Shot! The 2021 RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Finally, following a Covid-induced delay, the world’s premier horticultural show was back. And, for the first time ever, it took place in Autumn rather than Spring.

I’ve been coming to the Chelsea Flower Show every year since 2011. But in 2020, for the first time since the Second World War, it got cancelled because of the pandemic.

This year, the RHS took the unprecedented decision to further delay its most prestigious event from its traditional late May slot to the end of September.

That meant it followed rather than preceded their Hampton Court show and for the first time ever Chelsea would be an Autumn rather than a Spring show.

And for a show that’s all about flowers, that alone is a huge change, not just for the growers who exhibit in the Great Pavilion, but for the designers who had to choose totally different varieties to fill their show gardens.

Moving it to Autumn when few species are at their prime, meant retaining the vibrant colours and lushness of what was available in Spring was now going to be an even more difficult challenge.

As a result of the delay, the change of season and all the issues brought about by the pandemic, this year’s Chelsea was arguably the most challenging ever staged in its 108-year existence.

The Guardian even called it “the horticultural equivalent of Wimbledon on ice!” Even so, the RHS was still boldly billing it at “The world’s greatest flower show” promising “cutting edge garden design and fabulous floral displays.”

Officially opening the event, Dame Judi Dench proclaimed that “the show looked, as always, immaculate.” A quick walk around Main Avenue and the Great Pavilion suggested otherwise.

First, there were noticeably fewer show gardens to see and — at least in my opinion — none that matched the wow factor of previous years. The show gardens are what Chelsea is famed for and, in my mind, what it should be judged on. They need to be beyond impressive, but I don’t think any of this year’s crop came close to achieving that.

Worse still, inside the Great Pavilion there was an abundance of empty space, something I’d never seen at Chelsea before. Even more surprising, was the overall presentation, not by the exhibitors, but of the space itself.

Throughout the pavilion’s almost three acres, where one would normally expect to see lush green grass, you were met with an unsightly brown surface. How ironic when 2021 has been a huge year for interest in lawns and lawn care.

According to several exhibitors I spoke with, this was due to an equine event that took place a few weeks earlier. In fact, the previous month, the Longines Global Champions Tour of London showjumping competition was held there.

Over the course of the three day event, the horses had apparently compacted the ground so preventing the grass from growing properly. All I know, is it wasn’t up to the RHS’s usual high standards and made for a really poor first impression.

With that being said, if you watched the BBC’s TV coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing about this year’s Chelsea was below par. It was their usual gushing praise for everything without a single negative comment.

It wasn’t just the Beeb, many have lavishly praised the show — although that may be more to do with it returning, than what it offered.

Noughticulture writer Alice Vincent even went so far as to say that this year’s event “might have been my favourite Chelsea yet.” She gave her reasons for this as being “Attention to small spaces, as well as fewer show gardens and a lean towards natural beauty rather than opulence.”

I have to take umbrage with her appraisal as, to quote Shania Twain: “That don’t impress me much!” What I’m looking for is precisely the opposite.

I want to see the opulence, to witness the jaw-droppingly fabulous and to experience the crème de la crème. That’s why I go to Chelsea. And I’m sure it’s what draws many others as well.

This year, transport issues meant I had less time at the show than I would have liked, so I didn’t get to see everything that was on display. What follows are my personal highlights of what I did see, in the order of how I saw them.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s Chelsea experience is different, visitors to the show come for different things. Generally, I’m looking for things that are out of the ordinary: interesting gardens, interesting garden features, interesting artworks, interesting plants and flowers and, if I see them, interesting people. And of course, it’s me who defines what’s interesting.

I began by walking Main Avenue, Chelsea’s most prestigious stretch of real estate, home to the big show gardens. My immediate thought was where were they? There seemed to be far fewer than in previous years. Looking around, I assumed the RHS had done what they now do at Hampton Court: spreading the show gardens around the site, something I’ve never been a fan of.

As far as I know, there were 27 gardens this year, although the vast majority of those were not what I’d define as actual show gardens, but smaller spaces, usually conforming to a specific theme.

With time at a premium, if something didn’t immediately grab my attention, I moved on to something that did. The first show garden that did so was Tom Massey’s Yeo Organic Garden.

Now it’s important to remember that show gardens are designed primarily to be looked into, usually from two vantage points: the front and one side. That’s the view the vast majority of visitors get to see. Only a few get to venture onto the gardens themselves, where you often get a completely different impression.

Tom’s was one of just two gardens I got to walk on. Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, it was my favourite show garden at this year’s Chelsea and, as such, I’ll be featuring it in detail in a subsequent article.

Art is always a big element of RHS shows, with sculptures of one style or another appearing on most of the show gardens. But many artists exhibit their pieces at Chelsea and I always try to pay a visit to those whose artworks I like.

First this year was David Harber, arguably the biggest player in the field. I was drawn to one of the smaller works on his stand, a turquoise and chrome sculpture called Orbis.

David told me he originally created Orbis for the 2020 show and was inspired by the eliptical orbits of comets. I loved the colour and its form, although getting good shots of it was almost impossible without either getting his other artworks or people in the frame — a challenge when photographing almost any artwork at Chelsea, where space is always at a premium.

As much as I liked it, it wasn’t on the same level as David’s work at previous Chelsea’s. His stunning turquoise and gold Aeon ‘eye’ from 2018 and 2019’s bronze fern Nyneve were some of the most memorable artworks I’ve photographed.

Next up was the M&G Garden. Historically, this is a controversial garden for me. For two reasons. First, they are the show’s principal sponsor, occupying the prime spot at the top of Main Avenue. That means theirs is the first show garden most visitors get to see and M&G invariably walk away with a gold. And second, some of their recent gardens have challenged how one even defines a garden.

James Basson’s 2017 design — inspired by a Maltese quarry, but looking like a cemetery — was visually dramatic and great to shoot, but could it really be described as a garden? That year, M&G didn’t just win a gold, but also received Best in Show.

This year, Harris Bugg Studio were the garden’s designers and they won M&G another gold.

Originally planned for the 2020 show, Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg had to completely rethink their planting for 2021 and there’s no doubt the autumnal shades really worked to their advantage. In fact, their garden had some of the most memorable planting of any of this year’s show gardens.

What I didn’t care for as much was their central visual motif, 100 metres of black industrial pipe that threaded its way throughout the garden. It reminded me of steam punk and whilst I learned it was intended to represent a regenerated industrial landscape, to my eyes it was just plain ugly.

The next garden I visited — Tom Hoblyn’s sanctuary garden for Boodles, the jewellery firm — was one I was really looking forward to see in person.

Usually at Chelsea, one picks up on themes, design elements that prominently feature on the show gardens. In recent years for example, corten steel, with its distinctive weathered, rust-like appearance, has been a favourite of many designers. This year, there wasn’t much of it to be seen, instead there was an abundance of timber.

Indeed, wood was everywhere, used for structural elements like canopies and bridges, for feature pieces like the steam bent wooden egg on the Yeo Organic garden, for seating and as walling. No garden however used wood quite as creatively than on the small but perfectly formed Boodles Secret Garden.

Now I’d seen photos beforehand and it looked really interesting, but it was even more impressive in reality.

From the outside you couldn’t appreciate quite what you were seeing, but once you step inside it was another story.

I was fortunate to get to spend a few minutes admiring the craftsmanship from the inside where the louvred wall, constructed by London furniture maker Jan Hendzell, was a true work of art. Apparently each piece of oak had been hand-carved on one side to produce the stunning undulated effect.

At the time, I thought it resembled a Bridget Riley, but made of wood. I later learned that Riley’s art was indeed the inspiration for the louvres design. As most visitors will only see the exterior, it was a shame it could only be appreciated from the inside.

To be honest, I was so enthralled about the timberwork I didn’t really take the time to look closely at the rest of the garden. It won a silver-gilt, the second highest medal the RHS award, but if it were me, I’d have given it a gold for the timber work alone. And if I were Boodles, I’d be creating a range of jewellery based on that louvre design.

My next photo opportunity came by chance when I noticed an interesting looking couple posing for pictures. As I was preparing to get my own shots, another, even more eye-catching character joined them.

Dressed in period costume as Queen Bee, this was Mel Reynard. I thought she looked fabulous with her bee adorned tiara and bee-coloured eyebrows. Without doubt, she was the most flamboyant individual I saw at the show.

Safe in the knowledge that I had a few good portraits of her, I moved on next door, to the Finnish Soul Garden.

Designed by Taina Suonio, it recreated a Finnish seaside holiday home. With hindsight, I wish I spent longer photographing it, but at the time, it didn’t immediately grab my attention.

What did was an accordionist casually playing in front of a black timber sauna. Without giving it much thought, I snapped a couple of portraits of him. And wouldn’t you know it, one of those ended up being my favourite image of all those I took at this year’s Chelsea!

It just goes to show, never be afraid to shoot anything you feel might be even the slightest bit interesting and get as many shots as possible. You can always delete them afterwards.

As with any small garden, my first intuition is usually to dismiss them as insignificant. Taina’s won her a silver-gilt and I should have better appreciated it for what it was. But at the time I was feeling hungry and thinking to myself I’ll come back later and get some more shots. In the end, I never did.

Another regret came with the next garden. Finding Our Way was one of two Chelsea gardens that paid tribute to hospitals, this to the NHS, another on Main Avenue to Florence Nightingale, two very obvious, very topical themes. Both coincidentally also featured huge wooden arches.

To be honest, what drew me to Finding Our Way was the planting, the most vibrant of any garden I saw.

Coming from Sussex and always looking to champion any garden or designer that emanates from the county, I was bummed that I only found out after I got home that its designer, Naomi Ferrett-Cohen, is based close to me in Shoreham, West Sussex. Had I known, I would certainly have spent more time photographing it.

If anything said Hampton Court at Chelsea it was the Delays Expected garden sponsored by the Saatchi Gallery.

Now when I say ‘garden’ I use the word loosely, for this was really just an art installation: the carcass of an old Transit van with trees etched into its metal, stuck on a rubbish tip. Not only was there no garden whatsoever, but it was awfully similar to Extinction, Felicity O’Rourke’s controversial plane wreck ‘garden’ that we saw at this summer’s Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival.

Like Extinction, if Delays Expected was intended to make you think, I don’t think its message was at all clear. I also don’t know if it was worthy of a place at Chelsea, but it was certainly worth a photo or two!

From an art installation that many would say was literally a piece of junk, one only had to walk a short distance to find some genuine art.

I first discovered the kiln-fused glass art of Carrie Anne Funnell a few years ago and have always loved how she creates such original and eye-catching abstract works.

For me, rather than just photographing one entire piece, it’s all about finding individual compositions from within her work.

I may be mistaken, but I think what she had on display at Chelsea was exactly the same as she showed at Hampton Court a few months earlier, including this gorgeous water feature.

It was at this time that I first stepped into the Grand Pavilion and was immediately taken aback by the state of the grass and the empty spaces.

As I do each year, I made a beeline to Dutch allium grower WS Warmenhoven. Alliums are one of my favourite flowers to photograph and at Chelsea 2019 WS Warmenhoven had a brilliantly photogenic display.

This year, their alliums were far less impressively presented, but you really have to admire them for having anything to show at all.

With alliums not being in season in September, they had to pick the blooms in May and then keep them in cold storage for four months.

That in itself is quite a feat, but I wish they had put as much creativity into how they were displayed. The RHS clearly appreciated their endeavour, awarding them a gold medal.

Now here’s my bone of contention with the RHS: WS Warmenhoven’s medal was one of 36 golds awarded this year to exhibitors in the Great Pavilion. By giving out so many, I think they are devaluing what a gold medal actually means.

A cynic may even question whether they’ve almost become a reward for taking part, rather than a recognition of being the best of the best.

To my mind, there should be far fewer golds available, with each restricted to a much narrower category, for example: best cut flowers, best evergreens, best small display, best large display, best floristry and best new plant. That alone would bring the gold medal count down from 36 to just six.

Having only ‘discovered’ them in recent years, airplants have become another favourite of mine to photograph.

Andy’s Airplants, who I’ve got great shots from at previous shows, weren’t at Chelsea this year, but I found another airplant specialist, Liverpool-based Every Picture Tells A Story, who had some tillandsia on their stand.

They won a gold-medal for their display.

I then came across a display that really caught my eye by a company I’d never heard of before.

The business was Cornish succulent growers Surreal Succulents who were making their Chelsea debut with a particularly attractive display of yuccas, aeoniums and semporiums.

New they may be, but they definitely deserved their gold medal.

Moving on from growers to florists, I had a look at the floristry displays celebrating British Blooms. Two quite different entrants caught my attention.

The first of these was the biggest, a very contemporary installation by Lois Golding of Warwickshire-based Little Garden Flowers.

Lois’ display reminded me of some of the excellent floral installations that Interflora created at previous Chelsea’s. Sadly, they no longer take part.

As a former photographic student, Lois certainly knew how to create something eye-catching.

I loved her choice of flowers and the way she mixed colours. I thought it was fabulous. Sadly, the judges didn’t share my enthusiasm, awarding it just a silver.

Next on my admiration list was Amanda Randell Cox’s wonderful Floral Window. The Master Florist’s display was inspired by the gardens of the Hotel Endsleigh in Devon.

To me, it looked like a painting come to life. I loved the muted autumnal tones and the sublety of her arrangement. It thoroughly deserved not just a gold-medal, but to be named Best in Class.

With my time running out, I made my way back to the Yeo Organic Garden to get some more pictures, before finishing full circle with a few final shots at the M&G Garden.

So that was my Chelsea experience. I have to say it was good to be back after such an extended absence and there’s no doubting the seasonal change gave this year’s show a different feel.

However, both my initial impressions while I was there and my more considered thoughts since, all lead me to conclude that this was a Chelsea lacking in its usual wow factor. It will be remembered, I think, more for taking place in September than anything that took place in the showgrounds.

Next year, Chelsea returns to its regular May date and I hope it will be a return to its previous exemplary standards.

Behind the shot: These images were taken either using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens or the iPhone 12. Over the years I’ve tended to focus on tight compositions when shooting show gardens, floral displays and artworks at Chelsea and Hampton Court. The challenge as always is to come away from the show with a set of interesting images that are different from those taken by all the other photographers there. Photographed at Royal Hospital Chelsea on 20 September 2021

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people