Galanthophiles are well-known to gardeners, but gala-philes are a new genus. With an exclusive story on the RHS Fellowship, William Cash explains how never to miss Monday night at Chelsea again
AT SIMON DE PURY’S glitzy lunch for the Save Venice campaign at the Venice Biennale, I found myself sitting next to an editor who is a close friend of a rock star, whose passion is gardening, not contemporary art.
When the Chelsea Flower Show came up, my neighbour said that her rocker friend had politely, but persistently, asked if there was any way she could use her influence to procure two tickets to the gala preview on the Monday night, one of the hottest social tickets of the London season and almost impossible to get your hands on, whoever you are and however much you are willing to pay.
I’m not sure about the rock world, but for a top City figure, it is considered social death to attend the flower show any other evening, which is one reason why the tickets — which range from £250-£750 — are oversubscribed by five times and why most top banks, media businesses and finance firms prefer not to take the risk, and either take their box in the hospitality tent towards the back of the flower show by the Embankment, or better still host a pop-up drinks party at one of the prestigious Show Gardens or Gold Medal-winning floral displays in the Great Pavilion — such as David Austin Roses or Warmenhoven Royal Dutch Amaryllis — with buckets of champagne and canapes laid out and a sign that optimistically says something like ‘Private — Guests of Cazenove Only’.
Dream on. Gala night is like a very smart village fête where people glug glasses of Laurent Perrier wherever they happen to be standing, spontaneously spend (as one Russian wife did this year) £21,000 on a pair of hand sculptured lions and a fountain that would not look out of place in a Florentine palace from Cavendish Stone, or a £75,000 glass conservatory with a travertine floor and sash windows from Hamptons that is so chic you will never step foot in your kitchen again, or a new John Deere X155R garden tractor for cutting your parkland or lawns that can collect up to 6,000 sq metres of grass in one go, meaning that you can listen to Test Match Special on the radio and not have to get off every other over to dump the grass somewhere.
A friend got so caught up in the event that he found himself buying a state of the art Bosch cordless (electric) chainsaw that can saw through timber up to 25cm thick, only he lives in a penthouse in Mayfair and his garden stretches to a pewter window box with some topiary.
It’s more of an unofficial City spring-break festival than any sort of normal corporate event, and the reality is that while admitting the flowers and the gardens are all part of the fun, the dozens of mini drinks receptions are more about CEOs standing on the top deck of their mega-business and declaring to London that their company is there, present and correct. Sponsoring your own Show Garden — and the closer you can be positioned on to the M&G Investments garden, designed this year by Bunny Guinness, the better — means there is more of a chance that the Queen might just drop by on her way around.
When it comes to gardening and flowers, the English competitive spirit can sometimes become almost irrational and on gala night position and prestige are important. If you are the CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, or the cultural ambassador for the Principality of Monaco, and you can send a Christmas card later this year with yourself shaking the hand of the Queen as she nods approvingly at your designer’s creative brilliance, ‘greening’ of space and marvels of insect population, then the six figure-plus sum for securing the garden is money very well spent.
It is well known that when it comes to cutting costs, and hospitality expenses, the very last function or event that will ever be dropped from a FTSE 100 company budget are client tickets or the company box at the gala preview.
This is not least as it is one of the very few events — more so than Ascot, Wimbledon, or even the glamorous ARK dinner — that City wives enjoy (make that insist on) going to and being seen at. With 5,000 guests roaming around, doing more business, networking and bonus-plotting in two hours than they might get done all year, it is hardly surprising that a conversation on gala night is more likely to be more about the current M&A market (one fat cat to another at the bar: ‘The trouble with lawyers is you never know whether they are on your fucking side’) than the blooming flowers.
The compact Monaco Garden, photograph by Jon Enoch
BACK TO VENICE. Did the rocker get the tickets? No – but not because he was snubbed by the RHS (the RHS are far too polite to even consider such a thing). When my editor friend contacted them and said that the rocker would like to attend, or at least get tickets for another day, the RHS said it was no problem. The editor was politely informed by the grandees of the RHS that they would be delighted to invite said rocker — and wife/girlfriend/plus one —– to the flower show and could they all please show up at 6.30 at the VIP Pavilion located near the ‘London Gate’ on the Chelsea Embankment.
Delight, joy and extreme excitement followed. That is until it transpired — when a follow-up confirmation email arrived — that the invitation was for 6.30 in the morning. ‘At first my rocker friend thought it was some kind of practical joke. But then I rang around and it turned out that the RHS had invited the rocker to a VIP breakfast and private tour of the show before it opened and that far from being a joke, it was actually one of the most exclusive invitations of the entire flower show.’
This year, the little-known 6.30am VIP tour and breakfast invitations were especially exclusive as the breakfasts were also being used to launch the new RHS Fellowship scheme, which will be the RHS equivalent of having badges for the Owners and Trainers enclosure at Royal Ascot. When the RHS was founded in 1804 by seven fellows, award-winning gardeners and supporters of gardening could be ‘admitted to the privileges of fellowship’. The RHS, led by its president, Elizabeth Banks, and the chair of the RHS Fellows, Jamie Cayzer-Colvin, have now revived this elite rank.
To become a member of this scheme (similar in inspiration to the Serpentine Council, only quite a lot less expensive) requires a donation of £5,000 a year, which represents excellent value for high-net-worths and philanthropists when you consider that it is qualifies for Gift Aid and that it is half the cost of a single ticket to the ARK charity gala dinner. Or as Jamie Cayzer-Colvin put it in his witty speech at the breakfast: ‘Think of it as half a day’s shooting.’
Former Grenadier Guards officer Cayzer-Colvin (pictured left), whose family business, Caledonia Investments, has long had close ties with the RHS, is certainly the perfect man to be in charge of the new campaign to raise £1 million.
Jamie is a cousin of the legendary Peter Buckley, financier, passionate gardener, immaculate potting-shed keeper and fine shot, who became president of the RHS and now has the Peter Buckley Learning Centre named after him at Rosemoor — an iconic RHS garden in North Devon — which will teach and educate children across the region about the delights and joys of gardening. 6,000 primary school pupils and 1,000 secondary pupils will use the centre each year. It is exactly this sort of inspirational scheme that will be supported by the new RHS fellows.
In his speech, Cayzer-Colvin won over the moneyed and VIP audience with a disarming and down-to-earth tone that got straight to the point abut why writing out a cheque that very morning over the scrambled eggs and fresh mushrooms to become a RHS fellow was such a good idea. ‘It’s important to have regular and sustainable funding to run an organization like the RHS, so I just need 200 of you to pledge £5,000 a year.’
On the tables at the breakfast were the invitation cards and a pamphlet explaining what the ‘Privileges of Fellowship’ bring. Beyond guaranteed opportunity to purchase two Gala tickets, benefits include: invitations to the annual Fellows’ Dinner, a two-hour private meeting with a leading RHS garden curatorial team, priority bookings for tickets at RHS flower shows and complimentary RHS yearly membership.
‘The key thing it will give you access to our people. It will give you access to previews, and curated garden tours of houses that are not open to the public, and special days at RHS gardens for your Head Gardeners. We have all been involved with charities and good deeds, and a lot of the time the people running things can be so stuffy and high brow that you can feel intimidated.
‘But what I have learnt about the RHS is that they are not stuffy, they are good fun and highly knowledgeable. I mean, if the only plant you know the name of is a daisy, that doesn’t matter.’
The Laurent Perrier Garden designed by Lucian Giubbilei
Pick of the Parks
David Austin Roses