Small hiccough on the stone. The quarry, Lovell Purbeck, are just going into production but because they sold a lot for headstones earlier in the year there just isn’t enough of the one I was hoping to use. I don’t know if this means the death rate in Dorset has been unusually high but sadly I chose something very rare and there isn’t any more except in the ground and before you ask you can’t just dig it out (it’s complicated).
So a quick switch to another beautiful English Limestone called Jurassic Malt which is equally teaming with fossilized mollusc shells which perished in the mud millions of years ago. This one is a pale creamy yellow with warm brown earthy tones. I had been concerned that the original stone was too light in colour so this is all good news. From now until the end of April the stone will be sawn into slabs, honed (which is a sort of light polish) and then the thicker stones are going to have a hand finished ‘pitched’ face which means rough hewn to you and me.
It is very important to me to use locally sourced stone and skills when I can. This does fit perfectly with the Arts and Crafts concept of the garden but there are several other very good reasons for this. Of course the carbon footprint caused by shipping stone from China or India is ludicrous but I am also very keen to promote British products and British suppliers and craftsmen in the same way that chefs are promoting locally produced food. It just makes sense and we should be proud of what we have here. And (as I have found out) these stones are not available anywhere else so we also have something unique. But it isn’t just the product, it’s the people, because they employ stonemasons who are passing those skills down through the generations so they won’t become lost.
Mason, Pitching Stone
Doubly pleasing then to discover that the aforementioned quarry have also invested heavily and now recycle water and collect it from their own roofs and have recently won a sustainability award. They even clean the water used in the cutting process and give the resultant limey slurry to farmers who spread it on their fields. All quarrying in the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset is remarkably low key as it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and so quarries are surprisingly small scrapes in the ground and there is no blasting or huge machinery. In fact to drive around the area you would hardly know it was going on.
I have had something of a trial run with the sculpture. I was asked to design an egg (yes an egg) for the Faberge Big Egg Hunt www.thebigegghunt.co.uk . The aim is to raise a few million for a children’s charity and some elephants and also to break the world record for the biggest egg hunt although somehow I feel that last goal isn’t quite as important. There are 209 eggs designed by uber famous artists and designers ……..and me. So I get to rub shoulders, or at least eggs, with Ridley Scott, the Chapman Brothers, Marc Quinn, Zaha Hadid etc.etc. Yes, you’re right, I am just showing off now but it makes my mum proud.
Anyway, they are dotted around London. I hesitate to say hidden as they are on full view. I’m not meant to give too much away (this is a hunt after all) but mine is apparently in the watery place out east, in a garden surrounded by people wearing suits in shiny towers. Look it up on the website, it’s Lot 133 and its being auctioned.
The point of all this is that it has been made using the laser cut washers we are using in the sculpture at Chelsea and shares the same ‘incomplete’ form. Instead of being copper it is antiqued steel which is polished on the inside but will age over the course of this month to a warm orangey brown. The whole exercise has been unbelievably useful for me because it allowed me and the boys at Guild Sculpture to work together on something pre-Chelsea but more importantly it is on public display and we can get direct feedback from people, I can see how it looks in the different lights, I can study the shadows it casts. If only I could find the damned thing…………………
Small problem. I seem to have temporarily forgotten that I’m 46. It was all going really well until I went snowboarding and then the monkey on my shoulder told me I was only 26 and made me go as fast as I possibly could. Each morning as I set off on the first lift I’d felt every day of my age (and sometimes a bit more) but as soon as I strapped the board on and pointed it down the mountain the adrenalin kicked in and the monkey piped up. ‘Go faster, go faster’. I got away with it for a while and then I hit some ice, somersaulted through the air for about 10 metres and landed on my shoulder. Collar bone smashed to bits. You may wonder why I’m troubling you with all this irrelevance on a Chelsea blog but it’s because of the planting. I want to do it all myself and that relies on being reasonably fit and having the normal quota of working arms which right now I don’t have. The planting isn’t the sort of thing you can delegate unfortunately.
Two years ago during the planting phase I cycled to the showground each day from my friend Mike’s flat in Putney. I’d borrowed his push bike which was like a rocket compared to my own ageing mountain bike. The monkey as usual encouraged me to go faster and I raced along the Kings Road with all the lycra clad commuters as if I was in the Tour de France – I like to turn everything into a competition even if the other ‘competitors’ don’t even know they are in it. All was well until I started looking around and crashed into the back of another bike that momentarily slowed for a zebra crossing. I went flying over the handle bars as bronze medals flashed before my eyes and I landed on my back in the middle of the road in front of a bus A small crowd gathered round and once I had gingerly moved each limb to discover that nothing was broken I leapt up in what was probably an inappropriately over excited fashion and the crowd disappeared as quickly as it had formed.
It can be so gentle and evenly paced this gardening lark, but if you try really hard you can introduce plenty of jeopardy and excitement but I think I’d better stay in between now and May and I’ve really got to get rid of that monkey.
There’s something about oak that people like. If you lined up ten planks each made from a different type of wood most people would immediately pick out the oak one. This is an entirely unscientific statement that I just made up but I will stand by it nonetheless. I’ve just been to visit Alan Hayward joinery who are making a 5 metre long oak bench for the garden. The workshop is filled with tropical hardwoods and cedar, the smell of freshly sawn timber hangs in the air and all around beautifully crafted wooden things are being made. So far we’ve just got a few planed, mitred and chamfered bits of oak rather than a finished bench but there is something so special about that honey colour and the tightness of the grain that makes people want to reach out and touch it. The bench also has copper inserts and using metal details like this was a feature of Arts and Crafts furniture for interiors that I have borrowed for the garden.
I’m calling this a floating bench because it is cantilevered and the supports are hidden but I had a panic the other day that people would be able to see the metal framework underneath so I’ve tweaked the design a bit. I had a wobble about the stone today as well because I had to finally phone the quarry and place the order. I’ve been worrying for weeks that it is all a bit too pale because there is so much of it on the terracing, the walls and inside the pool and I’ve been nervous about the garden feeling too bright and possibly uninviting. I wasted at least 2 hours forcing everyone else in the studio to join me in my under confident world when they were all trying to work on other deadlines. And in the end I just ordered what I originally planned 4 months ago. Some people call that a ‘design process’ but I believe there are other terms for it.
We are inching closer and closer to the end product. I realize that inching may not be the best speed at which to approach something as important as Chelsea Flower Show but for me it is fine. It’s like hunting a stag: The stalking has to be carried out with enormous care and diligence as each footstep is carefully considered before it is taken in case one stumbles in the heather and ruins ones chances. This all takes a considerable amount of time and I imagine is quite boring to watch but then right and the end, bang! The drama comes all at once, it’s over in a second and you’ve got your prize (hopefully).
In this rather tenuous and fragile analogy only last week I was still on the train on my way to the Glens. But now I have disembarked, checked into a rather chic hotel with a huge roaring fire, partaken of a hearty breakfast, donned unfeasible amounts of tweed and the prerequisite funny hat and I am clambering up a hill with a shotgun broken over my arm and a full hip flask in my pocket. So what has brought on this sudden change of pace you cry?
Filming Day in Walthamstow
Well last week I had a meeting with water feature man, contractor man and rendering man all at once and much was discussed most of which fell into the ‘essential but tedious’ category which I then put into a box onto which I have written the word ‘progress’ in a thick black pen. And then this week I have visited bench making man (more of that next week) and sculpture men. Graham and Steve who are from Northern Ireland are, it has to be said, a little like actors in a Guy Ritchie movie. We met for the first time on the pavement outside an electroplaters in Walthamstow and I spent the next few hours being blasted by wave after wave of heavily accented enthusiasm but more importantly I was able to see something which had actually been made and existed somewhere other than in my mind or on a piece of paper. In fact it was only samples but it was a massive beginning if such a thing is possible? There were two panels of the rings that make up the sculpture so we can experiment with the finish and the size of the copper ‘washers’ and the welds and everything else and also a curved one third scale model of an entire section of the sculpture. This I only saw briefly and it was upside down and covered in streaks but it was a thing of beauty and although we still have weeks of stalking ahead of us it felt good to be in the company of these two experienced hunters. Over the next few weeks we should resolve all the details and the actual sculpture can be made and I promise to drop the whole stag hunting thing.
I have recently heard that the judging is being changed at Chelsea Flower Show this year because the judging was not up to scratch in 2011. The most experienced judge was not present and there was not a suitably experienced replacement. Consequently the tried and tested judging process partially failed for the first time. A gold medal was awarded to one garden which clearly didn’t deserve it and one or maybe two gardens which should probably have been Gold were only awarded silver gilt.
The knee jerk reaction from the RHS following several complaints has been to change the process rather than just go back to the tried and tested system using experienced judges. Some of their changes are sensible, for example not allowing the people on the initial selection panel to subsequently judge the gardens they chose. What is not so sensible is that they are talking of abolishing the hands in the air voting method in favour of a points system. In the past the gardens were assessed by three assessors on the preceding Sunday. They would read the brief and based on points would recommend a medal to the judges who on Monday morning would then vote in agreement or disagreement by putting their hands in the air. Now they want the judges to use a points system instead.
A few months ago I judged the Gardening World Cup in Japan using a points system and it doesn’t work. The result was that there wasn’t a proper spread of medals. Gardens which were clearly bronze medals scraped into the silver category alongside gold medal standard gardens which didn’t quite get enough points. The chief judge made the decision to re-grade everything thus making the points system totally redundant. Not only is this system untested by the RHS but they are wheeling it out at Chelsea, their highest profile show instead of trialing at a lesser show. The RHS are therefore running the risk of messing up the judging two years in a row.
As a designer I am not happy about this as I know how the old system works and this is just introducing unnecessary uncertainty into an already stressful process. Who knows if this new system is going to work at all? From the RHS point of view this is also massively risky. Sponsors pay a lot of money for a garden at Chelsea and they expect to receive a lot of publicity in return. If you don’t get a gold medal you receive a significantly reduced amount of publicity. Cancer Research UK, the sponsors of one of the ‘should have got a gold’ gardens of 2011 have now pulled out of Chelsea after 9 years. Without high profile sponsors Chelsea is sunk and without a reliable judging process sponsors will lose interest and so will designers like myself.
Stop Press! I’ve just heard that the RHS is not going to roll out any new system at Chelsea until they have trialed it first alongside the existing one. So huge relief there, and what’s more, since writing this blog the new touchy feely RHS have also invited designers to a forum to discuss any possible changes. So I will eat my words…..although I’m still not sure what was wrong with the old system?
I’ve had an email from a colleague who is also at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. I won’t name her (or him) but she (or he) has also started having the Chelsea dreams. In her (ok, its definitely a her) latest one which she describes as a ‘wake up in terror in the middle of the night nightmare’ I am her Chelsea neighbour and it has come as something of a surprise to her that I am constructing a life size galleon (Play Mobil genre) and am filling my garden with pine chests of drawers and bedside tables. This in itself is not bothering her but apparently I am stacking it rather high and therefore she can see it over the boundary wall which divides our plots. This is not only against the rules but is frankly discourteous and she is cross.
My amateur analysis is that because my garden is ‘Arts and Crafts’ she has made a subconscious link to furniture hence the pine. Although I am disappointed that she has essentially gone down market with my concept.
This is what sits next to my desk on ‘The Chelsea Table’ which arrived in my studio en route to a garage for storage. It had only been there for 5 minutes when someone put something on it.
That was nearly 2 years ago and it is now the almost permanent home to a model of an RHS Chelsea garden alongside samples of all the stone and other materials we will use. By the end of March when the plants start growing I’ll add various leaves and flowers from time to time so I can see how all the colours and textures work together. And I will look at this everyday and pick things up and go and put them on the pavement so I can see what they look like in sunshine (I am always optimistic). I should probably move it all into another room – out of sight and out of mind – but somehow I feel the stress and worry is all part of the process and without it the garden won’t be successful. You often hear accomplished actors saying they still get nervous before they go on stage well I think this is a similar thing. Too much confidence can lead to a poor performance so the model will stay there, penetrating my thoughts at inconvenient times and generally being a nuisance.
I remember last time I made a garden at Chelsea in 2010 I just couldn’t wait to get started on site. The whole process has a kind of hypothetical air about it until a digger arrives on site and someone digs a hole. Until then its hard to believe it’s ever going to happen. To make us all feel better we printed out some full size images of one of our main feature walls and taped them to the wall in our studio. I know it looks like a new idea for a game but actually it’s a stone clad wall inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin wallpaper. People who see it are evenly split between those that are reminded of a Dalmatian and those that say Friesian. I am in the bovine camp. My son just sat there endlessly repeating that he thought it was all a ’bad idea’. I sent him home. We will now spend the next three months staring at it every day and wondering if we have the holes in the right place. These things must not be rushed. And by the way, it won’t actually be black and white so keep the Cruella De Vil comments to yourself.
The Chelsea dreams have started, and not the ones about winning Gold. Far from it in fact. In my dream I completely forgot I was doing a Chelsea garden and was wandering around the show ground the day before when someone asked me how my garden was coming on. ‘I’m not doing a garden’ I said. ‘Yes you are’ came the reply. I was shown my plot and working through the night I did the best I could but only managed to make a garden the size of a small car and it was utter rubbish. I didn’t even get a bronze.
Rubbish Show Garden
In another version I forgot to apply for a garden and was given a rather small plot inside the marquee at Hampton Court which nobody saw. I know little of dream analysis but all this undoubtedly stems from the fact that with Christmas out of the way and only 4 months left before we arrive on site I have nothing to show for my endeavours. Nothing has actually been made. Not a sausage. There is a reason for this. The oak bench can’t be made until later as I want it to have the wonderful honey colour of new timber. The stone can’t be ordered yet as the cost is astronomical and we are exploring other options which may even be better.
The sculpture has hopefully been started and I will get to see a very small section soon but as yet I have seen nothing and the entire garden relies on this sculpture so I am rather nervous. Very nervous in fact as I know what I want it to look like but I don’t yet know if the people making it share my vision. I will only know when I see this first small section and there is not a remote chance it will be exactly as I want it which will give us about 3 weeks to collaboratively perfect the prototype before full production begins. If we don’t hit this deadline then my dream scenario gets one step closer to becoming real.