Shot! The Dubai Majlis Garden at the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Tom Hoblyn’s Middle-Eastern inspired show garden was a contemporary expression of an ancient landscape
One of my all-time favourite show gardens at Chelsea — and one I can still vividly remember — was an Australian-inspired landscape created by Jim Fogarty back in 2011.
As well as winning a gold medal, it was one of the most photogenic Chelsea gardens, full of sweeping curves, vibrant colours and unusual plants. Of course it had a water feature and whilst it was a contemporary design, it superbly captured the visual beauty one pictures when thinking of an Australian landscape.
In 2014, Jim Fogarty was back with another equally good Aussie inspired garden, this time at Hampton Court, where he won another gold and was awarded Best in Show,
Since then, show gardens that bring overseas exotica to these shores have been the ones I’m most drawn to. Locations such as Chile, Jordan, Malta, Monaco, Oregon, Japan, Provence, Galicia and South Africa have transported me for half an hour or so to another world, in terms of the landscaping, the fauna and, most importantly, that emotional connection.
This year at Chelsea, the garden that most captured my attention was the one created by Suffolk designer Tom Hoblyn. Entitled The Dubai Majlis Garden, it reminded me a lot of that Australian garden.
It was evocative of the country it was sponsored by, without being overly literal. And it was a contemporary expression of an ancient landscape. In this case, the sculptural beauty of an arid dessert, without a sand dune or palm in sight.
My appreciation of the garden was certainly heightened by spending time on it — a rare privilege even for photographers on press day. It meant I could capture compositions you simply couldn’t get when viewing the garden from outside the ropes.
And with its wonderful curved walls and water feature, this was a garden that was made to be photographed.
The colours: the brown of the clay walls, the cream of the Portland stone and the pale turquoise of the oasis, were in complete contrast to almost every other show garden, where lush green planting was the overlying theme.
Here, the planting, whilst naturalistic, was sparce and featured an array of unusual specimens, all of which were set off beautifully by either the landscaping or the water.
Majlis is the Arabic for sitting place and at the back of the garden was a contemporary take on the traditional Bedouin tent. Constructed of hand-bent curved wood and containing cushions and rugs, this was a place to sit and chat, to enjoy both the company and the tranquility of the garden in front of you.
But there was more to admire than just the plants and the water. As well as some wonderful specimen trees, there were also beautiful artworks: a crown-like firepit by Magmafirepits and Flow a sculpture by Michael Speller.
Neither were obviously arabesque, but they fitted well into their surroundings. Indeed, everywhere you looked there was something visually pleasing that caught your eye.
For me this was a garden deserving a gold medal, but for reasons only the judges know, it just missed out, receiving a silver-gilt.
Fortunately, much of the garden will live on as it will be recreated at a school in Newmarket. That’s something I believe should be a pre-requisite of all future show gardens at Chelsea. It’s up to the RHS to make it a requirement for participating in the world’s most prestigious — and influential — horticultural event.
I’d also like to see them become more transparent with the medals…and only give out one of each colour for the show gardens. This year, for example, all eleven received a medal, with four getting golds. To me, that appears more about rewarding participation, than selecting the best of the best.
That being said, it does seem the RHS is more open to change than ever before. This year, for example, they’ve renamed their Hampton Court show the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival so it better represents the event.
Finally, it’s important to remember that Main Avenue show gardens at Chelsea are the result of months of planning and production, numerous collaborators, three weeks of building onsite and huge (never revealed) budgets. And all that for just six days, only two of which are open to the general public.
Most of course only get to see the show gardens at eye-level from just two sides, but it’s when you see them from above, courtesy of the BBC’s sweeping boom cameras that you can really appreciate their design. And for me, Tom Hoblyn produced the most visually pleasing one at this year’s Chelsea.
Behind the image: All these images were taken with either the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the 75mm 1.8 lens or the iPhone 8 Plus. To be honest, you’d be hard-pressed to tell what shot came from what device. Rather than taking the usual wide shots of the garden, my focus was on finding interesting compositions: small scenes that captured its sculptural beauty. Shot in London on 20 May 2019.