At the Chelsea Flower Show last year we nearly missed the Wedgwood garden, designed by Jo Thompson. When we did discover the garden on the final day, it was one of our favourites. But we’d missed the opportunity to quietly absorb it, without the crowds, in the quiet early morning or golden evening. This wonderful out-of-hours access is one of the best parts of working at the show, and is absolutely magical. So this year, we made a beeline for Wedgwood’s 2019 garden, also designed by Jo.
When we visited on the final Sunday of the build, just before Press Day, we were lucky enough to be able to chat to Jo herself. We were interested to learn about how the garden was based on Etruria, the village in Staffordshire that Wedgwood founder Josiah Wedgwood created to house his workers – an idea along similar lines to model villages at Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight.
Etruria has now been absorbed into Stoke-on-Trent, but at the time – and until the 1950s - the Etruria works were the home of one the most famous fine china and porcelain manufacturers in the world. Because of the care that Wedgwood took to create a pleasant living space for his workers, it was known as ‘the factory in the garden’, with generous green areas and classical references in the architecture.
It’s fascinating to think that the Etruria works were opened in 1769. Burgon & Ball was founded in 1730 in Sheffield – just 40 miles from Etruria, as the crow flies, although it would have been a difficult journey across the Peak District. Perhaps our erstwhile colleagues knew about it. Perhaps some even visited.
We digress slightly. We were delighted to hear from Jo that the garden had been created with the help of our RHS-endorsed secateurs and our Kneelo® kneelers – in fact it was quite astonishing just how many of our kneelers we spotted around the showground during the build-up. Jo went on to explain that she’d been on site for a week already. It had been a complicated build, with the many graceful arches, the water flowing through the garden, and of course the different areas of planting, but things had come together, and the garden was looking beautiful.
There were still some finishing touches in progress, in the pursuit of Chelsea perfection. The beautiful rusted effect of some of the steel elements had been created with a clever Novacolor product which involves a painted base coat which is then activated with an oxidising finish; the shade was being adjusted to the beautiful soft final colour we saw later that evening. But that’s how it is as gardens come together at Chelsea. With a thousand different elements to pull together to an immovable deadline, there’s a bit of creativity on the hoof – and it’s fascinating to watch.
The garden gives lots of design inspiration. For example, while the water references the canals that were so crucial to Wedgwood’s development, it plays a key role in the garden. Accessing seemingly floating platforms across stepping stones or bridges, it makes visitors take their time and focus on the garden – you can’t rush through. There were more useful design ideas to take away, too: the soaring arches of the architecture frames different views as you move through; textures in planting and materials add interest; and a sinuous sculpture creates a focal point. We loved this garden - can you tell?!
The planting was relaxed, but varied. At the front of the garden and around the seating area were more cultivated garden plants; roses, irises, hollyhocks, many skilfully selected to pick up the rust tones of the metalwork threaded through the garden. Jo said she wanted to create the type of space the Etruria workers would have enjoyed, relaxing in their rare time off. But this was joyously shot through with wild carrot and pheasant grass to give a semi-wild feel which we really enjoyed.
And at one end of the garden, angelica and foxgloves took over, exploding towards the sky in dense planting to echo the growth along canal banks, giving a sense of the wider rural landscape in which the Etruria factory-garden was created. This wild area of the garden was alive with bees and other insects, so absorbing to watch, and just wonderful to see in this little patch of central London.
Jo modestly claimed that the garden didn’t have a particular message, other than being a place to relax. But we think this underplays the role that gardens can play in our mental health. If Wedgwood, back in the 1760s, appreciated the benefits to his workers of relaxing in a garden, just think how much more important it is today, in the pressured 21st century. By creating green spaces for us and for wildlife, we give ourselves the opportunity to recharge.
We think the benevolent Josiah Wedgwood would approve…
With thanks to Jo for taking the time to chat on a very busy day, and very many congratulations on her Chelsea silver-gilt medal.