When I first attended the Chelsea Show, almost twenty-five years ago, the Grand Pavilion was just a large, very full, canvas pavilion which smelled when it rained. Today it’s a huge hall of displays, stalls and societies under a metal skeleton with plastic sheeting (the interior of which still smells when it rains). Yet some of the same growers who exhibited then are still coming – Hilliers, David Austin, Bloms Bulbs, as well as the various plant societies ( 2016 saw the centenary of the Rhododendron Society and their stand was popular, as were those of other national societies ).
This year there were 249 stands, from around the UK – colleges, councils and commercial nurseries – and overseas, notably from South Africa and the Caribbean. Hampton Court Show may be physically bigger – Chelsea is limited to the Royal Hospital grounds – but Chelsea is still the place to exhibit if you want to succeed. And the preparation needed isn’t to be under-estimated, these stands are prepared months in advance and the planning is all-year round. Some individuals take it to extremes – see the Bloms Bulbs man in the tulip-patterned suit. He had competition, though. An equally resplendent Grayson Perry, the potter and Turner Prize winner, was visiting the Grand Pavilion for the BBC, in full ‘Claire’ cross-dressed mode.
This year floristry came into the Grand Pavilion in a big way ( as well as having its own Floral Studio ). The RHS Florist and Young Florist of the Year competition took head-wear as its theme and, in celebration of this year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, florists were asked to design and make head-dresses for Rio’s Carnival. Sixteen of these were on display in the north-east corner of the Pavilion, presented on mannequin torsos. The head-gear ( one couldn’t call them ‘hats’, they were much too elaborate for that ), the gentleman on the stand explained, had to be wearable as well as beautiful, which was why asymmetric designs were few and far between. The wearer would get a permanent crick in their neck. The displays were vibrantly coloured and great fun. ( I particularly liked the tall-grass ‘mohican’, which reminded me of the turf grass ‘mohican’ placed on the head of Churchill’s statue in Westminster Square during a protest. Was this what the young designer intended, a bit of subversion at Chelsea? )
New Covent Garden Market ( a flower and veg market ) had a very clever and popular display, entitled ‘Behind Every Great Florist’, which utilised ordinary florists’ plastic flower buckets in an innovative design which had to be viewed from both sides. On one side it was a white and green display very like the flower stalls one sees around London, at tube stations and on street corners, but with a cut-out in its back-drop. This, when viewed from the other side, was seen to be a three-dimensional profile of the Queen filled with flowers from different parts of the colour spectrum. Arresting and attractive.
This being the Royal Horticultural Society the Queen’s 90th birthday was celebrated in other forms too. Most obviously the floral arch across the entrance from the Chelsea Embankment. This seemed such a natural thing to do and such a perfect placing that one wondered quite why such arches ( of any kind, not just royal ones ) hadn’t been constructed there before. It had been done, in the early twentieth century, but not often. There were arches too decorating the London Gate. And the floristry spilled over into the surrounding streets, with the ‘Chelsea in Bloom’ competition, which sees retailers and restaurateurs compete for the RHS prize. See some of the entries and their locations here.
As you read this post, the 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show is over. The Royal Hospital grounds are being returned to their, relatively, quiet normality. But you can still see all the gardens, including the winners at the RHS web-site. I’m already looking forward to next year, but then there’s all those other things to do first.