I have just finished watching the BBC’s daily reports on the Chelsea Flower Show 2014 and I must say that the new presenter, Monty Don, has significantly improved the standard of debate and analysis of the various plants and gardens featured.
The one interview he conducted with Thomas Heatherwick really struck home with me when they discussed the need to curate the show garden exhibits. The point Thomas Heatherwick made was that individually they had merit but together they offered no message or theme.
I have visited the Chelsea Flower Show on and off for more than thirty years and can hardly remember more than a handful of gardens that were shown. Because the gardens are the product of a single designer working with their sponsor they are all different; the variety this produces is entertaining, but as isolated examples of individual expression they are quickly forgotten by we onlookers.
A curated exhibition investigates a theme and shows how different artists interpret it. If instead of a free for all, the Royal Horticultural Society were to choose a tangible theme for each show, the show gardens could display a range of different approaches to the challenge and together provide a platform for informed debate and analysis.
By using the show gardens in this way the RHS could inform and inspire both designers and visitors and thereby move the possibilities offered by garden design forward. At the moment every designer needs to invent a theme for themselves upon which to base their design, but as we often see, the best designs come about when a challenge or restraint is imposed to which the designer must respond.
The gardens made for Chelsea are five day wonders with little afterlife. If instead they all conformed to a given theme, they could come together, perhaps in the form of a book, that would analyse the design challenge and show how different designers had responded to it. But for this to work the annual themes would need to be tangible and practical rather than intellectual and obscure: water and fire, contemporary formality, naturalism, four season planting schemes, commercial front gardens, outdoor living, roof gardens, vertical gardening etc..
At the moment it seems that sponsors determine what we see at the Chelsea Flower Show; isn’t it time that the RHS took control and allowed their show gardens to move forward the boundaries surrounding gardens and garden design?