an artwork created by Emma Smith, commissioned by Tideway, 2018
About the artwork:
Emma Smith created a collaged 2D visual garden for the hoarding at Chelsea Embankment, using plants selected by the Chelsea Pensioners. Residing at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (RHC), the Chelsea Pensioners are retired soldiers of the British Army, whose iconic and distinct scarlet uniform marks a 300-year tradition and is instantly recognisable at the parades, special visits and events they attend.
The plants evoke memories and stories of place for the Pensioners and, wherever possible, Smith photographed the actual plants they referenced, as well as features, from the RHC grounds; a Grade I and II listed site founded by King Charles II. There are also a small selection of other plants that have a historic connection with the site, discovered through Smith’s research in the grounds and RHC archive.
Behind the plants lie personal stories: the places and people that have been important to the Pensioners and the plants that remind them. For Arthur Currie, sunflowers recall his experience of kindness during service in the Gulf War: “I was the first In-Pensioner who fought in the Gulf War. In the lead-up, strangers sent things out to us, out of kindness. In one of the letters was a packet of sunflower seeds with soil. I got an ammunition box and used some of my valuable water supply to grow sunflowers in the desert. I even had them on the tanks. Some grew as high as 3ft!”
The metaphor of the plant is at the heart of human relationships – of having roots – the important connections that often lie invisible beneath the surface. A strong metaphor also for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which will remain mostly unseen while improving biodiversity and life for all above.
Travelling from left to right, the hoarding is divided into scaled sections representing the layers of subsoil being dug through to make the Thames Tideway Tunnel. The Tunnel will go through clay in the west, mixed sands and gravels in the central region and chalk in the east, each of which requires a different type of Tunnel Boring Machine. In Because, each new soil type is marked by a stone feature. Imagining each of these subterranean soil types as a base to a garden top-soil, the plants are positioned according to where they would grow best. The approach and attention to detail is the same as that given to a live 3D garden, whilst being deliberately fantastical.
This area is renowned and loved for its parks and gardens: RHC South Grounds and their hosting of the Chelsea Flower Show, Chelsea Physic Garden, Battersea Park, Ranelagh Gardens, and mature vegetation along Chelsea Embankment itself. Smith’s artwork creates a new form of temporary garden for the Embankment, and its abundance of plants encourages us to evoke our own memories and associations to place.
The Pensioners were invited to see a sneak preview of the artwork in May, prior to its installation, and to hear more from Smith about how she had developed the work and had woven in their suggestions. One of the Pensioners commented “It’s absolutely beautiful. Flowers and plants are like music – even if it’s from a long time ago, it evokes the meaning of when you first heard it. [Because] is like that.”
The artist has said: "It has been a real pleasure working with the pensioners at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and to learn of their stories, memories and interests that have been so generously contributed to this project. I would like to thank everyone involved and will cherish the stories shared with me through this work."