The Brexit breeze has not withered the spirit of the annual flower show. Despite cutbacks on show gardens on Main Avenue, Chelsea nonetheless showcases a range of eclectic and visionary exhibits, writes William Cash
Back in 2009, the lack of Show Gardens on Main Avenue at Chelsea led to the year being dubbed ‘Credit Crunch Chelsea’. This year with only eight show gardens- as compared with seventeen last year – commentators have been talking about a sharp Brexit breeze blowing through Chelsea, not helped by headline sponsor M & G Investments saying they are pulling out. And no replacement sponsor as yet announced.
But don’t blame Brexit. The crowds swarmed as ever. The quality and range of gardens and retail stands (just as important as the show gardens) at Chelsea this year were as good as ever with some genuinely eclectic and visionary talent on display.
What Chelsea lacks this year is the usual Gucci sunglasses wearing armada of rock star gardeners such as Luciano Giubbilei or Arne Maynard whose rocketing design fees – £100k plus – have meant that the cost of investing in putting on a serious show garden can now mean as much as a £750,000 budget.
As one former show garden sponsor said to me on the opening day (the marketing director of a real estate investment fund): ‘When you factor in the client dinners every night, the hiring of a marquee and a top PR firm, you have to take a deep breath to decide whether its really worth it – we are not far away from the £1 million show garden in terms of total investment’.
So it is really the spiralling costs that are the main reason for the lack of show gardens, rather than Brexit blues. Add in the fact that you can sponsor a garden at Hampton Court for probably half the price. So rather than glitzy international sponsors like Laurent-Perrier or Prince Albert of Monaco, we had Radio Two stepping in with four BBC presenters coming up with something called ‘Feel Good Gardens’.
This meant that instead of, say, championing a Monaco penthouse Roof Garden – such as the design of Sarah Eberle’s Monaco garden from 2011 – or championing the 105 acres of gardens at Chatsworth House (as Laurent-Perrier did in 2015), we find the humble allotment garden being celebrated instead; with food writer Sarah Raven – dressed in dungarees and brandishing her secateurs – showing us the delights of a traditional English cutting garden.
Not quite sure what the moneyed financial classes who swilled champagne on the gala night thought about this but I doubt they noticed. The truth is that most people – certainly not the A-list City crowd – don’t come to Chelsea for the show gardens anyhow. The Chelsea Flower Show is a British social institution for the same reason that Royal Ascot is not only about the racing – indeed if at all.
What is certain is that the blue-chip finance and banking crowd – like HSBC Private Bank – visit to entertain their clients, not discuss the art of allotment gardening. As such, the Monday gala night champagne reception is a City society institution.
Chelsea is really the start of the English social summer season. To paraphrase Henry Fairlie, the Spectator writer who once said in 1951 that the key to understanding political power in Britain is to see what is exercised ‘socially’. The same applies to the display of power and influence in the world of UK wealth management and banking.
In short, the UK banking and asset management sectors have pretty much saved Chelsea this year from being a show garden desert. Of the eight show gardens that were sponsored this year, most were backed by the UK finance or legal community. These include The Morgan Stanley Garden, the Royal Bank of Canada Garden and the Linklaters Garden.
My personal favourite show garden and perhaps the most successful in terms of ‘message’ was the Gold-award-winning Breaking Ground garden by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam, sponsored by Darwin Property Investment Management and visited by the Duchess of Cambridge.
This chic abstract garden, beautifully illustrating how the aesthetic of a garden can make us creative and nourish the synapses of the mind, celebrates the educational success story of Wellington College. CEO Anthony Esse ( a former pupil) explained that his vision was to bring awareness to Wellington’s new ‘bold ambition’ of breaking down the financial and class barriers for access to a world class education through its array of financial bursaries. The garden, influenced by the Berkshire heathland setting of the school, is also a roving horticultural ambassador for Wellington’s educational philosophy which now is being rolled out not just in the UK but also across the world – there are two state academies in Wiltshire and three schools in China.
All of this is achieved with cogency and aesthetic symmetry. In addition to raising awareness for Wellington School, the garden is also an ambassador for ‘Darwin Escapes’ holiday parks which is the fourth largest holiday park operator in the UK, with a £499 million fund that invests in the leisure sector, especially holiday parks. While other sectors have suffered in recent years, the upscale holiday lodge business has not (technically styled as caravan parks for planning reasons), complete with luxury spas, restaurants and of course beautifully landscaped gardens.
The fund has generated an annualised return of 14.4 per cent over the last five years, so clearly caravan parks with luxury lodges – and landscaped gardens – are a sound investment. But this was not always the case. At the very first run down holiday park that Esse bought – seeing the opportunity to turn the site around – the CEO recalls that guests entering the ‘reception’ hut were met by the sight of a ‘squashed rat’. Certainly nothing so unsightly will be found today at any of Esse’s twenty parks that he now owns across the country.
Despite their impending departure from Chelsea we should not forget that the M&G garden, which, featuring a 26-foot-high cliff and a landscape inspired by an overgrown Maltese quarry, won the main Best in Show prize. This is only its first win in eight years of sponsoring the show at a cost of millions. Perhaps more recognition from the judges in previous years for the scale of M&G’s annual cheque-writing might have persuaded them to stay on. Who knows?
The Spear’s award for my favourite retail stand this year goes to ‘Le Chene Vert’, the extraordinarily fine glazed ‘rope-thrown’ garden pottery from Anduze made by Yannick Fourbet – a regular at Chelsea for many years who is a member of the Ateliers d’art de France. He makes a new series of glazed urns and giant pots every year for Chelsea and drives over in a truck – it almost always ends up returning empty with the contents decorating the pool side traces of British millionaires as well as such clients as the Abbeye de Cluny and the Chateau de Versailles.
My fantasy is for a pair of his urns to one day end up in my wife’s Shropshire rose garden. But that’s fine. Chelsea has always been as much about English garden dreams than anything else.
William Cash is Editor-in-Chief at Spear’s