The Artisan gardens at RHS Chelsea offer designers a place to stretch the wings of imagination. I love these gardens because they transport you to different worlds, and the intimate scale and the enclosed woodland setting in Ranelagh Gardens lend an involvement, an accessibility, which can sometimes elude the larger show gardens.
There are always treasures to be discovered in the Artisan area, but this year one garden stopped me in my tracks. In a beautiful flower-filled setting, a young woman in Victorian dress lay on a bench, apparently unconscious, or sleeping. A scene straight out of Victorian Romanticism, and an extremely striking introduction to the Embroidered Minds Epilepsy Garden, designed by Kati Crome.
This garden is imbued with additional significance, since it honours author Leslie Forbes, a collaborator on ‘Embroidered Minds of the Morris Women’, a novel investigating what might have happened to Jenny, Morris’ eldest daughter, who lived with the condition. A good friend of garden designer Kati Crome’s, Leslie was already involved in plans for this Chelsea garden when she tragically died as the result of an epileptic seizure, and Kati has worked with Leslie’s husband Andrew Thomas and other Embroidered Minds collaborators to ensure the garden honours her memory.
The Embroidered Minds Epilepsy Garden is certainly outstanding in its design and execution, and it has a powerful theme. It’s Kati’s fifth time at Chelsea, and the garden has deservedly won her a Silver Gilt medal.
Layered with meaning, the garden aims to represent the experience of living with epilepsy, and in particular how the condition affected the family of Victorian craftsman William Morris. An ambitious concept, but design, planting and outstanding craftsmanship are combined in a garden with tremendous impact. Ordered, calm and delicate planting on the left hand side is disrupted as a seizure takes hold. The planting becomes spiky, dark and chaotic. A beautiful tiled path becomes broken, jagged, disordered; the gentle curves of a beautifully-crafted oak bench by Toby Winteringham shoot skyward in a representation of the EEG readout of a brain experiencing a seizure. On the far right of the garden, the body emerges from the seizure, and the planting becomes, lusher, colourful, more vivid then before, a representation of the changed neural pathways and altered perceptions of the post-seizure state.
The plant selection is very skilful. The living wall in the pre-seizure section references Morris’ surface designs, and the calm planting echoes the design of many Arts and Crafts gardens. In the central ‘seizure’ section, the more you look at the planting, the darker it becomes. The spiky shapes of the thistles, dry teasels and stinging nettles are echoed in the textured bark of a Tibetan cherry, throwing shadows into the post-seizure section.
The planting in this last section is more vivid, with bright yellows and oranges, blue aquilegia and stunning white peonies. The garden includes plants often seen in William Morris designs, such as acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches), and also features valerian and artemisia, two plants that have been used in the treatment of epilepsy.
I was lucky enough to meet both Kati and Andrew on Press Day, and they explained how keen they are to ensure that the garden both does justice to Leslie’s ambitions for the garden, and how important it is to them that it raises awareness of what life is like to for the half a million people living with epilepsy in the UK.
Andrew, who designed the tiles of the path in collaboration with artist Sue Ridge, wiped away the worst of a muddy footprint as I went to take a photo of Leslie’s memorial tile. “Wait a moment!” he said as he dashed in, “Leslie would never forgive me!” Kati described how the vivid planting in the ‘post-seizure’ section was inspired by the creative periods that Leslie could experience after a seizure. “She looked at things in a different way,” she explained. “She felt more able to think outside the box.” And tears sprang to her eyes as she explained that the design of each tile has a significance, including a duck in flight to represent Leslie flying away.
Andrew and Kati explained what a social stigma epilepsy had been in Morris’ time. His daughter Jenny’s condition was carefully concealed lest it affect the commercial success of the family’s design business. Even today in some parts of the world, a son or daughter from a family that’s affected by epilepsy will be regarded as unmarriageable. Although we’ve come a long way, it’s so important to the team behind the garden that it helps to raise awareness of this condition, which even today causes around 1,000 deaths every year in the UK.
Leslie’s influence can be felt like a thread running through the Embroidered Minds garden, and it’s clear that the team has taken comfort from feeling her ongoing presence in their lives. We hope that this beautiful and meaningful garden will help to start conversations about living with epilepsy.
Congratulations to Kati Crome and the team on winning a Silver Gilt medal for this extraordinarily moving garden.