Such is my inability to pick a winner that none of my three favourite show gardens won a gold medal this year. This is why I am not a betting man. My own disappointment is irrelevant, but it must be difficult to reflect objectively on your endeavours when you’ve invested heart and soul in a project as demanding as creating a show garden at Chelsea. Bronze medals are rarely awarded, and when they are the reasons are usually plain to see. However on this occasion I am totally bemused as to why the David Harber and Savills Garden did not do significantly better.
Rather than speculate as to where the garden fell short, I’m going to describe it in as positive terms as I can, and commend it to you as worthy of greater recognition. Occupying one of the large, rectangular sites on Main Avenue, the key contributors to the garden are designer Nic Howard, sculptor and sponsor David Harber, sponsor Savills and contractor Langdale Landscapes. At its simplest level their idea was to make a garden suited to displaying sculpture, no doubt for a client with taste and money. Judged on that basis, the garden succeeds in meeting its brief. One could well imagine this luxurious plot languishing behind a Holland Park townhouse, tended to by gardeners and used by the owners for sophisticated entertainment. There is, of course, a narrative, which involves mankind’s evolving relationship with the environment. The story begins with a natural landscape coming under human control and ends with a sculpture called Aeon, representing a nucleus of energy that keeps our planet in a state of equilibrium. Aeon is viewed through aligned openings within four sculptural screens, creating a metaphorical wormhole through space to the beginning of time.
I admit that much of this sculptural allegory is lost on me: I have a keener eye for what’s beautiful than what’s meaningful. Yet I would say that as a whole I find the garden pleasing, dramatic, even exciting. Whether at 7am in the morning or 8pm at night, the garden looks outstanding, filled with intense colour and dramatic shadows. Without doubt what makes it for me is Aeon, a colossal, amorphous, verdigris-bronze sculpture with a star-burst of 256 gilded aluminium spikes at its heart. At the end of each day, with the sun low in the sky, the gold glows as if lit from within. During the day, the way the draping branches of Betula nigra cast shadows on the sculpture’s outer circumference is also lovely. Aeon is a staggeringly bold and effective piece, deserving of public display.
The first sculptural screen, Enclosure, represents humanity’s attempts to enclose and control the environment by creating rudimentary barriers. Twenty-six bronze panels make up Enclosure, each panel an individual mesh of swirling organic branch and tree shapes. The next two screens, fashioned from richly-textured, oxidized-steel, symbolize the emotional and intellectual development of human culture. Crisp geometric patterns reflect our ability to design for pure aesthetic enjoyment. Finally, a fourth screen, Sophistication, contains a subtle flaw, reminding us of the threat we now pose to our environment.
The last sculpture in the quartet is placed to one side of the vista through which one gazes into the future across a sea of lupins (lupins, lupins everywhere, and not a drop to drink!). Wrought from random strands of bronze, representing human thought and DNA, the Bench of Contemplation is intended as a talking point and conversation facilitator. It can be perched on from either side, with a mirrored water feature behind it.
The planting of the garden does not, arguably, echo the journey taken by the sculptures, which themselves suggest a decline in the abundance and freedom of nature. Instead the planting is introduced in a relatively sparse way at the front of the garden, becoming more lush and verdant as it reaches the back. I studied the planting and the rhythms within it for some time, trying to work out what had rankled with the judges, but I could think of very little. Perhaps an understorey layer – some structural shrubs or evergreens – was what they felt was missing. The front of the plot would certainly be very barren in winter if this were anything but a show garden.
Despite the expert judgement I liked this garden a great deal, and it is my joint runner-up for ‘Best In Show’ alongside the Trailfinders South African Wine Estate Garden. For David Harber, a sculptor of some standing, and corporate sponsor Savills, Nic Howard created a wonderful setting for a bold and uncompromising suite of works. Views into the garden were pleasing from every angle, and the vista that ran front to back will continue to take visitors’ breath away until Saturday.
Having worked together on several award-winning trade stands, I hope that David and Nic will not be deterred from trying again at Chelsea. Sculpture as a form of garden ornament is clearly on the rise in terms of popularity and this daring composition brought something different and welcome to the fore. Bravo for trying and better luck next time chaps. Fortune favours the brave. TFG.
Continue scrolling down for a comprehensive plant list.
- Acataea simplex ‘White Pearl’
- Alchemilla sericata ‘Goldstrike’
- Allium christophii
- Allium ‘Purple Sensation’
- Anchusa ‘Loddon Royalist’
- Anthriscus ‘Raven’s Wing’
- Aquilegia ‘Blue Barlow’
- Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow’
- Artemesia ‘Silver Queen’
- Aruncus ‘Misty Lace’
- Asplenium scolopendrium
- Aster divaricatus ‘Beth Chatto’
- Astrantia ‘Claret’
- Betula nigra
- Briza media
- Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’
- Cenolophium denudatum
- Centaurea montana ‘Black Sprite’
- Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’
- Dianthus cruentus
- Digitalis ‘Suttons Apricot’
- Dryopteris affinis
- Epimedium x rubrum
- Euonymus europaeus
- Euphorbia cyparissias
- Euphorbia lathyris
- Geranium ‘Gravetye’
- Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’
- Geum ‘Mai Tai’
- Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
- Hackonechloa macra
- Heucherella ‘Kimono’
- Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’
- Knautia macedonica
- Lupinus ‘West Country Persian Slipper’
- Lychnis ‘White Robin’
- Nectaroscordum siculum
- Nepeta ‘Junior Walker
- Nepeta ‘Summer magic’
- Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Buckeye Belle’
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Inspector Lavergne’
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Kansas’
- Physocarpus ‘Amber Jubilee’
- Primula ‘Miller’s Crimson’
- Rheum palmatum ‘Antrosanguineum’
- Salvia ‘Caradonna’
- Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’
- Sesleria caerulea
- Sesleria nitida
- Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’
- Stipa gigantea
- Stipa tenuissima
- Symphytum ‘Langthorn Pink’
- Syringa microphylla ‘Superba’
- Tellima grandiflora
- Thalictrum ‘Nimbus Pink’
- Trifolium repens ‘Atropurpureum’
- Viola odorata ‘Coeur d’Alsace’