Catarina Brito 

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was founded in 1804 with the intention of being a repository of all knowledge surrounding horticulture, and to develop and disseminate this discipline throughout the country. During the British Empire, horticulture was essential to understand the world and to communicate British achievements. The contemporary relevance and purpose of horticulture is ambiguous and ill-defined, as reflected by the current identity of the RHS as a bourgeois gardening club. If Horticulture is “the branch of agriculture that deals with the art, science, technology, and business of plant cultivation”, how could this practice and its institutional organism be reimagined to suit current preoccupations?

An institution is an organisation that brings people together around a shared preoccupation, belief, or need. It can take shape according to different modes of operation and communication, and have various physical and/or digital manifestations. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was founded in 1804 with the intention of being a repository of all knowledge surrounding horticulture, and to develop and disseminate this discipline throughout the country. Not only is the RHS critical in terms of horticultural practice, it is also a ‘Royal’ institution - which has given it a particularly interesting role in society since its conception.

The RHS acquired its Royal prefix shortly after Prince Albert rescued it from financial crisis in the 1850s. As part of the Prince’s ambition to create Albertopolis - a cultural and educational heartland vested in public interest and accessible to all - the society opened a garden in South Kensington that was at the core of the masterplan. The gardens became the anchor of the prince’s pioneering vision, cementing the RHS as a national institution of great importance, only to close at the end of the century to give way to more profitable tenants.

Despite undergoing periods of change and adaptation the RHS proclaims “the RHS has been at the forefront of horticultural practice, research and education since its foundation” although this statement has been more true sometimes more than others.

Economic botany 

Horticultural practice gained prominence and interest towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries at the peak of Britain’s Imperial Century. The Empire had expanded into mysterious lands and many explorers ventured into these exotic countries - India, Burma, Canada, Australia, Tanzania, among others – in quest of new natures and cultures. Horticulture was regarded as an important science/art through which to document the remote territories of the British realm. The objects, artefacts and botany gathered by explorers such as Joseph Banks (founder of the RHS) and William Hooker during their expeditions form the main collection of the RHS. This practice of collecting man-made objects fabricated from plants is called Economic Botany. To this day this collection is stored in the Royal Botanical Gardens as part of their Economic Botany archives – the taxonomy of an empire. The quest to understand human use of plants and plant-technologies in day-to-day life was crucial not only to establish the British colonial success, but also for the advancement of horticultural and sociological studies. The RHS has been vital in representing the ‘Royal Empire’ both internationally and within Britain.

One memorable event in the society’s history is the Coronation Empire Exhibition in 1937, where plants representing different parts of the Commonwealth were exhibited as a show of ‘Royal pride’. Not only is the Queen the institution’s Patron, one of its most famous events – the Chelsea Flower show - is a “regular fixture in the Royal calendar4 ”. The close associations with the monarchy in name and presence at every major Royal event brand the society as a relic of the Empire, which calls into question its relationship and connection to the general population. The society has gardens located in Devon, Essex, Surrey and North Yorkshire with paid access to the public and two venues in the capital, both in West London - Lawrence Hall and Lindley Hall. Arguably the RHS’ biggest encounter with popular culture was when Lawrence Hall was used as a set for movies - the most impressive ones being Alan Parker’s film of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. Today, apart from a few community projects in East London, the RHS is still commonly perceived as bourgeois, too often an anachronistic show of historic power from a bygone era aimed at the privileged classes, outdated, and disassociated from contemporary culture. This accentuates the split between the RHS and the wider population. The question remains as to whether this is due to the institution’s ‘royalty’, or to its relegation to the status of ‘gardening club’.

Contemporary Nature 

It seems that in today’s urban world, London
especially, with its extensive range of ‘green’ spaces; nature is incorporated into our ideas of leisure rather than knowledge. Even though the science of plants exists in everything Londoners eat, the objects they own, the clothes they wear, and the city’s built environment, the significance and awareness of horticulture has been eclipsed by the pressures of contemporary existence. Historically for explorers like Banks and Hooker’s, horticulture was an essential practice in comprehending the world, a definition that seems no longer associated with the RHS. We have lost our grasp of the nature upon which our urban is founded – the mountains, valleys, rivers that run beneath our cities. We have lost the ability to understand and consider the origin and natural processes that shape and form our cities and ‘urban artefacts’. The contemporary relevance and purpose of horticulture is ambiguous and ill-defined as reflected by the current identity of the RHS.

Looking forward 

A century after Joseph Bank’s first explorations, the RHS claims status as “the largest gardening charity in the world”. This is a source of pride, and gives validity to the existence and survival of the institution. To claim a new relevance for the RHS it seems important to challenge the assumption that horticulture is merely about gardening. According to Wikipedia, it is “the branch of agriculture that deals with the art, science, technology, and business of plant cultivation” - this definition emcompasses a far broader and more challenging remit.  Horticulture is extremely pertinent and relevant in various emerging fields such as food technology and material development, providing a new potential lens for interpreting the world and imagining new forms of engagement with botany and the role of plants in our every day life.

Architects Carmody Groake have won the competition to update the RHS’ headquarters in West London - this includes a series of key moves to improve visitor experience. While this is an important initiative in terms of how the institution communicates its content to its members and positions itself relative to the public, a debate prevails about what is horticulture, its role in society, and whether the RHS is fulfilling its role in representing this practice. As institutions are forced to adapt to changing concerns and multiple trends - especially in today’s globalising and urban world – how can the RHS shift and adapt its operational structure, scope and ideology to engage with a new understanding and agency of horticulture to be explored and questioned within new limits.


1.     Artefacts from Joseph Hooker’s expeditions (Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanical Garden)
2.     Greenhouse design for Royal Horticultural Society by John Claudius Loudon, 1818
3.    RHS’ Lawrence Hall in Vincent Square in West London
4.    ‘London is...’ 38% Open Green space, 24% Domestic Gar-dens (Office for


1.     The RHS Garden in South Kensington, 1859 (Wellcome Library)
2.     Map of the World showing extent of the British Emprire in 1886 (Wikipedia)
3.     George VI and Queen Elizabeth pay a visit to the Coronation Empire Exhibition in 1937 ( 4.
5.     The Evolution of the Earth’s Economic Centre of Gravity from 1 CE to 2025. Calculated by weighting national GDP by each nation’s geo-graphic center of gravity; a line drawn from the center of the earth through the economic center of gravity locates it on the earth’s sur-face (MGI analysis)