‘Blooming Britain’: a very different sort of garden

Henry/Bragg’s groundbreaking ‘Blooming Britain’ exhibition switches the focus from the slick professionals of Chelsea to the enthusiastic amateur gardeners found in every corner of the UK

Living in the UK, one of the few countries in which gardening is a serious profession, it’s easy to forget the amateurs. Photographer Debbie Bragg and artist Julie Henry might beg to differ however, as it’s these amateurs and their gardens – boats in Essex, hanging baskets in Manchester and 28-foot banana trees in London – that are the focus of their summer exhibition ‘Blooming Britain: gardening in the margins.’
Working under the name Henry/Bragg, this is Bragg and Henry’s first proper collaboration. Henry isn’t much of a gardener – she has one hanging basket, but is considering getting another – and neither is Bragg, at least by British standards, but they were nonetheless fascinated by both the aesthetics and the social implications of amateur gardening. Describing their work as a ‘socio anthropological approach to social groups,’ Henry/Bragg spent last summer travelling around the UK photographing entrants for the RHS’ annual ‘Britain in Bloom’ amateur gardening competition. According to Henry, inspiration for the exhibition came from a garden on a council estate in Aldershot.
‘It was really this tiny little postage stamp garden that was really madly creative,’ she says. ‘And the first person I rang up: ‘Debbie, Debbie you got to come see this garden,’ and she knew exactly where I was coming from straight away.’ Henry and Bragg typically conduct between six and 12 months of research during their projects, and this was no exception, as they interviewed every gardener at each of the hundred gardens they visited recording them and eventually turning one into a sound installation. At first the duo were simply attempting to document the creativity of amateur gardeners. ‘We asked people, ‘Well, do you see yourself as an artist?’ And they say, ‘Oh, no not really,’ and then they’d go on about the fusion of colours and circles and lines and angles,’ says Henry. ‘We discovered that people will find a way to put on some sort of aesthetic or express themselves.’

As they saw more gardens, branching out from front gardens to tower blocks, inner city row houses and more, their work took on several themes. ‘We found a multitude of reasons why gardening gives so much to people, to communities, which we hadn’t taken on board initially but we learnt along the way,’ says Henry. People like Latif Khwaja – proud owner of a ten-foot lily – are examples of the personal narratives that provide the back story for the exhibition. London resident Khwaja, 71, suffered a back injury in 1973, a knee injury in 1977, a heart attack in 1985 and a stroke in 2000, but none of those have dampened her enthusiasm for gardening. ‘When I had a stroke in 2000, I was told, ‘Maybe you can live two years or three years,’ but you can see now this is eleven years and still I am standing in front of you and doing some of these things. So I never thought this sort of thing I can do,’ says Khwaja. ‘Whatever I’m getting from medication support, the same flowers they are giving me the support, to live on,’ she continues. ‘Whenever I do this, this will give me more happiness.’

Henry and Bragg also talked at length about Manchester’s Moss Side, a bleak, post-industrial area with some of the UK’s highest crime rates and an unlikely source of passionate amateur horticulturalists. ‘They’ve got no gardens. They’ve got flat-front terraced houses. So there’s one street [where] they just put a hanging basket up in front of each building, and [that] sort of brought everyone out of their houses and talking to each other,’ describes Bragg. ‘And the crime level has gone down in their street. We walked down the street to take photos of the hanging baskets, and loads of the front doors were open and everyone was saying hi and coming out with a cup of tea.’ ‘Which you don’t normally associate with Moss Side,’ interjects Henry. ‘Moss Side you think, keep your head down and walk through quickly,’ continues Bragg. ‘And it’s not just the hanging basket; it was the act of them all getting together to decide that they were going to do something to clean up their street, and it was the hanging basket just happened to be the thing, the catalyst that made them do it.’

The exhibition is sponsored by the RHS and will be rolled at RHS gardens nationwide during the summer, but ‘Blooming Britain,’ both thematically and aesthetically, seems to run counter to the RHS’ largest and most popular production: the Chelsea Flower Show. One of the controversies from this year’s Chelsea Flower Show involved celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin’s ‘Irish Sky Garden’, a bright pink pod containing plants, suspended from a crane 82 feet in the air. Gavin was criticised for making the garden accessible only to VIPs, hoisting up the likes of the Queen and Helen Mirren at the expense of the 157,000 other visitors. ‘Blooming Britain,’ on the other hand, seems to be very much an exhibition for the people by the people. While Gavin’s garden cost in the region of €2.5 million – supplied by the Irish taxpayer.

Henry/Bragg highlight the likes of Donna Rayment, who haggled over a small boat for her garden, eventually paying £10 for it. ‘Yeah, it’s very, very different to the Chelsea Flower Show,’ says Bragg. ‘It’s not just about the garden but how they felt about it, and their passion, what it meant to them. And so we developed all these different stories for people. All the attention is on the Chelsea Flower Show, but actually we think there’s a lot of good things going on that doesn’t really get shown in the media and stuff,’ she continues. The extravagance and excess of events like Chelsea can appear to neutralise the social benefits of gardening, but with Henry/Bragg’s gardens – many of which were grown from seed and maintaining them throughout the year – the pros of greening urban spaces have never been more obvious. ‘One of the sort of topics that this project brought up was conspicuous consumption,' says Bragg. 'People going to the garden centres and spending loads of money and buying loads of plants that only last for the summer then die and stuff like that, but we didn’t find too much of that.'

Henry/Bragg’s focus on people – many of the exhibition’s photographs show the gardeners in the midst of their flowers – is interspersed with surreal wide-angle and close-up shots of gardens. Bragg employed tilt-shift photography for many of the photos, which selectively blurs areas of the image, leaving specific areas in focus and miniaturised. ‘When we first started the project we were concentrating on smaller gardens, and we wanted to highlight the space constraints. But as we were using it, we found multiple reasons, because it made it look quite surreal,’ says Henry. ‘It kind of makes them look magical a little bit, doesn’t it, because everything looks a little bit distorted so it looks a little bit fairytale,’ continues Bragg. ‘Plus they punch up the colours. We liked that. So it hit all the right buttons for us on this particular project,’ concluded Henry.

One photograph shows Colin Cops, from Fareham in Hampshire, staring past the camera across the road. Cops’ small front garden features two towering trees and other foliage that is practically spilling over the fence he has constructed to contain it. Next door, a path runs in a straight line between two bare patches of grass to the front door. Two small St. George’s cross stickers are visible on the window, and it makes you start thinking about what it really means to be English. Ultimately, ‘Blooming Britain’ re-imagines this aspect of British identity, retrieving gardening from the clutches of luxury and modern-day consumerism, and reminding you that gardening can be, and is, everywhere. ‘Gardening is the biggest leisure activity in this country. It’s bonkers, but it’s true,’ says Henry. ‘And it does seem to be that we are country of gardeners.’

‘Blooming Britain’ is on tour from the 6th June until the 30th September. For more information, go to: www.rhs.co.uk

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