I was thrilled to recently be offered a review copy of RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A Centenary Celebration by Brent Elliott. Although in recent years my enthusiasm for the show has waned I was curious to learn about the history of the show and to see how it had evolved and whether its focus had always been so predominantly on show gardens as it is now.
The book is your archetypal coffee table book, something to browse through and dip into. It follows the history of the show chapter by chapter and each section/chapter has not only a narrative account of the show at that time but subsections relevant to that period; so the chapters about the early period include a section on rock gardens which were the first showgardens. Throughout there are short profiles on people who have been and are involved with the show and their memories and feelings.
What I particularly liked about the book were its frankness. When we get to the last 20 years there is a discussion on the idea of celebrity garden designers. Interestingly it wasn’t until the 1987 that designers were acknowledged in the programme, before that the garden’s sponsor was only mentioned. Once designers mentioned the idea of the celebrity gardener soon grew, although I think that this was also helped with the various make-over garden programmes that were around in the 1990s.
The story of Chelsea reflects the period it has grown up in both historically and in terms of the changes to horticulture. It was cancelled during both the First and Second World Wars meaning that although the show was established 100 years ago there haven’t been 100 shows. It was nearly affected by union disputes in the 1960s and 70s and due to the introduction of garden centres in the late 60s which meant that the public could buy plants whenever they wanted it saw a slight fall in numbers. Trends have come and gone – showgardens in the early days were all rock gardens now they are rarely seen. The show has been key in creating various gardening trends, in the 1970s an interest in Gertrude Jekyll was revived due to a garden designed by John Brooks, similarly a Victorian revival was caused by a Victorian villa garden in the 1984s.
Not only have gardens caused revivals but enthusiasms for plants have been revived as Arthus Hellyer wrote Chelsea “is the richest spotting ground in the whole world for new, forgotten or neglected plants”. Plants that have benefitted from being highlighted at the show are old roses, Begonia rex, auriculas and hostas.
Although the book is a factual account it is not dry. The text is not only lifted by wonderful photographs showing all aspects of the show throughout the centenary but also through Elliot’s wry humour. He comments at one point about the fact that although the Land Army had played such a key role in the Second World War and female gardeners were employed at Wisley and other gardens, “the invitations that were issues to practical gardeners specified that they would admit ‘the gardener and his wife”.
As for the predominance of show gardens my suspicion that it had increased in recent years was right. In the 1980s there was on average 8 show gardens, the number peaked at 67 in 2003 and now averages in the low forties. Personally, I would like to see the emphasis shift a little towards the nurseries more but that’s just my view.
If you would like to purchase your own copy of this book which celebrates a truly unique, and to be frank English, institution then you can take advantage of a special offer Arum Publishing Group are offering readers of this blog (and some others I think).
I have decided to donate my review copy to my local Hardy Plant Society for them to raffle.