I’ve been coming to Press Day at Chelsea for each of the past ten years. It is, unquestionably, the most prestigious event in the floral calendar, but in truth calling it a flower show is somewhat of a misnomer as the biggest attractions are actually the show gardens. Along with the celebs and royalty who flock to Chelsea like bees to nectar, it’s what happens on Main Avenue that defines the show.
Here, on this much smaller than you’d think piece of real estate in the grounds of Chelsea Hospital, the world’s best garden designers vie with each other for the big prizes. And whilst the goal is to receive a coveted gold medal, the reality is it’s actually all about securing sponsorship.
Show Gardens are hugely expensive undertakings and require generous benefactors in order to go from concept to reality.
This year there were 11 show gardens on Main Avenue (although one was actually inside the Great Pavilion) as well as a couple more RHS-funded gardens that weren’t up for judging: The Bridgewater Garden and the Back To Nature Garden. Being that the latter was ’co-designed’ by the Duchess of Cambridge, it was no surprise it was the one grabbing all the headlines and became the most talked about for many a year.
For the first time, it felt like all the show gardens were suffering from second-billing syndrome; as if they were a mere supporting cast to the royal debutante.
One of those I was most looking forward to seeing was the M&G Garden. The designer responsible for it, Brighton-based Andy Sturgeon, has regularly produced some of the most stylish (and photogenic) gardens at Chelsea, mixing bold architectural forms with naturalistic planting, often using unusual species and muted tones.
Andy is also one of the most decorated designers at Chelsea, having accrued no less than seven golds and two Best in Shows in his nine previous appearances. This however was his first time back since 2016 and the question was: what would he produce for M&G?
With no name other than the statutory M&G Garden, there was no clue in what it was called, but — appropriately for a financial services sponsor — it was all about growth.
To my surprise, my first impressions weren’t that favourable. It looked like an overgrown forest. Yes, it was lush — a common theme at this year’s Chelsea — but it just seemed to be stuffed full of greenery — an equally common theme. Indeed, the only contrast to green came from monumental slabs of charred wood slicing through the foliage.
My initial thoughts were less than positive: it’s nowhere near as good as his previous gardens, it was no match for last year’s M&G Garden from Sarah Price and, the ultimate conundrum; what’s there to photograph?
With the garden roped off for BBC filming and out of bounds, I walked away with an air of disappointment. But hang on, this was Andy Sturgeon’s garden. Had I been too hasty in my assessment? Had I misjudged him?
A little later, I returned to the plot, arguably the most prestigious on Main Avenue, as it’s the first show garden. This time, having now seen most of the other offerings, I began to appreciate what I was looking at. Yes, there was very little colour apart from green and black. And, yes, there was nothing about it that could genuinely be described as a garden, but the longer I lingered, the more its verdant beauty seduced me.
I then got the opportunity to go on the garden itself, a rare privilege even among press day photographers. The fact is, one’s perspective of a garden design dramatically changes once you step for on it, rather than just looking from the outside in.
Up close and personal on this imagined landscape, the beauty of the blackened wood comes to the fore. Apparently, there were 50 tonnes of it on the garden! Whilst technically these were sculptures — created by Sussex craftsman Johnny Woodford — they looked like they were hewn from an ancient coal mine, rather than carved out of burnt-oak. Not only did they give the garden a dramatic quality, but the jet black provided a stunning backdrop to all that greenery.
I do remember, some years ago, seeing burnt-oak used on a conceptual garden at Hampton Court, [Bruce Waldock’s gold-winning Ashes to Ashes garden from 2013] which reminds me of this truism: there is nothing that is completely original — only things that you yourself have not seen before.
Something else rang true: once you have a better understanding of what you’re seeing, the stronger your emotional connection to it becomes. And when you’re emotionally connected to a show garden, your viewpoint changes.
I’ve learned much about the M&G Garden after seeing it and am sure I would appreciate it even more if I had the opportunity to visit it again.
Explaining a garden’s narrative to casual onlookers is always a challenge for show garden designers. With no name to help describe it and no obvious story, most can only judge it by what they see before them. And the reality is the majority will have no idea whatsoever what they’re looking at; it’s completely down to their first impressions and whether they like it or not.
I know I was too quick to form my own opinion, but I do think that was down to the narrative not being communicated. And that’s got to be a huge missed opportunity.
They say the devil’s in the detail, but in this instance, a little more attention to communicating the message would have helped people better appreciate what was in front of them.
Speaking of details, I’ve always admired how Andy selects unusual specimens for his garden s— often rare plants and trees little seen in this country — yet, at the same time he champions humble plants that ordinarily might be deemed uninteresting and gives them centre stage. By planting them, often sparcely, against a monochrome backdrop, he elevates them to things of beauty.
With a multitude of large ferns and oversized tropical leaves, including Gunnera Killipiana, the garden certainly had a Jurassic Park quality about it.
Whilst Andy says he was influenced by stratified rock formations he saw on an Australian beach, I would say the outcome looked like it owed more to a trip to the cinema than a visit Down Under. Indeed, it was more like a movie set than what might be considered an actual garden. One could even imagine a brachiosaurus emerging through the ferns!
As with so many show gardens, it’s only when you see it on TV, with those sweeping boom shots from above, that you can really appreciate the layout, something often hidden when viewed at eye level.
As much as I ended up appreciating the dramatic qualities of the garden, I have to say it was challenging to shoot. Being so densely planted and so similar wherever you looked, I don’t think it was especially photogenic. And these days, if a show garden has to be anything, it surely has to be Instagrammable.
That being said, the judges clearly loved it. Not only did they award it a Gold medal (one of four given to this year’s Show Gardens) but named it Best in Show. And that’s the ultimate accolade any garden at Chelsea can receive.
For some, it was certainly a controversial choice. The Mail’s headline was: ”The Chelsea Flower Show winner with no flowers” before going on to claim: ”Garden without a single bloom in sight is the first entirely green plot ever to win a prize.” (If they’d looked more closely, they would’ve spotted a few flowers hiding in the foliage.)
Whilst I ended up being won over, it wasn’t my favourite show garden. That distinction went to Tom Hoblyn’s Dubai Majlis Garden, which I thought was more deserving. But what do I know? The judges only gave that one a silver-gilt.
The cynic in me can only wonder if it had been sponsored by M&G (who just happen to also be the show’s sponsor) whether the results might have been somewhat different.
And lastly, whilst a number of this year’s show gardens were designed with re-use in mind (much of the Majlis garden, for example, will be reconstructed at a school in Newmarket) as far as I know, nothing on the M&G Garden was planned to reappear elsewhere.
Personally, I think it’s high time the RHS insist all show gardens are conceived with on-use in mind, ideally, the entire garden or at least a major proportion of it. It’s all very well highlighting things like the use of electric diggers onsite, but surely the most sustainable message is that all the show gardens are going to have a life beyond the six days of Chelsea.
Behind the image: These images were taken handheld either with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the 75mm 1.8 lens or the iPhone 8 Plus. In truth, at this size and resolution it’s impossible to tell which image was taken from which device. I only had a few hours at the show so couldn’t spend too much time shooting any one thing. Getting onto the M&G Garden meant I could get shots you just couldn’t get from outside it. The key, as always, was finding those interesting compositions – those little details that most people don’t get to see. Even so, it was a challenging garden to photograph. Also, the weather was very overcast whenever I was at the garden. That said, I think I came away with a good selection of interesting shots that capture the essence of the designer’s vision. Last, but not least, whilst I’ve admitted to being too quick to judge the garden itself, I’ve also realised I was too quick to dismiss shooting greenery. I think these images prove that and I’ll certainly be looking at leaves a whole lot differently in the future! Shot in London on 20 May 2019.