Chelsea Flower Show, Darling!

Freshly cut grass fills the air and the smell of flowers stops you in your tracks. This can only mean one thing… Chelsea Flower Show is here!

London in bloom!

It’s that wonderful time of your year again where mother nature has cranked it up a couple of gears and everywhere you look is prettier than the last. Freshly cut grass fills the air and the smell of flowers stops you in your tracks. This can only mean one thing… Chelsea Flower Show is here!

Chelsea Flower Show aka Mecca to all flower lovers. And guess what? We’re going to be there this year!

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So why is Chelsea Flower Show such a big deal to budding horticulturists?

For gardeners and garden designers, Chelsea has several attractions. First and foremost, it is an absolute spectacle! Here the finest, most inspirational designers flaunt their knowledge and verve. The most extravagant, the most beautiful gardens are on view at Chelsea rather than the Hampton Court or the RHS Cardiff shows. Green-fingered suburbanites can marvel, and return to their gardens filled with excitement and wonderment. As well as providing ideas, the show offers practical help. One hundred and six exhibitors sell everything from seeds to sit-on lawnmowers. It really is the show of all shows!

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Fun facts about the Chelsea Flower Show:

The first ever Chelsea flower show was in 1862 and was originally called the Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show… Boy, what a mouthful!

It started out as a single tent and made a whopping profit of £88. It wasn’t until 1913 that it moved to its current turf in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

In 1932 the rain at the Show was so severe that a summer house display fell to pieces. Sounds more like the Chelsea Flower Flow!

In the 1950s, the Duke of Windsor – formerly King Edward VIII, was taken with a fashionable rockery and had the whole exhibit relocated to his private estate. He was so enthused that he even helped to move it himself.

The Great Pavilion is roughly 11,775 square metres or 2.90 acres, enough room to park 500 London buses.

Of the firms that exhibited at the first Show in 1913, three can still be seen at the Show today: McBean’s Orchids, Blackmore & Langdon and Kelways Plants.

Despite the First World War, the show still went ahead between 1914 and 1916. It was however cancelled during the Second World War because the War Office needed the land for an anti-aircraft site. Many people were unsure whether the show would be resumed, but it eventually returned in 1947.

One of the most controversial gardens in the show’s history was Paul Cooper’s ‘Cool and Sexy’ garden in 1994, which featured a grille which blew jets of air up the skirts of unsuspecting women. Good luck trying to do that in 2019, Paul!

Each year the show welcomes 157,000 visitors over the five days.

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Have you got your ticket? What green-fingered questions have you got lined up to ask? I can’t wait to have a look at all the incredible creations. It’s the best inspiration for my boxes!

If you’d like to turn your home into the best flowery spot, why not sign up and have some Freddie’s Flowers delivered to your place? It’s only £24 a pop and I think you’ll be quite delighted.

 

Dutch Flowers at the National Gallery – Don’t try these at home!

Marvel at the skills of the Dutch flower painters – but don’t try these impossible arrangements at home!

The art of flowers reached a peak in 17th century Holland, as the glorious exhibition currently at the National Gallery shows. Guest writer Nigel Andrew marvels at the skills of the Dutch flower painters – but warns: don’t try these impossible arrangements at home…

 

Dutch flower fever

In 17th-century Holland they took their flowers very seriously – so seriously that they began to want paintings of them, paintings inhabited by nothing but flowers, with a nice vase and perhaps the odd butterfly or bee to show off the painter’s skill.

This fascination with flowers had its roots in the scientific revolution that was having a big impact on life in Holland at the time, with botany and horticulture becoming subjects of intense interest. At the same time the cultivation of exotic plants by well-off individuals and in the new botanical gardens drove a thriving trade and fuelled the kind of passions that sparked the infamous ‘tulip mania’, at the height of which a single bulb could change hands for the price of a town house.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 1573 - 1621 Flowers in a Glass Vase 1614 Oil on copper, 26 x 20.5 cm Bequeathed by Mrs Sally Speelman and Mr Anthony Speelman in memory of Mr Edward Speelman, 1994 NG6549 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6549
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder – ‘Flowers in a Glass Vase’ (1614). Note the two tulips! Image credit: National Gallery

 

That bubble burst, of course, but flower paintings continued to be in high demand right through the 17th and 18th centuries – and a fine selection of them can currently be seen in Room 1 at the National Gallery (until 29th August).

It’s one of those compact exhibitions – just 22 paintings – that are such a joy because you can give proper attention to each picture and come out at the end refreshed rather than exhausted.

Their rich colours gleaming from the walls of the softly-lit gallery, the paintings are hung in chronological order, with usefully informative labels (no art-crit jargon), enabling you to follow the development of Dutch flower painting across the best part of two centuries, from its rise to its high point and on to what looks very much like its fall.

 

The invention of flower painting

A portrait of Jan Breughel the Elder and his family, c.1612, by Rubens. Image credit.
A portrait of Jan Breughel the Elder and his family, c.1612, by Rubens. Image credit.

 

The story begins with Jan Breughel the Elder, who virtually invented flower painting and gained huge fame from it.

He is represented in this exhibition by a vigorous, brushy depiction of an arrangement of tulips, chrysanthemums, narcissi, roses, irises and other flowers in a well-painted glass vase. Look a little closer and you will find a butterfly, a beetle and a delicate fly.

The style developed by Breughel – dark background, flat picture space, symmetrical arrangement, each flower shown (as it were) full-face – became standard in the first phase of Dutch flower painting. The virtuosity, however, increased rapidly, as can be seen in Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s exquisitely painted Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase, which comes complete with three pearly seashells, a Red Admiral butterfly, a dragonfly, a caterpillar and a bee.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder – ‘A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase’ (1609-10) Image credit: National Gallery

 

By the time you reach this magnificent picture, you might be thinking, ‘Just a minute – tulips, lilies, peonies, irises, marigolds, narcissi, roses, columbines, fritillaries, pinks, all in perfect full bloom at the same time? Surely not!’ You might also be thinking that the arrangements themselves are often structurally impossible.

And you’d be right on both counts: these are not paintings of actual flower arrangements but of specimens – many of them too precious ever to be used as cut flowers – arranged by the artist on the canvas (actually not canvas – wood and copper were preferred, as showing off the colours more strongly). The aim was to display these flowers to best effect and with the maximum of botanical accuracy, not to provide ideas for home flower arrangers.

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Osias Beert the Elder – Basket of Flowers (1600/1650). (Not from exhibition)

 

Some of these 17th-century pictures also carried a moral message. A painting by Osias Beert the Elder (no Youngers in this exhibition) emphasises the transience of natural beauty by showing fallen petals and leaves affected by insect damage. Another of Beert’s hammers the point home with an inscription: ‘What you see in these flowers, which appear so beautiful to you, will vanish. Beware. Only God’s world flourishes for ever.

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Jan Davidsz de Heem ‘Vase of Flowers’ (c.1660) Image credit: NGA

Stillness and dynamism

Dutch flower painting reached its peak with Jan Davidsz de Heem, who introduced movement and dynamism into his arrangements, with flowers facing in different directions and stems and tendrils breaking out in all directions. His Vase of Flowers livens things up with honeysuckle, ears of wheat and a bunch of redcurrants, and the complex reflections on the glass vase are beautifully rendered. This is flower painting with real impact.

Star of the show for me, however, is Dirck de Bray, whose Flowers in a White Stone Vase is a simple and perfectly balanced composition. This simplicity and the relatively loose brushwork give it an almost modern feel, and it has a welcome quality of stillness that contrasts with the dynamism of De Heem and Rachel Ruysch, whose strong diagonal compositions are full of movement.

Rachel Ruysch, 1664 - 1750 Flowers in a Vase about 1685 Oil on canvas, 57 x 43.5 cm Bequeathed by Alan Evans, 1974 NG6425 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6425
Rachel Ruysch ‘Flowers in a Vase’ (c.1685). Image credit: National Gallery

 

Ruysch, whose father was head of the Amsterdam botanical garden, became internationally famous in her lifetime, but her fame was as nothing to that of the ultimate superstar of Dutch flower painting – Jan van Huysum.

Van Huysum was a master of texture, lighting and detail. In his Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase, the precision of his rendering of the hollyhock leaves and the crepe-like petals, just beginning to curl at the edges, is quite astonishing.

Jan van Huysum, 1682 - 1749 Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase 1702-20 Oil on canvas, 62.1 x 52.3 cm Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876 NG1001 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1001
Jan van Huysum ‘Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase’ (1702-20). Image credit: National Gallery

Over the top?

However, Van Huysum also represents the point at which Dutch flower painting tipped into a kind of unreal decorative extravagance that, while hugely popular in its day, now looks like a sad falling-off from the best of what went before.

Van Huysum’s Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, a virtuoso piece on a grand scale, shows which way the wind was blowing. It’s full of brilliant painting – the grapes, the bird’s nest – but the arrangement and the setting are entirely artificial, the palette is brighter and lighter, the traditional dark background has been abandoned, and the whole effect is… well, way over the top; there’s just far too much going on here.

Paulus Theodorus van Brussel, 1754 - 1795 Fruit and Flowers 1789 Oil on mahogany, 78.4 x 61 cm Presented by Frederick John Nettlefold, 1947 NG5800 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG5800
Paulus Theodorus van Brussel ‘Fruit and Flowers’ (1789) Image credit: National Gallery

 

And it only got worse, as the arrangements became ever grander and ever more impossible, each picture a riot of flora and fauna, with exotic fruits – pineapples, melons – joining in the fun. By the time we reach the three works by Paulus Theodorus van Brussel that end the exhibition, the decline into mere decorative prettiness and virtuosity for its own sake is complete.

However, the actual painting of individual flowers retains its superb quality to the end, and this exhibition – the first of its kind in London in 20-odd years – contains plenty for any flower-lover to enjoy, marvel at and take inspiration from.

Just don’t try these impossible, towering arrangements at home.

 

 

Dutch Flowers continues to 29th August 2016. More information is on the National Gallery website, with a useful look at the exhibition in detail here

Nigel Andrew is a writer and host of the Nigeness culture blog.

 

A note on images – we have illustrated this post with images in the public domain and available to use under the Creative Commons license. Not all the pictures in the exhibition are so available, so we’ve used alternatives and provided links to the images on the National Gallery website in those cases. We have also made a donation to the National Gallery via Justgiving to help them continue their magnificent work!

 

Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.