The house is secluded, set back along a drive. To the left, an open barn is stacked with logs destined for the fireplace. A trace of wintersweet hangs on the cold country air. It is a well-loved home, more lived-in than preened. Comfortably warm, the rich citrusy smell of Christmas fills every corner. Shelves packed with old books make a suitable foil for the seasonal decorations – small tealights and twinkling glass among piles of fruit and swaths of evergreen branches that bring the outdoors in.
This is the understated, private style of Shane Connolly, the florist and event designer in demand around the world from hostesses, corporates and everyone else that wants their parties to look au courant. It isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from the man chosen to decorate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding last year.
The arboreal guard of honour as Kate and Will walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey gave a clue as to Connolly’s philosophy. Despite his high-profile client list (he will not allow their names to be published – only the countries in which he works), Connolly’s work reflects his personal values: environmental responsibility, simple and personalised design. “We try to work with seasonal material as much as possible,” he says. “It’s not about showing off or intimidating people. At one event I did, a guest said the flowers looked like humans had done them rather than angels – I liked that.”
Connolly, 49, began by studying psychology at the University of Ulster. It was only when he moved to London in 1986 and met family friends who worked with plants that he realised “flowers could be a job”. He began his business out of a garage, decorating for magazine photo shoots. Since then, Shane Connolly and Company has become an international business, decorating events everywhere from the west coast of the US to Japan via India. “I was just very lucky,” he explains. “I met people who were very supportive.”
Connolly and his wife Candy married in 1991 when they moved into the house that had been in her family since 1965. The property is in a distinctly green and pleasant corner of rural England. During the week, Connolly is in London where he has an apartment above his workshop. “I never bring work home with me,” he says.
The garden isn’t strikingly manicured, as might be expected. To the side of the house are crumbling barns and tall grasses, but a perfectly green lawn and climbing roses at the back of the house reveal a trained eye. “We have a beautiful view, so I plant in a way that doesn’t distract from that,” he explains. “I don’t want things that look tropical – more English with pale colours rather than vast stretches of bright colour. I like things that flower in winter, so I have lots of viburnum and wintersweet.”
Inside the house, this understated approach to aesthetics continues. Connolly, followed by his dog Bindi, an orange and white cocker spaniel with a bindi-like brown smudge on her forehead, leads the way. The rooms are full of eye-catching objects and artwork – largely painted or gifted by friends – but they still look lived in. The kitchen is the heart of all activity. The shelves are filled with ornaments and containers – one pewter Buddha’s foot has an opening at the ankle that could hold a small stem. A brightly coloured tin on the table is filled with fruit bread, the source of the comforting sweetness in the air.
The tour continues into the living room where Bindi trots over to a large cream sofa flooded in sunlight. Against the wall, a dark wooden sideboard is dotted with family photos, partly obscured by large branches of fir covered in lichen, which were collected from the surrounding countryside and organised into charming arrangements of disorganisation.
Nearby, an iron chandelier hangs low over a dark wooden dining table with a medieval feel. It is decorated with a simple collection of fruit and foliage picked from the nearby area – tangerines, cherries and small white cyclamen that seem to have arranged themselves in simple glass tumblers. It’s not ostentatiously Christmassy but the colours capture the season.
Connolly likes Christmas decorations to be low key. “If you have a sophisticated home, there’s no point going for a pile of ivy – you need glitter and tinsel but keep it simple.”
His new book, A Year in Flowers, is a guide to using seasonal flowers and plants. In the chapter on winter, Connolly makes the most of light in his decorations with cut glass that reflects candlelight or white berries that resemble pearls. His fascination with nature shows through; he places a single stem widow iris in a tall glass container like a real life botanical sketch to showcase the determination of specimens that flower in winter.
“I wanted my book to be like the recipe books of Nigella Lawson or Nigel Slater, who just put a dead animal in a pot with some leaves. You read it and think ‘I could do that’,” he says. “I think flowers are a bit behind food. The trend with food is now for nature and simplicity – organic, locally sourced, seasonal things.”
The word “personal” crops up repeatedly when Connolly talks about his work. “Conversation with a new client rarely starts with me asking what their favourite flower is. We see what we can learn about them.” He describes one party themed around the host’s life. “She had connections to Ireland, so we had one table decorated with shamrock and potatoes, and collections of William Butler Yeats’ works open at her favourite poems.” There was a ballet table and a Russian table. “We tried to make a Fabergé egg out of flowers. You can imagine that was more, ‘look at that’ than, ‘oh wow’.”
Similarly, Connolly keeps the symbolic meaning of plants in mind. Designing the Duchess of Cambridge’s bouquet at last year’s royal wedding, he included Sweet William, for gallantry, and Myrtle, which symbolises marriage and love. Spectators may not have understood this intimate touch but what caught the public eye was Connolly’s unusual decision to arrange live hornbeam and maple trees in rows on either side of the aisle.
“The architecture in Westminster Abbey is gothic and the vaults in the ceilings are modelled on a canopy of trees,” he says. “It makes sense because ancient people worshipped in woodlands. We wanted to make that big space seem more intimate. It’s nice to use something that you can then pass on to friends as a gift, or plant in your own garden afterwards.”
In this spirit, most of the trees used at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding have been planted at the Prince of Wales’s residence in Wales. So, no waste there.
Connolly continues the tour through the back door and up narrow stone steps. On the door to an outhouse hangs an oversized wreath Connolly made using materials picked from the rolling hills around his home. It isn’t neat and symmetrical but lavish, ethereal and wild – holly, ivy and fir are dotted generously with hawthorn berries and crab apples. Inside, the outhouse is a large, low-lit space that is heavy with the smell of wood and pine. The wide beams overhead intersect with the dusty rays of sunlight streaming in to create a transitory grid. Two pianos sit side by side and the couple let slip that they sometimes play duets. Music runs through their veins – they met while studying music in France and both their parents met through music too.
Connolly’s interest in music is apparent throughout the house; instead of wallpaper, he covered the walls of the downstairs lavatory in sheets of music. “I sing in the Bach Choir in London on Monday evenings and I play piano, but not for others to listen. I just find it therapeutic.”
It’s strange to hear that Connolly needs something to relax him after a day in the workshop. His designs look effortless and fun, a simple reflection of his creativity and values.
This is a vase Connolly’s mother bought in Smithfield Market, central Belfast, just after she met Connolly’s father. She would often fill the container with a few sweetpeas, her favourite flower, or lily of the valley, “which grew weedlike in the garden”. It is a small mother of pearl container – a shell that swims with muted rainbow colours as it catches the light. “My mother’s vase was never empty. It’s not a natural size for a flower but I like it. I’d be really sad if I lost it. I guess it reminds me of her.”
‘A Year in Flowers’ by Shane Connolly is published by Clearview Books (£30)