London is having a wet and overcast spring with fewer sunny days than I would like. However, as Brits, we plough on regardless of what the climate throws at us so we decided to go to Kew Gardens even though the clouds were heavy and threatened rain.
Kew Gardens, properly known as the Royal Botanic Gardens, is a World Heritage Site and well worth a visit any time of the year but we had a special reason to head there. Dale Chihuly has been invited to exhibit his extraordinary glass pieces all around the gardens in an display called Reflections on Nature.
A handy map guides you around the 12 pieces, placed in the eastern part of the gardens around the Temperate and Palm Houses and near the Pagoda which helps you navigate the gardens. We entered by Elizabeth Gate and did a huge loop around all 12 sculpture sites so follow me on our tour. Each piece is numbered on their map so I’ll use these references for my post.
From a distance these looked more like flowers than paintbrushes but they set the tone for our visit with their bright colours and Chihuly’s use of red and yellow.
9 Red Reeds
Red is clearly a popular colour for Chihuly and these sets brightened up the corner of this glass house and mimic reeds growing directly out of the cleared brown earth.
10 Ethereal White Persian Pond
We had to queue for about 10 minutes to enter this glass house as entry was carefully controlled to ensure visitors could enjoy clear views of these beautiful pieces. Set among the lilies in the pond, these white ethereal dishes were one of my favourite pieces of the whole afternoon. They seemed to be growing out of the lily pond and caught the light in the twists and turns of what felt like branches, matching the lily pond leaves themselves.
12 Summer Sun
This sun burns brightly on a dull day and is a fabulous tangle of trademark Chihuly snake like glass. I’ve seen this piece before in Berkeley Square back i 2014 and it was fun to see it return to London, despite a slight hint of Medusa for me making it a little scary.
1 Sapphire Star
Looking like a distant giant flower, this star lit up against its green backdrop.
2 The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
Housed in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery is a substantial exhibition of Chihuly works, giving visitors a chance to get close up to the glass and to see some of the range of his different styles. The most crowded part of this gallery is the room showing a film of Dale working on some of his major installations through which we are given a fascinating insight into his thinking and working methods. We see him putting together several of his large scale exhibitions, in particular one which took place in Jerusalem in 2000 where we see the process of matching his sculptures to an ancient site, we see the assembly process and finished exhibition with some making of pieces along the way. Dale himself cannot be as involved in glass blowing as he used to be after a car accident blinded him in one eye so he wears a patch and he has also suffered a shoulder injury inhibiting his ability to lift the glass blowing tube. However he is clearly intimately involved in every detail of his work and is an extraordinary creative driving force.
This is one of the pieces in the indoor exhibition which took my eye for its shapes, colours and the waving delicacy of the glass. Should you have a spare 5,000 pounds, you can buy your own Dale Chihuly in the well presented shop – I must say it’s tempting if unrealistic!
3 Lime Crystal Tower
This tower is made of sizeable glass blocks and if you have seen the film, you will be familiar with his love of organically forming shapes from these blocks.
5 Temperate House
The Temperate House was restored last year and is a delight in its own right. They have used it to house a variety of pieces, freestanding ones like the first photo and others which are immersed into the plants inside the glasshouse, forming part of the natural environment as in the second and third photo. The Temperate House is full of pieces at every turn including a brand new site specific piece commissioned to hang from the heights of the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse, the blue ‘Persians’ are classic Chihuly.
4 Niijima Floats
This, as with most of the pieces on display, is not a new Chihuly but was made back in 1991 and inspired by Japanese fishing boats in the island of Niijima. It fits so well with the Pagoda and the Japanese Gateway along with the plants native to that part of the world.
6 Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds
More vibrant red pieces which matched the glorious tulips to perfection!
7 Neodymium Reeds and Turquoise Marlins
A change of colour palette as blues and turquoises explode among the green and white plants.
8 Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower
Our last piece is the giant ‘icicle’ using his popular yellow and red, although we thought it was more like the plant commonly called the ‘red hot poker’. It’s size is stunning and it sits happily against some of Kew’s taller trees. The scale of Chihuly’s work means that despite Kew Gardens being a massive site with huge plants, the glass is easily seen and appreciated both from a distance and close up.
I plan to return in July and am hoping for a bright sunny day to show off the glass at its finest but even on a duller day, I hope you’ll agree, they are stunning. I’m also tempted by Chihuly Nights, a chance to visit after dark and see the glass works illuminated under the evening sky. The gardens will be open 7.30-10.30pm on weekend nights from August to October. I expect these will sell out so look into the details here: https://www.kew.org/kew-gardens/whats-on/chihuly-nights
To plan your visit to Kew Garden to see the Dale Chihuly glass or to enjoy the gardens, check out their website for opening times and prices: https://www.kew.org/
Full disclosure: in the interests of openness I like to let readers know whether I have paid for my own ticket or been invited by the organisation running the event. On this occasion we paid for our own entry tickets to Kew Gardens.