This is a transcript of Caroline Beck’s article in the Telegraph Saturday 19 May, 2019
The wonder of hedgerow in a test tube: meet the Chelsea artist displaying nature in a different way
19 May 2019
If the sound and fury of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show threatens to overwhelm you this coming week, take refuge in a corner of the Great Pavilion where artist Charlotte Smithson will lead you to a green thought in a green shade.
Her installation, called Come What May, is so at odds with what most of Chelsea is about that I wonder if some anarchist at the RHS has deliberately snuck her in under the wire. Smithson is intending to snip the best of the overlooked and hidden in our May hedgerows and suspend them in slender glass test tubes threaded by invisible wires as if floating in the air. It is the horticultural equivalent of the silent disco, your own soundtrack of early summer spooling out in your head, while gazing in wonder at meadow grasses, seed heads, umbellifers and the nascent foliage of spring.
She grew up in Swaledale in North Yorkshire, her artist parents encouraging her to explore the wild northern upland of moor, stone and water. She is not old enough to remember the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which angrily documented the catastrophic overuse of pesticides on the environment, but her work is infused with the same kind of anxiety about what has, and is still being, lost.
She studied art at Manchester Metropolitan University, working with textiles, using the warp and weft of her fabric and the sequencing of handmade quilts to amalgamate science, craft and history. When she got her first garden just outside Manchester – “just a few fields away from the city’s sprawl” – her grand plans to tame it first started as a fight, then evolved into a botanical exploration of the life-cycle of the very plants she had attempted to subdue, and has come to inspire much of her current work.
She is supported by friend and artisan flower grower Carol Siddorn, of Carol’s Garden in Cheshire. “Carol will excitedly say ‘I’ve bolted some celery for you and thought you might like it!” And sure enough, I do. She has incredible botanical knowledge gained from working daily with flowers and foliage at all stages of growth, and knows that a plant is seldom just one thing.”
Smithson founded Festoon in 2018, creating visual art installations of great delicacy using natural materials, and that year jointly won the New Covent Garden’s British Flowers Week Competition. Her ethereal installation, called A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut was inspired by the 17th-century plant hunter John Tradescant and invited visitors to the Garden Museum in London to view familiar plants as exquisite botanical 3D drawings rather than a tangle of undifferentiated green.
But she is emphatically not a florist. “As a designer most of my work is with museums, and that’s why I applied. My installations display pieces of nature like a museum would exhibit its treasured collection; carefully mounted with space around each stem.” Her work echoes that of the artist, writer and critic John Berger in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing with his insistence upon seeing with an open mind, leading to a deeper understanding of the object being viewed.
In our anxious age where every new heatwave or cold snap throws us into climatic frenzy, scrutinising how things grow and when they flower is not whimsy, but a radical act that has deep roots. In the 19th century the poet John Clare minutely recorded the natural world even as it was being lost through the Enclosure Acts, recalling, “I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down”.
Placing plants like cow parsley, cleavers and fennel into test tubes forces us to re-evaluate the familiar, a sobering experience in a time of catastrophic decline in wild flowers, species loss and climate change.
I applaud her neatly sidestepping the usual demand from the RHS to specify her plant material before Chelsea Week, telling them that she was going to respond to whatever was in season. “Come What May will exhibit whatever nature has uniquely conjured up this month. It will be foraged and picked the day before I install it in the Great Pavilion. It’s this unpredictable and fluid way of working with nature that inspires me most.”
I suspect that if the RHS wants to attract millennials anxious about climate change and the effects of nature deficit on mental health, then Smithson will be back again at Chelsea with more of her thoughtful installations of grace and delight.
A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut at the Garden Museum CREDIT: JULIAN WINSLOW