Chelsea show garden lets it all hang out

Chelsea Flower Show, which closes on Saturday, gives a reassuring nod to the great British obsession of gardening. The Queen opened the show, as she has for many years, before leaving courtiers and CEOs, with a light sprinkling of glitterati, to sip champagne and celebrate the appeal of nature being whipped into shape.

Curiously, though, one dimension of the show’s top garden has barely been noticed.

Brewin Dolphin’s garden by Cleve West is in the arts and crafts tradition: yew topiary, flame-shaped stone finials, and ornate ironwork gates softened by informal planting. Closer scrutiny reveals a less staid tradition. This is an erotic garden that would instantly have been recognised as such by 18th-century garden makers such as Sir Francis Dashwood of Hellfire Club fame.

Dashwood’s Venus garden, an hour west of London at West Wycombe, was restored in the 1980s to reveal its original form. A turfed mound – the mount of Venus – with paths running down either side to represent legs akimbo. At the base of the mount an oval hole opens on to a cavity. For the hard of thinking, a flint pillar once stood in front of the opening, and a statue of Mercury, the 18th-century “cure” for syphilis still stands above it. Venus de Medici stands on top of her mount.

West’s garden does not have a Venus but it has an oval opening (a stone well head) which one garden wag referred to as “the vagina monolith”. In front, a series of topiary pieces is open to interpretation as is the ornamental drain just in front of the wellhead hole.

This would have been familiar territory to Dashwood and his contemporaries who created sexy Venus gardens at Rousham in Oxfordshire, Painswick in Gloucestershire and various other parks where gods and goddesses from ancient Greece and Rome were invited to roam. It was a jokey, aristocratic version of the top shelf and part of the vogue for telling stories through the landscape.

The vogue mostly died in the 19th century when Britain’s horticultural brio gave gardens a more prosaic, planterly focus that, eventually, spawned the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show. Ninety-nine years old this year, the show is usually as far removed from eroticism as the Greek economy from fiscal prudence.

The exception, in 1994, was a supposed sex garden – a rubber bed and a reference to Marilyn Monroe – but it somehow lacked allure.

Unlike West’s subtle, elegant plot which is an irresistible reinterpretation of 18th-century tradition – and a reminder that the British reputation for prudery is not always justified.

The writer is the editor of FT House & Home

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