The Weekly Machen

The following article grants us peek into a distant event of pomp and beauty. Here, Arthur Machen strikes us as the hurried journalist lost in a sea of flowers and color. Without the benefit of photography, he evocatively paints a sumptuous scene for his readers, then and now, all unfortunate souls left outside the garden gates. A news story like this could be easily overlooked as a “puff piece,” but its intrinsic value lies in affording us a glimpse into a peaceful England near the end of the Belle Epoque.

The Marvels of To-Day’s Flower Show:
Most Wonderful Collection the World Has Seen
Arthur Machen
May 22, 1912

md31106898168The most splendid and wonderful flower show that the world has ever seen was opened to-day by their Majesties the King and Queen.

The exhibitors and the few privileged people admitted came hurrying from all quarters as the blare and crash of the National Anthem gave warning that the Royal Party had arrived; and after the King and Queen had passed through the soft Oriental hangings of the entrance and had made a brief pause, they went at once with high courtesy to view the foreign exhibits.

First of all, in due friendship, came the show of France, and the King showed a lively interest in the orchids sent by the firm of Lachaume, of Paris, chatting for some time with the lady and gentleman who stood beside the flowers.

Belgium followed, and here King George paused before the magnificent fruit exhibited by the Belgian Commissioners, remarking especially on the fineness of the grapes.

Model May Morning

The flowers and fruits of Holland were then admired; and on leaving the Dutch section the Queen paused for some minutes before a bank of scarlet amaryllis. The royal party then returned to the principal tent, and began a careful inspection of the whole show.

Fortunately the weather was just right. It was a model May morning, with sunshine genial but not too strong; and the passing clouds and the fresh breeze kept the tents cool and pleasant.

But what a show! “Wonderful” and “splendid” recur to the mind again and again; they are the adjectives demanded by this amazing exhibition.

King George VI and Queen Mary

I took the precaution of getting to the gardens of Chelsea Hospital some time before the coming of the King and Queen. I stood at the entrance of the great tent and tried to take in all the colours and hues and radiances that the world contains: all possible harmonies and melodies of hue combined in a mighty symphony.

Here was a bank of the richest purple, brilliant to the point of crudity; here were the trumpet notes of scarlet and bright yellow; and opposed to these daring tones were groups of poppies, not only suggesting sleep and quiet and long dreams by their nature, but by those languorous petals that looked like faded ancient silks that had hung for a hundred years in a forgotten cupboard.

Revelry of Roses

Change the point of view, and instantly you see the gay revelry of the rose-gardens. Trellises and arches were covered with bright pink Ramblers, growing as rankly as any wicked rampant weed, but all bedecked with blossoms; and close to them the more serious blooms, the great roses of modern culture which connoisseurs of flowers mention with the solemnity that connoisseurs of wine give to the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Superb are these blooms; perfect in shape, in colour; huge in size; super-roses they should be called. There are roses of icy, snowy whiteness, as though winter had become a flower; and the colours deepen and redden, and rise up into ardent flame, and sink again into something that is not far from blackness—jet with a spark in it.

I began to walk about the tent—it is so big and has so many aisles and transepts that once or twice I lost my way for a moment—and immediately found myself in a covered way of delights. It is in such avenues that the gardens of King Alcinous in Homer must have abounded; those gardens where apple ripened on apple, pear on pear, and fig on fig. At the entrance to it purple grapes hung down on one side, on the other yellow; beneath them were yellower melons.

Here were laden nectarine bushes, here reddening peaches, golden plums, cherries, red and black, and green figs were growing rich and ripe over a pleasant undergrowth of strawberries.

Strawberry of 1912

And in the matter of strawberries I must mention that the best and latest variety of this best of berries was on view at Messrs. Laxton’s stall: “King George V.,” the strawberry of 1912, receives to-day its public recognition.

Flower is heaped on flower, colour on colour. The carnations range from Tyrian scarlet to the dimmest dying purples; there is a wood of azaleas that might symbolise the passing of delicate early spring into the vehement life and heat of summer. There are azaleas with flowers pale and sweet, like the first faint yellowing of the east before dawn; there are masses that glow and burn.

The geraniums are so scarlet that they hurt the eyes; but turn to one side, and here is a great bed of delicious and fragrant lilies-of-the-valley; their delicate white bells, their delicate green leaves give a sense of coolness and refreshment.

Then from the lilies of England to the tropics; there flourishes beside them a stout banana tree with a rich cluster of fruit. Its leaves are two yards long and about two feet in breadth.

I went on, and I was in a forest of tree-ferns and foliage plants; and then I came to the calceolarias which have swollen to a size that would have amazed the modest gardeners of the ’sixties, and have put on all manner of strange new colours.

Flowers Like Flame

The calceolarias that I remember were small and yellow; the blooms of the International Exhibition are two or three inches in diameter, and some are rich browns and some are like the lees of wine in colour.

So, till to-day, the iris was to me either a purple or a yellow flower. There are purples and yellows still, but there are also irises that look as if they must have grown by the shores of faery pools.

I noticed Iris Nibelungen; in the centre its petals are dun and faded, approaching in hue the pigment called “neutral tint”; if some flowers are like flame, these are like faint smoke. Then there are feathery yellow tufts, and the lower petals are of a dull veined purple.

But the true garden of enchantment is in the orchid tent. In all shades and nuances of colour, in all shapes, some most flowerlike and many most unlike to any common shape of flowers, these wizard blossoms climb one above another.

There are the exquisite and graceful sprays of the odontoglossums, and there are things which look like monstrous and malignant tropical spiders. One orchid I noticed had green flowers, with grotesque black markings at their hearts.

So marvel follows marvel in the wonderful flower show; and just as I was realising that I had only begun my exploration of it, there came the notes of “God Save the King.”

The Weekly

Previous: The Joy of London III

Next: The Joy of London I

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Marvels of To-Day’s Flower Show

  1. A good matching of subject and author — perhaps surprisingly. If ever “purple” diction is called for, an exhibition like this is suited to its use.


  2. Thank you for this – including the link, with its map, photos, and color poster, which fill out the ‘the picture’ in various ways, but also suggest how much more colorful an impression Machen finely works in our imaginations than 1912 photography would be likely to!


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