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Interview: Linda Porrett, flower-festival designer

17 April 2020

‘I don’t arrange flowers at home. They’re usually just stuck in a vase’

I’m partly retired now, but I still work two days a week as a medical secretary. These are very trying, very challenging times. We’re all separated in different offices now in our cottage hospital — it’s not an acute hospital, but if we’re not there, the GPs don’t get the information they need for the patients.

I joined a flower club when my children were small. My background was in fashion design, and, when we moved back to Sussex over 30 years ago, I channelled my artistic abilities into flower design.

I know many members who combine this with the enjoyment of arranging flowers through being members of NAFAS, the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies. Arranging flowers in a church setting or any beautiful building or garden is, for me, very therapeutic.

I’m proud of all the designs I do for competitions and floral events, but I’m particularly proud of gaining a Gold Ribbon — which is awarded to a competitor for achieving three consecutive first prizes at the NAFAS national shows — and several gold medals at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, including four Best in Show awards.

Designing for Chelsea is quite different from national shows, because you’re having to think about the Royal Horticultural Society and what they stand for. They like something floral, which respects the flowers, without too much manipulation. They like fresh flowers rather than dried ones.

You have to respect your customer, make sure your flowers are in tip-top condition, and the mechanics — wood, perhaps — has to be pristine.

Colour is always important to me. I like to make sure I use colours appropriate to the title. Most shows usually give exhibitors a title, which you have to reflect.

I don’t know what my secret is. I’ve just got more experienced over 30 years. I’ve done smaller festivals, little church festivals, then parts of festivals in Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, and St George’s Chapel, and built on those experiences.

Yes, you need a big range of skills, and I’m thankful for my husband, who is quite good with mechanics. My father, who was an engineer, helped me, and was very proud of my achievements. My mother was a flower-arranger; so she introduced me.

I’ve recently come back from the international show in Jaipur, where I designed and created the British exhibit. There’s always an honorary exhibit from the participant countries — not entries to the competition to be judged. Quite a few countries couldn’t come because of the coronavirus; so there were 24 honorary exhibits out of a total of 31 member countries, including a special exhibit from Thailand.

We were all allotted a space; so I took a flat-pack wooden structure on the plane with me, not a container as perhaps you’d think of it. It was four feet square and eight feet high. Logistics dictated how I designed it, and I used a contemporary twist on the traditional British urn on a pedestal, and roses, because they’re one of our traditional flowers.

It’s difficult to import flowers into India; so we ordered flowers for our exhibit over there, with lots of roses to represent the UK, of course, from wholesalers in Holland and India.

Every country has its own type of flower arranging. The Indian one was totally different to ours, and the Australian, American, New Zealand. . . Barbados — they often come over for the Chelsea Flower Show. Indian arrangers have their own materials. Australia uses lots of woody things, and we use a lot of floral material. Ikebana is different, but they don’t use much in that international competition, because it’s a totally different approach.

In my view, you can’t just import other people’s traditions — which doesn’t mean to say that you can’t use some of the techniques and adapt them to your own style. It’s like we might use ethnic prints in clothes, but make them in our style.

We were following the news when we could get internet, but it was the last day when we’d heard they were closing things down. We went to the Golden Temple and the daily closing ceremony at the Pakistan border near Amritsar, and then, that evening, the border was really closed. The daily closing is like a theatrical production, a pantomime, with everyone singing and dancing, soldiers marching, and they simultaneously lower the flags ceremonially, and everybody goes home. But there were too many people gathered, and the virus meant that that had to be the last time. I came home to my son saying that there were no more toilet rolls.

My next big project is designing the flower festival for Lancing College Chapel. I’m a member of the Sussex area of NAFAS, and Lancing College invited us to organise the event. It’s to raise money to complete the west porch of the chapel. I want to contribute my experience and design knowledge to produce a spectacular festival.

I like working in a contemporary way. You can still use traditional flowers — I particularly love working with roses — but rather than just putting them in vase, like Constance Spry, you could have them in a cascade. Flowers can be arranged in little tubes, attached to the mechanics by wires. They drink quite a lot of water to begin with, but you top them up, and then they are OK.

Every festival involves designing the arrangements, organising the mechanics and the flowers. We’ll have over 150 arrangers to help realise my designs, coming from flower clubs all over Sussex — but it won’t now be in August. We’re hoping we can still run it further into the year, with a bit of luck.

The mechanics? That means the stands. They’re often very big structures, made from woodwork or metal work. We were having nine-foot tall trees made like skeletons, with branches made out of metal for the flower material to be attached. They are very costly. At least 30 per cent, if not more, of the cost of a flower festival is spent on mechanics. Often you cannot re-use them.

Flower-arranging is as sustainable as you want it to be. NAFAS asks that members respect the wild life and countryside code, and not to use endangered or invasive plant materials.

Salisbury Cathedral, Winchester, Chichester — unfortunately, there are quite a few festivals which have been cancelled. Chelsea, too; so it’s a pretty lean year. They’ll all resurge for next year. Flower festivals can happen at any time of the year. It’s usually Christmas-themed festivals in winter. We’ve sometimes had our national competitions in November. The cost of the flowers will be about the same; it’s just that you’ll be using different materials. Festivals can be staged at any property or garden, such as Chatsworth, or RHS Wisley, for example, as well as local festivals in smaller churches or local garden events.

I like gardening, and I do grow quite a few flowers, but I don’t often use them, because they’re never out when I want them. You might use foliage from the garden, but it’s rare that a show will coincide with when the flowers are at their best and in the quantities that you need.

I certainly don’t arrange flowers at home. They’re usually just stuck in a vase. I grow things like sweet peas. I don’t have many lilies, because my husband doesn’t like the smell.

I don’t get angry . . . but the gates at the level crossing near from my home can be very frustrating.

I’m hoping that after Easter we’ll get an idea of when we can go ahead with the festival, but we can’t see into the future. For now, I‘ve put everything away, done some gardening, cleared up the house, had a walk down the beach. It’s been quite peaceful.

A great many things make me happy. Before this virus, it was seeing my toddler granddaughter smile and say hello when she came round every week. She’s just learning to talk.

It’s impossible to single out any companion to be locked in a church with. Well, perhaps Constance Spry. It would be interesting to ask her how she started things off.

Linda Porrett was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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