Despite the trappings, Hampton Court is several steps down the social scale from Chelsea. Even the celebs pictured in the brochure are not exactly A-list (Britt Ekland). Though Mrs W and I popped along on a day when admission was restricted to members of the Royal Horticultural Society, we were surprised to see one shirtless old gaffer, brown as a tinker's nut-bag and smothered in tattoos, who was spark-out in an alcoholic haze. I don't think he was the RHS President. Unlike Chelsea, the Hampton Court show gives visitors ample chance to purchase plants, though Mrs W was alarmed at the prices. "pounds 4.50 for a Verbena bonariensis," she tutted. I agreed, after seeing a haute couture scarecrow for pounds 85. Elsewhere, an artfully re-created tumble-down shack contained a rusty washing mangle for pounds 245, a terminally decayed wheelbarrow for pounds 195 and a severely dented watering can for pounds 15. But we both liked the Plant Heritage Marquee, where 17 stands represented the 600 National Plant Collections. We peered at the pinnacles of Digitalis like fairytale castles and sniffed the Lonicera (honeysuckle, to you and me). Among the Dianthus (pinks and carnations), I was delighted to see a variety called "Camilla", which was described as "very dainty and desirable". When Mrs W was out of earshot, I asked an official if we could set up a National Plant Collection for the speciality of Weasel Villas. "Yes, we would consider registering a collection of dandelions," he replied courteously.
Back among the green-fingered hordes, my eye was taken by a display of adventurous sun-dials made by David Harber of Henley-on-Thames. "We have a lot of interest in this 7-foot obelisk in mirrored glass. It costs pounds 2,600, but you need a really fabulous garden," said his partner, Sophie Kuipers. "No, you can't use it at night with a torch." David's unusual obsession was sparked when he learned astro-navigation for flying. Now he produces exotica such as the Noontime Cannon (Mostly bought by retired admirals, it focuses the sun's rays to fire an explosive charge at noon.). The average cost of a sundial is pounds 1,200-2,000, but the resulting instrument should be accurate to the minute. "Because I always engrave the date, you'll get more for your money if you buy now," David said. "This year is MCMXCVII, but 2000 is just MM."
In one of the vast marquees, I became absorbed by an unlikely exercise in social analysis by Marks & Spencer. The company's display consisted of a terrace of three houses occupied by imaginary tenants. At either end of the row were "Bert and Reenie [sic] Jones", a retired gardener and school dinner-lady, and "Major and Mrs Smythe-Robertson", who have "delusions of grandeur and once were ex-pats". Sandwiched between the two was "Bradley James", a hot-shot freelance journalist, whose "life is divided between commuting into London and working from home on his laptop". Inside, I discovered that the trendy Mr James had an Underwood typewriter, a Bakelite phone and was looking up the entry on "Modernism" in an antique copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I sniffed at the inaccuracy of this tableau, but Mrs W noted that his garden, with its bay-trees, cotton lavender, hydrangeas and chives, was uncannily reminiscent of Weasel Villas. No dandelions, though.
The rehabilitation of Camilla Parker-Bowles,
whose 50th birthday party was grandly celebrated at Highgate last Thursday, continues to gain momentum. There is now talk among royal-watchers of a morganatic marriage. This quaint expression has nothing to do with the piratical Captain Morgan, or even the evil sorceress Morgan le Fay, but derives from Old High German (rather like the royal family, come to think). Instead of a dowry, the bride receives only a token gift from her husband on the morning (Morgan) after the wedding night.
But who knows what will happen to Camilla? Her stock is rising so fast, and Prince Chas is so besotted that, despite the niceties of protocol, the possibility of Queen Camilla standing alongside the newly-crowned King Charles III at Westminster Abbey is by no means an impossibility. Though the longevity of the Queen Mum suggests that we will still be subjects of ERII for many years to come, it is only natural that plans for the Coronation of Charles III are somewhere being formulated. The ceremony, which includes anointment with oil (as someone remarked about our present Queen's dedication to the job: "That oil really took"), was devised for the coronation of King Edgar in 973, though it has since been altered somewhat.
Knowing the Prince of Wales' love of tradition, it seems likely that he will desire a deeply authentic type of coronation. Will he, for example, choose to emulate his famous, crook-backed predecessor, Richard III? I learned from Desmond Seward's thrilling history, The Wars of the Roses, that Richard and his Queen "stood naked from the waist up as they were anointed" at his 1483 coronation. Though a revival of this revealing form of ceremonial should undoubtedly ensure good viewing figures, I'd imagine that Camilla would be happier settling for the morning gift.
It came as some surprise to learn that, earlier this morning, I (and you, too, in all probability) spent some time perched on an art-object. I doubt, however, that the, er, bog-standard chaise perce of Weasel Villas will ever command the pounds 12,000 which a German collector paid for a lavatory bowl signed by British artist Sarah Lucas. Entitled The Great Flood, it is currently displayed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. A spokeswoman told me that it is an old-fashioned lavatory of German manufacture. This Teutonic toilet has been plumbed in, and visitors are encouraged to have a flush. However, they are requested not to engage in any more significant involvement with the artwork.
Though the Lucas loo has prompted some rather sniffy comments, it is merely the latest contribution to a distinctive tradition in 20th century art. The cardboard lavatory displayed in last year's Claes Oldenburg retrospective at the Hayward Gallery was commended by critics for its elegance and wit, if not its practicality. Writing in 1966, the artist explained that toilets had become something of an obsession. "I was never able to solve the toilet because I could never find an example of the toilet that I wanted to use," the poor chap expostulated. "There are so many toilets."
The grandfather of this U-bend virtuosity is, of course, Marcel Duchamp, who submitted a urinal to an exhibition of the New York Society of Independents in 1917. Like Ms Lucas, he chose a ready-made object, which he entitled Fountain and signed "R Mutt" (the name of a New York maker of sanitary equipment). In those unenlightened days, it was rejected. Duchamp angrily responded: "The only works of art produced by America are its plumbing fixtures and its bridges." Eighty years ago, the writing was on the wall for lavatoriesReuse content