Floral decorator to the stars Shane Connolly shares the tricks of his trade in a series of workshops inspired by the Dutch Masters
It’s an unusual request for a man whose life’s work revolves around flora and fauna, crafted into exquisite displays for birthdays, weddings and funerals: a party, decorated with blooms aplenty, for a host who is gravely allergic to flowers. With petals, pollen and panicles out of the window, reams of silk were deftly twisted into blossoming buds and placed between surrealist props inspired by David LaChapelle.
It was certainly one of Shane Connolly’s more unusual commissions, although his day-to-day activities are hardly of the regular ilk. When we meet, he is still on a high from the night before: the launch party of the Royal Academy’s Matisse in the Studio exhibition, for which he amassed a plethora of dahlias in rainbow hues. “Of course, you can’t be subtle with Matisse,” he grins.
Now something of a veteran in the flower industry, Connolly caught the gardening bug at the ripe old age of ten, when he was given a miniature greenhouse and found within it a love of the natural world.
“I can’t remember when I didn’t like gardening,” he says, his Irish lilt seeping through, despite his many years in London. “The first things I ever grew were radishes but, as we’d never seen them in Northern Ireland before, we threw them all out. We thought they should look like turnips.”
Needless to say, his knowledge has somewhat expanded since then, and you’d be hard pushed to find a man more adept in the art of floral decoration. This rather clunky nomenclature is perhaps the best way to describe his work, which skirts on the edge of floristry and doesn’t quite fit into the category of design. His job is instead a combination of the two: he might assemble bridal bouquets one day and floor-to-ceiling displays the next.
The Matisse exhibition at the RA is one of many events that Connolly has assisted the gallery with, having worked with the company for more than 25 years. The Victoria & Albert Museum is another loyal client, as is the royal family – Connolly holds two royal warrants (one from HRH The Prince of Wales and one from HM The Queen) – and as a result became the flower supplier of choice for the weddings of both TRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall and TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The latter, he recalls, were “totally trusting”.
“Most of the flowers came from the gardens at Windsor Castle and Sandringham House, so I wasn’t completely sure what I was going to get,” he recalls. “That only works with a client who is relaxed.”
Along with a laid-back attitude, Connolly was delighted to discover that the royal family shares his passion for sustainability, and as such everything was recycled, replanted or composted after the event. For example, six of the maple trees that were used to decorate Westminster Abbey found a second home at Llwynywermod, the Prince of Wales’ estate just outside the Brecon Beacons. Keeping the environment in mind is “an uphill battle”, Connolly admits.
“We often donate plants to the Westway Trust, which beautifies the poorer parts of the borough,” he says. “We also donate fresh flowers after events to Floral Angels, a charity based in New Covent Garden that takes flowers to hospices and homeless shelters and gives them to people who have never received any in their lives, which is beyond comprehension for me.”
Connolly also uses British flowers wherever possible, although the lack of home-grown produce is a sticking point for him. “The British flower industry has declined since the 1970s, quite terribly,” he says. “Some suppliers have started offering English flowers, so I do think there is a movement, but a lot of my contemporaries wouldn’t care where their flowers came from.”
With a new series of workshops held at his Latimer Road studio, Connolly hopes to raise awareness of the declining industry, encourage people to source British blooms when buying for themselves and provide a lesson in arrangement, using seasonal produce in colours inspired by the Dutch Masters. “The whole point is to bring nature inside because it makes you more aware of it, and I think the Dutch Masters do exactly that with their artwork,” he says.
Each session will include a chance to create your own arrangement that you can take away with you, and even recreate at home. He will begin with a lesson on the craftsmanship behind the art, and tips on how to choose the best seasonal plants and flowers. At the very least, Connolly hopes he will inspire a new wave of people to consider the origins of their favourite flowers, and maybe even encourage them to get outside and plant their own.
“People who only get inspired by floral arrangements miss out on so much. You really need to look at how the flowers grow,” he says. “There would be fewer problems in the world if everybody did a little bit of gardening.”