London is littered with royal societies – about thirty of them. The oldest is the Royal Society founded in 1663. The full name is the Royal Society of London for Improving Nature Knowledge. It’s royal because Charles II gave the society a royal charter written on vellum. (Charters and patronage are administered by the Privy Council, which is the monarch’s inner circle of advisors and MPs.) But other than that, the monarch had no involvement. George III gave real support by paying for the Royal Society’s Captain Cook’s voyage of discovery, which included the botanist Joseph Banks.
Then there was the Royal Society of Arts (1754), which wasn’t really about painting but technology and ingenuity for the purposes of commerce and manufacturing, such as the invention of the extensible chimney sweep brush that enabled the enslavement of small boys for the purposes of cleaning chimneys. It won a prize. The awarding of prizes for worthy products was something of a feature of societies – more on that in a moment. As for ‘real’ art, the Royal Academy of Art is actually about art (1768).
The Royal Institution of Great Britain (1799) was founded by Joseph Banks and was for teaching science for the application of life. The society recruited the inventors and scientists Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. Davy went on to found the Geological Society (which ignored the Royal part as it wasn’t a fan of the monarchy) and the Zoological Society (he liked fishing).
Sir Joseph Banks, who had the ear of George III, especially liked to found learned societies, including the British Horticultural Society, which was suggested by John Wedgewood, with the aim of presenting papers on horticultural activities and awarding prizes in gardening. He was joined by Aiton (supervisor of Kew Gardens) and William Forsyth, supervisor of St James and Kensington Palace gardens, and a few others. The Royal charter came in 1860 when Prince Albert took an interest, making membership fashionable, and thereby saving the society from financial problems.
The Royal Horticultural Society has four gardens, but what it is best known for is the Chelsea Garden Show – five days of exhibition held every May in Chelsea since 1912. The famous garden show began life before then: from 1833 a show was held in the gardens of Chiswick, then in 1862 it started the RHS Great Spring Show, which moved several times before finally securing grounds in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in 1913. Popularity caused crowd problems, especially in the marquees. In 1978, there were 6000 visitors, by 1988, 40,000.
To ease the overcrowding, the first two days of the show are exclusively for members of the RHS. (Membership in 2013 was 414,000). The show is covered extensively by the BBC and the royal family visit during a special preview to dampen down the crowds.
There are awards given in many categories, the main ones are floral, trees, vegetable/herbs, scientific interest, exhibits of pictures of photos of floral arrangements.
Here are some highlights:
1929 – American cacti with Mojave dessert painted backdrop.
1937 – Empire exhibition, ornamental plants from around the Empire.
1959 – Garden of Tomorrow, included a radio controlled law mower.
1967 – Garden of the disabled.
1983 – Honeybee garden
1993 – Sand dune garden, which visitors didn’t think was a garden
1996 – Roof garden
2000 – evolution garden
2009 – plasticine garden (actually made from plasticine by toy fanatic James May)
2011 – Irish Sky garden, the first to be suspended in air.
So of all the Royal societies, it’s probably RHS that is most well known, and it manages to cover off art, technology, commerce and botany, and thankfully no chimney sweeps.
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