodly proportion is humbling and thought provoking.  

Now I want to tell you about another hand-out we got:  “RHS Chelsea Flower Show CELEBRITY SPOTTING”.  The lady next to me at the press table, from Canada, was creeped out – we both were. “I mean who are all these people?”  All 90+ of them, that is.  When I left the show ground  I showed this to my mother aged  91. A poor score, only 2 recognised. Then to my two sons, ages 28 and 30 – slightly better,  – 6, collectively.   
When did we become the living rendition of Hello magazine?  What is the relevance of this ghastly fame phenomenon?  What has it got to do with horticulture? Has the RHS lost the plot?  Ideas of what this flower show is all about float round in my head . Various notions like flagship, promoting horticulture, launching new plants and products, money and celebrity all swirl crazily.   
The celebrity relationship is the obvious symbiosis of gaining press coverage but the RHS needs to take care where self serving nonsense sneaks in. Why, several years back was James May of Top Gear allowed to exhibit plants entirely made of Plasticine?  Exhibitors should get real too: one stand was flaunting a visit by Gary Kemp and his wife.  Who he? A delve revealed a pop musician from Spandau Ballet as old as me. Duh. Do we care? That goes for the RHS list too.
Then there is the Great Pavilion at the core of the site.  All three and a half acres of it.  This is the territory of the best nurseries in the country.  I have been here in the past setting up, helping on the stand.  Fewer and fewer nurseries are here. This year Crug has dropped from the league. It is understandable – life other than Chelsea has to stand still if you are to exhibit here. But this is the oxygen of the show – without it the catwalk is pulled.  
I heard muttering from stall holders that to get on site to set up, all the cars and lorries had to stack for several hours in Battersea Park.  This ratchets up the list of reasons not to exhibit though it is necessary for security purposes. As sniffer dogs romped politely past my rucksack the thought crossed my mind that it would be easier not to invite the Queen. Would that kill the golden goose of the Gala evening? The good and the great  dancing round the queen bee might just push off in a hissy fit. Where then would the revenue be?
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 4Last of all – one horticultural point that crops up every year.  So many of the show gardens approach their planting like a florist with cut flowers.  The planting can look droolingly superb but is horticulturally unrealistic. Put baldly, plants are crammed in side by side which would never cohabit in reality. We shouldn’t forget the ecological aspect of plants and the constraints of the soil as limiting factors. This ought to be addressed since the Chelsea Flower Show is the beginning and end of gardening.
Or so we all would like to think. 
Catherine Howard. 

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