How time flies – Hampton Court Show celebrates its 21st birthday this year. It was set up to be the alternative to Chelsea, using the same nurserymen should they care to take part, but with lower-budget and more imaginative gardens, and a great dollop of shopping thrown in, to satisfy people’s lust for plants and sundries. It was fresh, and the striking gardens of Cleve West and Johnny Woodford recognised the change.
Where is the show now? Well, these are harder times and money is scarce. The nurserymen, brought together in one great tent beyond the Long Water, are as enticing as ever, if fewer, but the show gardens are less polished and ambitious, however hard they try. No big name designers. No thrilling newcomers. Not surprisingly, the show in general makes a huge focus on growing-your-own, and on the sundries side there is the usual wide range of smart furniture, although the frippery end of shopping increases; as at Chelsea, the resin leprechaun count is rising.
The show now has four kinds of gardens on display: Show Gardens, Small Gardens, Conceptual Gardens and Sustainable Gardens. None this year had that irresistible wow factor, although several were carefully planted and constructed, and the Gold Medals flew more generously than one might have expected in such a non-vintage year.
Having seen the gardens, the question crying out to be asked is what does conceptual mean? Today the public is well used to three kinds of gardens at shows: the glamorous, domestic, plant-rich, touch-me-not offerings of Chelsea; the occasionally plantless, sculptural garden installations of shows such as Westonbirt and Métis; and, in between, the hybrid gardens at Hampton Court where semi-installations with a heavy theme and plenty of plants set out to express a concept.
The odd thing is that while garden installations have over the years taken license to be fun, conceptual gardens have settled into a timid compromise between Chelsea garden and installation. And rather than conceptual, they are three dimensional puns, an amalgam of associations and symbolism. A pun is not the same as a real concept - a question raised or an idea to be grasped. In the face of this compromise, perhaps the time has come to push Chelsea gardens made to be pretty, and Hampton Court gardens intending to be conceptual, back into one single show category, and to demand that they both be ambitious enough to use plants generously as well as have something to say – to be an idea encapsulated and turned into art.
The claim to be expressing a concept can be an excuse for failing to create something attractive. Attractiveness seems a not unreasonable ambition. Yet with one exception, the Hampton Court conceptual gardens were ugly, and ugly may have it’s useful moments, mostly to shock, but regular ugliness is not shocking but drab. We become immune to shock. Peter Seabrook told me at the Show of his ‘bedroom curtains test’ for gardens: would you want to open your curtains and look out on that garden everyday? It’s not a bad principle for rating a garden. You might look out and be attracted to something for its simple beauty as a picture or as a place to be, or for the questions and ideas it provokes, but surely not for its ugliness.
Interestingly, the Show programme does not set out the judging criteria or the names of the judges, so the reasons for the handing out of medals to the different gardens remains a mystery. It’s a pity, because explaining those results fully, and personalising them, would make gardeners and show visitors think more deeply about what they are being asked to look at and to call gardens. For example, for me the low point of this year’s show gardens was one which set out to raise awareness of urinal incontinence and centred on a dribbling pink 8ft tap, poised in mid air. There was surely the backers’ advertising masquerading as concept. Actually, it was funny for a moment, but it ought not to be the stuff of gardens at an RHS show, which would claim to be setting out to educate the public about the benefits and ambitions of garden making. Such things trivialise the idea of conceptual gardens.
And so I repeat, it is time gardens of beauty and gardens of concept were reunited, both made to accommodate each others principles and the latter not allowed to hide behind a veil of ugliness. Much is written about the water and turf mounds that represent the structure of DNA at Charles Jencks garden of cosmic speculation (too much is written, some say) but still it serves well to illustrate the difference between a garden based on a concept and a 3-D pun; those spiral mounds and crescent pools express the idea of science-as-muse, but have an extraordinary beauty of their own. The idea of DNA structure went into the brain as an idea and came out as something that has both beauty and, for those who choose to enjoy it, an idea. Any garden receiving a medal at any show should also do that.
Star Moments from the Show Programme:
‘The decline of nature is illustrated by three plinths.’
‘A fallen branch carved with the T.S. Elliot [sic] quote has been placed in the mulch area.’
‘Technology plays a vital role in this stylish village sanctuary.’
Stephen Anderton – garden writer and critic