Amongst all the discussion of Chelsea's centenary show this year (2013), I'm pleased the opportunity's been taken to produce a suitably celebratory book.
Brent Elliott is the author and as he's historian to the RHS, this is the best possible choice. I've heard him speak on a couple of occasions and really appreciate how his dry sense of humour brings his subject to life, particularly when detailing with relish the stormy arguments and mass resignations of the committee during the RHS's early years. Happily his humour (and details of arguments!) shine through in this account.
I found it best to tackle this volume twice. Once for all the plentiful pictures and good captioning, then reading the detailed text at my second sitting. Both are excellent, but trying to read both together was a bit much for me.
Chelsea has changed immensely over the years, except for one thing: the picture of 1932's Sundries Avenue on page 42 looks almost exactly the same today (apart from the clothes worn by the exhibitors). We have the alpine societies to thank for today's show gardens. It was they who pioneered taking their 'table top' displays outside the show tent and showcasing their plants in large rock gardens built especially for the RHS' pre-Chelsea Spring shows. That tradition continued into the new Chelsea venue and part of the show garden area today is still called the Rock Garden Embankment even though they've long gone. I wonder what the alpine societies make of their legacy today?
The show has seen other huge changes - the shift from a society event and the start of the 'season', through to a more celebrity-led occasion today. Then there's the rise of the show garden above that of the plantsman (helped enormously by TV coverage, though the two are in better balance when visiting the show). In the early years, an enthusiastic, but knowledgeable amateur could hold his own (it was almost invariably a he) with all the professionals. Today it's all big business and corporate sponsorship, with very little room for the amateur (though you can find them if you look hard enough, particularly if they're a national collection holder or from a school).
All this and more is documented meticulously in words and pictures and is very readable. I also loved the inclusion of the 'My Chelsea' features scattered throughout the book. Here many of Chelsea's great 'personalities' - many of them from behind the scenes - say why the show is so special to them. I particularly enjoyed Jerry Harpur recalling how few photographers were in attendance when he first started. Now there's over 60 of them, all competing in a diminishing market for their pictures. It's just as well for them that Chelsea is one of the few times when gardening becomes mainstream media.
A delightful book for anyone who's visited the show previously, or is interested in gardening and/or social history.