Words Stephanie Donaldson
Photographs Thom Atkinson
Floral alchemist Shane Connolly may have worked on one of the most televised weddings of the 21st century, but he’s never compromised on his mantra of ‘seasonal, British, local, thoughtful, sustainable’… and understanding the language of flowers…
For anyone who loves flowers and plants, visiting Shane Connolly’s studio in North Kensington is rather like finding oneself in a very organised clearing in an enchanted wood. Somehow you don’t notice the industrial unit that houses the studio as your eye is drawn to the ever-changing cast of trees, climbers, cut foliage and garden flowers that has been assembled for the next event that Connolly and his team will work their wizardry upon. Characterful bare branches hang from the walls waiting to be used, urns stand in the wings and ceiling-height shelves hold massed ranks of vases and containers. This is beyond floristry: it’s a place where floral alchemy takes place.
You may not have attended any of the galas, receptions or banquets where Shane has worked his magic, but you will know his work from a wedding that was watched by the world – that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Avenues of native trees under-planted with spring flowers lined the aisle of Westminster Abbey, while foliage and flowers gathered from the Royal Estates cascaded from above the high altar. Rather than attempt to echo the lavish architecture with equally lavish arrangements, Connolly transformed the Abbey into a sacred garden.
In person, Shane Connolly is a charming, articulate and thoughtful man who is a joy to spend time with. Joining him on one of the masterclasses that he holds in his studio whetted my appetite to know more about how he developed his naturalistic approach to working with flowers. Returning recently for a proper chat, my first clue was a sheet of paper pinned up on the wall of his office, on which was written the words, ‘seasonal, British, local, thoughtful, sustainable’.
Given that he describes his childhood home of Belfast as ‘the most awful part of Ireland at the time’, it seems apt to start our conversation by wondering what had sparked his interest in flowers. ‘My mother always had flowers in the house,’ he replies. ‘Not arrangements, just posies – or a few stems of this or that she had picked from the garden. She loved being given flowers too, so they were a big thing and have always been part of my life.’
Gardening had been an interest from ‘my earliest years’ he says, ‘although nobody taught me how – it didn’t come from either of my parents. We had a garden, but it wasn’t an obsession for them. When I was six or seven they gave me a tiny patch to grow vegetables – an awful bit of land behind the garage – and it was here that I had my first brush with horticultural disappointment. I saw a packet of radish seed in a garden centre – I’d never seen a radish in my life – but at Halloween in Ireland you have turnip lanterns rather than pumpkins and I thought I would grow a pink radish lantern. I sowed the seeds and they germinated quickly. I checked them regularly and towards the end of October I pulled them up only to discover something so disappointingly small that I consigned them to the compost heap. But it didn’t put me off .’
‘In Northern Ireland gardening was just something you did that hurt your back’
Connolly’s love of gardening continued undiminished, despite that early disappointment – and when he was around 12 years old he was given his own greenhouse. ‘It was a little aluminium one with a sliding door,’ he recalls, ‘and I was passionate about being in there and growing things. I had a book called In Your Greenhouse with Percy Thrower and I did everything that Percy told you to do, including hand-fertilising melon flowers. I think that was what taught me the facts of life. I was very embarrassed that my parents would find out what I was doing!’
This is, he admits, where his life in flowers began. ‘Perhaps if I had had a better careers advisor, he would have seen that my passions were for nature, art and music,’ he muses. ‘But in Northern Ireland, gardening wasn’t seen as an artistic occupation – it was just something you did that hurt your back and it certainly wasn’t creative.
Music was my other big passion, probably even more than gardens, because I saw music as a potential career, whereas gardening never crossed my mind. I went to the School of Music in Belfast two nights a week and all day Saturday and adored it, but at school I ended up doing sciences and then fell into psychology at university, which I didn’t particularly like. By then I knew that I wanted to leave Belfast and in the 3rd year of the degree we spent six months in placements; there were two in London, so I applied and got them. I went to the Ministry of Defence – in the middle of Admiralty Arch in those days – for three months and then on to Stratford in East London. I hated Stratford, but loved the MOD, and it was while I was there that a family friend introduced me to a couple with a beautiful garden that he knew I would appreciate. They were very gregarious and invited me to Sunday lunch and talked about what they did. They were what we now call “events florists” and I thought it was incredible. It was something I had been waiting to hear all my life, like a tune I instinctively recognised. I wrote them a thank you letter and asked if I could get involved. They allowed me to help with the flowers for the Queen’s opening of the new Lloyd’s building and it was an extraordinary experience – to me it felt like art: gardening and architecture all combined.’
Connolly recalls feeling frustrated that he wasn’t being visually creative at the time, and – in his words – ‘pestered’ the couple, convinced he wanted to do what they were doing. ‘They told me not to be ridiculous and that I would earn far more as a psychologist, but I didn’t give up until they agreed,’ he says. ‘I did everything they asked of me to prove how serious I was. If they wanted me there at one in the morning to clear up after an event, I would be there at 10 to 12. Once they realised how keen I was, they got me a job with Pulbrooke & Gould. In the Eighties they were the smartest people to do your wedding or party, and we went to extraordinary places. The way we were trained would today seem rather rigid and old-fashioned – and I think they found me a bit of an upstart – but it was an amazing learning opportunity… especially in retrospect!’
Connolly quotes Alan Bennett in explaining his big break: ‘When you are young it isn’t arrogance that makes you brave enough to do the things you do: it’s ignorance.’ It certainly rings true for him. ‘Nobody said to me “hold on, you may not be able to make a career of this” – so I just went ahead and did it. I think enthusiasm plays a huge part in a career. Nowadays it’s via social media, but then you just had to be enthusiastic – and willing to take a huge pay cut and have no sleep. After a few years, people started asking me to do things privately and I set up on my own.’
Released from the straight jacket of working for others, Connolly found he was channelling many of the things he excels at. ‘I’ve never been good at long deadlines – if you asked me to write copy for six months’ time: no chance! If you say tomorrow morning, I will stay up all night and do it. That’s how I work best,’ he says. ‘Every project is different: we don’t churn them out. It’s all about research, being organised, and meeting deadlines. There has never been a business plan. It took a while to make a proper living, but it’s amazing what you can do when you are young.’
This theory was backed up by a chance meeting with a fellow garden designer. ‘I bumped into Tom Stuart-Smith at the Garden Museum. We didn’t know one another and I asked him what he did. When he told me that he was a garden designer and I said I did flowers, he said, “Don’t you think we’re very lucky? There wasn’t a lot of competition when we started out.” I agreed that there was an element of that – and that we were also presentable and reliable. There’s a lot to be said for those qualities. That was the basis of this business – I was polite, presentable and would research things and come up with original ideas.’
Over the years, Connolly has gradually built a team around him that lives up to those same qualities. ‘There’s a need for younger people when you get to a certain age and the lovely thing is that you get that fresh energy,’ he says. ‘I look for that same spark I had. And willingness. Willingness goes a long way. You have to think you are very lucky to have them and they have to think they are very lucky to do what they do. They don’t need a floristry background – just passion. With many who take up floristry, it’s just a career choice – and passion can be taught out of you by making you conform. They end up thinking it’s all about rules and formulas – and of course there are rules, but it’s experience that matters, and no one can teach you that.’
Endearingly, he proceeds to detail a few case studies, including Byoungsung Son, who arrived from Korea: ‘He knocked on the door of the studio speaking hardly any English, but we liked him and took him to an event we were doing at the Royal Opera House,’ Connolly recalls. ‘On the way the team were quizzing him about his knowledge of other English florists, including Paula Pryke. “Oh, she is very famous in Korea,” he said, giving the same response about everyone… until it came to me. “And what about Shane?” they asked, to which he responded, “Oh no, he’s not famous in Korea at all”. We all laughed and said to him, “Well, you’ll have to change that”. And he has!’
Connolly is also an author. His most recent book, Discovering the Meaning of Flowers (clearviewbooks.com) gives an insight into the way he works and how he uses flowers. It is the antithesis of ‘filling the void in a vase’. Instead he chooses the flowers ‘to look like the fruits of the earth, not like products off an assembly line’. He explains further: ‘I’d always had a botanical approach to flower arranging, where blooms are chosen with a gardener’s eye and then arranged to flatter each one’s individual qualities.’ But more recently he has incorporated floriography (the language of flowers), in which specific meanings are ascribed to each bloom in a form of coded communication. A posy of sweet peas becomes even more welcome when you discover that it promises ‘delicate pleasures’, while dahlias’ symbolic association with ‘good taste’ is re-emerging after years in the style doldrums. His choice of flowers for an event adds layers of meaning that enrich the experience for himself, his team and his clients. It’s thoughtful in every sense of the word.
While I can’t claim to have got to grips with floriography in Connolly’s masterclass, I did learn the invaluable lesson that there is no need to raid a florist’s shop or have access to a cutting garden to put together something far lovelier than my usual efforts. A couple of leafy branches, a few flowers from the garden, maybe even a weed or two and the result has a natural uncontrived beauty. Alchemy indeed.