This year the greatest flower show on earth is going digital and so are we! For only the third time since 1913 (the other occasions being the two World Wars), the Chelsea Flower Show will not take place in the fragrant grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Instead, Virtual Chelsea will offer a glimpse into the colour-saturated fields of exhibitors’ nurseries, Monty Don will walk us daily through his garden at Longmeadow, and Gold Medal winning designers will share their secrets online.
In celebration of Virtual Chelsea, we are delighted to present our own online exhibition of twenty-five flourishing flowerpieces dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, encompassing Old Master and Impressionist masterpieces, as well as Modern British and Post-War works. The flowerpiece as a distinct genre was born in the Netherlands at the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the growth of interest in natural science and the development of horticulture. Balthasar van der Ast, painting tulips and shells in our exhibition, is describing exotic and expensive objects.
The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the flowerpiece bloom and expand, packed with colour and complexity in the work of Georgius van Os and Frans Xaver Petter, whose painting contains more than thirty species. The later nineteenth century saw a return to a more simple focus: the sensuous softness of Henri Fantin-Latour’s roses, Achille Laugé’s exquisite, Japanese-influenced bouquet. After 1900, artists unshackled the theme of flowers from strict representation. Ivon Hitchens’s and Winifred Nicholson’s flowers retain their purity, their essence, even as semi-abstract forms.
During these testing times, flowers and nature have never been a greater comfort. As you enjoy Virtual Chelsea from home, also revel in the rich blooms presented by artists down the ages.
The Chelsea Flower Show, a potted history
The highlight of the horticultural calendar, the Chelsea Flower Show has been held every year since 20th May 1913 in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea (secured by Sir Harry Veitch), except during the two World Wars. Originally known as the RHS Great Spring Show, the three-day event was first held in a large tent at the RHS garden in Kensington (now demolished). From 1888 to 1911, it was located in Temple Gardens on the banks of the Thames before moving to its current site. War was declared a few months after the second CFS and although it continued in 1915, it was then cancelled for the duration of the war. The show was in peril again in 1919 when the Government demanded the RHS pay an Entertainment Tax, eventually wavered once convinced the show had educational benefit. From 1920, a special tent or section was created to house scientific exhibits. The provision of tents increased after the war; in 1928 a tent for roses appeared and between 1920 and 1934, there were tents for pictures, scientific exhibits and displays of garden design. The first type of Show Garden to appear at Chelsea was a Rock Garden, perhaps the most popular feature between the world wars. The show was cancelled again in 1939 until 1947 due to the Second World War, with the RHS focussing instead on their ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, showing people how to grow food at home. In 1951, tents were replaced by a single marquee covering 1.5 hectares, which spent years in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest tent. Queen Elizabeth II was made a Royal Patron of the RHS in June 1952 and made her first visit to the Chelsea Flower Show as Queen in 1955. The Show went from strength to strength during the second half of the twentieth century, its popularity necessitating the imposition of a limit on ticket sales and the increase from four days to five, the first two days only open to RHS members. After more than a century, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show remains one of the most celebrated annual events in the world.
To learn about the individual flower varieties depicted in these extraordinary flowerpieces, read our article on the Language of Flowers.
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