2016-06-16 / Front Page

'It's Just a Joyous Experience'

‘Gilded – Artful Living,’ a tribute to decorative excess, is this year’s theme for the Newport Flower Show
By Betsy Sherman Walker


During the Gilded Age, gardens became stages for nature's most brilliant performances. Floral designs are made from fresh plant material; no artificial flowers, foliage or vegetables are permitted. 
(Photo courtesy of Newport Flower Show) During the Gilded Age, gardens became stages for nature's most brilliant performances. Floral designs are made from fresh plant material; no artificial flowers, foliage or vegetables are permitted. (Photo courtesy of Newport Flower Show) “Class 14 – à la Russe Terrace (4 entries) The height of formality in the Gilded era was dining ‘à la Russe,’ in the Russian style. This meant each course was served sequentially in individual portions. This style, copied in grand homes from the French originated with Russian diplomat Alexander Kurakin (1752-1818). It remains the style used today in most western cultures. Create: A floral design complementing a staged table. Design must incorporate candleholder provided by Committee.”

Let’s just say, on pure conjecture, that you are one of the many exhibitors at this year’s Newport Flower Show, the Preservation Society of Newport County’s annual nod to the culture of horticulture and the power of flowers to transform a tabletop, a room, or the view from one’s living room window. Taken verbatim from this year’s exhibitors’ guidelines, the above passage outlines one of the many projects you might work on – as well as a nuanced hint from the judges of what they expect.


The Newport Flower Show offers three days of fun, flowers, food, and spectacular garden displays, all located in and around Rosecliff. 
(Photo courtesy of Newport Flower Show) The Newport Flower Show offers three days of fun, flowers, food, and spectacular garden displays, all located in and around Rosecliff. (Photo courtesy of Newport Flower Show) But not too strong a hint. “We provide just enough to inspire them,” says show Chair Pat Fernandez, “to whet their appetite. The goal is to provide the genesis for inspiration.”

Now in its 21st year, the show – considered by its fan base as the calling card of summer – is scheduled for Friday through Sunday, June 24-26, at its signature venue, Rosecliff. This year’s lens, through which all has been envisioned and will be judged, is “Gilded – Artful Living.”


The Gilded Age is identified with the enhancement of natural and manmade objects. In no other part of the Newport Flower Show is this more evident than Botanical Arts, where designers do just that. Staged in the ornate Salon of Rosecliff, this division will feature items commonly found in the wardrobe of grand ladies of the era. (Photo courtesy of Newport Flower Show) The Gilded Age is identified with the enhancement of natural and manmade objects. In no other part of the Newport Flower Show is this more evident than Botanical Arts, where designers do just that. Staged in the ornate Salon of Rosecliff, this division will feature items commonly found in the wardrobe of grand ladies of the era. (Photo courtesy of Newport Flower Show) When it came time to pin down the game plan for 2016, the committee – aided by the popularity of “Downton Abbey” – turned its eye to the Gilded Age. Exhibitors in the Botanical Arts division, for example, are instructed to incorporate accessories from the PSNC collection (a parasol, a jewelry box, a brooch, a lady’s slipper) as a starting point. The artifice of society is the basis for the show, and it’s not a stretch to say that Fernandez’s pithy titles and guidelines sound like Instagram posts from a Gilded Age ball—had the party-goers had smartphones: “The Princess Ballroom,” “Dollar Princesses,” “Bal Blanc,” “Naturally Gilded” (a tribute to John James Audubon), “Velvet Swing” (think Evelyn Nesbit Thaw and Stanford White) and “Gilded Age ‘Cottages’ Gardeners’ Challenge.”

Keeping up with the Vanderbilts, it appears, was a full-time job.

While one can go just to smell the roses, Fernandez is quick to point out that the Flower Show is meant to resonate on a variety of levels. Not only to delight, but also to educate and inspire. And to establish a comfort zone for the leagues of novices who attend. Gardening, as a rule of (green) thumb, need not be intimidating.

In addition to the annual opening night cocktail party and two lecture luncheons, there will be the usual fare of demonstrations, presentations, and workshops. This year’s featured luncheon speakers will be designer and author Bunny Williams (“On Garden Style”; “An Affair with a House”) on Friday, June 24, and floral designer Bruno Duarte on Saturday, June 25. “Bruno’s work is amazing,” says Fernandez, who has attended his classes at every opportunity. “He makes it look very relatable.”

The lectures are free, and topics range from the great chateau of the Loire Valley to American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand and Gilded Age chronicler Edith Wharton. Workshops instruct on topiary design, photography, and floral design for retailers.

There is a children’s division, with a hands-on curriculum de- signed to be relevant and relatable (snapping floral compositions through the lens of a smartphone, for example). Fernandez is more than impressed by one collaboration between students at Rogers High School and Pell Elementary School, where the former grew the plants and the latter gilded the container. “We feel we have a responsibility to educate and inspire young people,” she explains. “We want to grow the next generation of gardeners.”

While the show is beloved as much for its razzle as its dazzle, what emerges if one digs around a little is an authentic, dirt-beneath the fingernails affair. All categories of the show are open to amateurs and new exhibitors (actual categories), as well as professionals. The Horticultural Division (with its own opening reception at the Breakers greenhouse) is open to anyone, “from the weekend dabbler to the experienced horticulturist.”

Exhibitors must work though a labyrinth of rules and regulations that seem more akin to 4-H than 400 (as in Caroline Astor’s infamous A-list). Nothing artificial, endangered, or grown indoors may be used, for example, and what is used must come from the exhibitor’s garden and have been in situ for at least nine months. Setup on Friday morning begins at 5 a.m. sharp, and ends promptly at 8 a.m. Maintenance throughout the weekend (backup flowers for refreshing arrangements are kept in reserve) is permitted, but only from 7-8:30 a.m.

And if a design begins to look wilted or sad, it has to go. “People should have the same experience on Sunday afternoon as they do on Friday,” Fernandez explains. “We owe them that.”

It is a commitment to excellence that has paid off. The Newport Flower Show ranks as one of the best. Alongside Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta (known as the Southeastern), it is only one of four sanctioned by the Garden Club of America – a three-year vetting process during which visiting judges decide whether Newport meets the GCA’s standards. The process, Fernandez says, was “tough but valuable. We learned a lot.”

What sets Newport apart, she adds, is its venue. The other three are held at convention centers; Newport’s is held – need one say more – at Rosecliff.

Fernandez has served on the show committee since 2004. This is her seventh year at the helm, and her third solo. “Quite frankly,” she says, “while I do have the title, I am never doing it myself. The team is incredible.” She cites the “green shirts” – the vast army of PSNC gardeners who report for duty at daybreak, ready for the heavy lifting and last-minute fixes, as well as the “hundreds and hundreds” of devoted volunteers. “I have worked in a lot of organizations,” she says, “and I have never had the kind of uplifting experience that I have had at the show. It’s just a joyous experience.”

When asked for an end-of-the-day insight, there is little hesitation. Fernandez knows she speaks for the committee and her volunteers when she says it is all done for the love of gardening – and gardeners. The show is all about “the gardener going into the backyard in the morning, cutting a perfect rose and bringing it in and sharing with us,” she says.

“If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job,” she says. “This is a community event, and at the end of the day, that is the crux of the show.”

TO GO

WHERE: Rosecliff,
548 Bellevue Ave.
WHEN: Friday, June 24-
10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday,
June 25-9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, June 26-9 a.m.-5 p.m.
TICKETS: $15 per person
per day
INFO: newportmansions.org

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