The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show provides a relaxing and enjoyable day out, in a grander setting than the Chelsea Show. It is, after all, in the grounds of a royal palace - rather than a retirement home for old soldiers. Yet the atmosphere is 'Oxford Street' rather than 'Bond Street'. There are more things to buy - for planting, making or furnishing your garden. The ambition of the show gardens is also more domestic, in terms of size and expenditure. It is good to see the scale and popularity of Hampton Court Show advance from year to year.
When a designer and sponsor decide to enter a garden for the Show they are likely to be guided by the entry criteria, by the judging in previous years and by the TV coverage. Though not an expert on any of these, I think the overal guidance is both confusing and lacking direction. Greater clarity would be welcome. Let's look at the garden categories.
Designed by Amanda Waring, Laura Arison. Built by Arun Landscapes. Sponsored by CCLA. The designers state that it was 'Inspired by the ethos of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the garden embraces the values of simplicity, elegance, style and craftsmanship. It is designed to be either a separate garden room adjoined to a larger space or an entity on its own.' I agree that it is a garden room, and it looks comfortable, but the rest of the description is misleading.
The BBC's Monty Don is an excellent all-round presenter, including criticism garden design criticism. Joe Swift is personable but flounders as a design critic. As with poets and musicians, some good performers are good critics and some some are not. The reverse is also true: some good critics are good designers and many are not. The standard of design criticism at Britain's flower shows needs to be taken to a higher level.
Summer in Sussex. Designed by Will Williams. Built and sponsored by Streetscape. The designer intended 'A celebration of Sussex, the garden aims to show what can be achieved in a small urban space. Inspiration has been taken from the South Downs, its walks, rivers, flora and craftsmen. Two reflective channels of water frame the planting and seating areas. Flint sculptures at the end of the water act as focal points framed by multi-stemmed birch trees.' On BBC TV, I heard him say that 'we're just trying to shake it up and put it together in a contemporary manner'. This makes me think of an amateur art show: the designer is technically proficient but appears to lack artistic inspiration. I attribute this to a lack of understanding of design theory.
Designers are more in need of leadership than one might think. The great London design shows could have the kind of role art shows have for art and fashion shows for fashion.
Designer's accounts I always enjoy reading them but, like the garden titles they chose, one rarely leans much about the design. The explanation, I suggest, is a lack of interest in design theory in the design schools, in the design critics and in the show organisers.
Zoflora: Outstanding Natural Beauty Designed by Helen Elks-Smith, MSGD. Built by Wycliffe Landscapes Ltd. Sponsored by Zoflora. The designers explain that 'The garden is inspired by the patterns of Yorkshire; dry stone walls define a linear landscape of pastures and meadows, contrasting with gently curving waterflows. At higher levels the wind sculpts the landscape, exposing rocks and shaping trees. A weathered steel and stone seating area provides shelter and connects to the rest of the garden by water that flows into a wilder area of meadow, hedges and woodland.' I can see what they mean. But there is nothing 'natural' about a stream with steel edging or with a bed of dry stone 'walling'. The design attractive but the designer's account is weak.
Red Thread Garden. Designed by Robert Barker. Built by Terraforma Landscapes Sponsored by Terraforma Landscapes, Robert Barker Garden and Landscape Design. The designer of this Conceptual Garden explains that 'An ancient Chinese myth states that when we are born the gods tie our ankles with a red thread and attach it to all the people whose lives we’re destined to touch.' I like the idea; I like the image; it is made with 'garden materials'. But it is not 'a garden' and, in art market terms, it is not a work of art.
World Vision Garden. Designed by John Warland. The designer explains that 'The World Vision garden symbolises journeys of life. Inspired by the lives of children around the world, the floating waves of turf each represent an individual life. The undulations symbolise how unpredictable and vulnerable life is, especially for children living in places where poverty and disasters strike. But as fear recedes, a crescendo of new hope can be seen rising up from the ox-eye daisy meadow, with the use of mature trees showing the support we can all give for children living in the world's hardest places'. I like the design, John. It is a real visual success. But for me it does NOT symbolise the lives of children in places where disasters strike. Nor is it any more related to a 'garden' than furniture in a shop window is related to a living room. It is eye-catching fun - and all the better for that.
‘Border Control' Garden. Designed by Tom Massey, John Ward. Built by Landform Consultants. Sponsored by UNHCR. The designer explains that 'The Border Control Garden sponsored by UNHCR highlights the plight of refugees and the risks many take to find shelter. A wildflower meadow sits within a treacherous moat, bordered by a razor wire fence and accessed through a tightly controlled crossing. At the centre of the oasis a shelter provides protection, while outside, plants struggle to survive. From the refuge of the meadow, visitors are safe, but how comfortable can one really feel when confronted with the suffering beyond the borders?' The kindly judges gave it a gold medal and awarded the accolade of Best Conceptual Garden. I see it as a good example of political art. I cannot see it appearing in a book on conceptual art and it is unlikely to inspire many domestic gardeners.