In Bloom: British Garden Parties

In Bloom: British Garden Parties

Dalliances in the dahlias and parrots in the peonies: it turns out there’s more to garden parties than meetS the eye. Tilly Berendt dives into the shrubbery for a closer look

Oscar Wilde once deftly scribbled that “the Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations.” While he may have had rather broader concepts on his mind, it’s not beyond the realm of reason that the thought might have come to him as he sunned himself by the herbaceous borders, with a Campari in hand and the daughter of a duchess gossiping, sotto voce, in his ear.

The garden party has long been a staple of British culture, so it should come as no surprise that these summertime soirées came to prominence at the hands of England’s original ‘It’ girl, Queen Victoria. As the first constitutional monarch, the vivacious Victoria pledged to remain above political parties – and so she threw herself, instead, into another kind of party. During her reign, she introduced the idea of street parties – processions, in those staid days – and she also welcomed the great and good into her private grounds for lavish breakfasts.

Tilly Berendt 

Jul 28th 2019

These ‘breakfasts’ were, in fact, the earliest royal garden parties and despite their name, they took place in the afternoon. Used as a means for debutantes to be presented to the court, they were replete with royalty – and, occasionally, some guests of a rather different ilk. Victoria, who doted on her menagerie of pets, owned several parrots. One of these, an African grey with a shrewd eye, would wait until a guest had lifted his wine glass to his lips. Then, with his right claw held aloft, the bird would toast “Her Majesty Victoria’s good health!”

Earlier still, Victoria enjoyed a lavish 16th birthday party at the Surrey Zoological Gardens, at which a monkey attached to a parachute called Jacopo was launched from a hot-air balloon. Discarding all notions of etiquette, he spent the afternoon tumbling from table to table, guzzling down cakes and oranges.

These days, the monarchy continues the practice with a handful of garden parties each year, held in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, Sandringham House and Balmoral Castle. These affairs aren’t exactly intimate get-togethers, though – now, they’re a way for the royal family to offer a show of thanks to members of the community who have contributed in some exceptional way. Often, the garden parties have a theme or are related to a specific charitable organisation, which means that the guest list can reach well over 8,000 people (and, unfortunately, no monkeys).


Beyond Buckingham “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the Champagne and the stars.” Though Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American, the famous parties of Audley End and Eltham Palace might well have inspired his dazzling descriptions of Jay Gatsby’s sprawling shindigs in The Great Gatsby.

In the 18th century, the idea of the public pleasure garden began to gain in popularity. Open to all for just a shilling fee, these gardens started life as a place to see and be seen – and for the upper classes, they were the perfect stage on which to display the refinements of their breeding.

By the 19th century, though, the upper classes had taken their pleasures back into their private gardens. Here, they would host day-long affairs with afternoon activities including boating, tea parties, picnicking and bathing. When the sun finally set, the lanterns would be lit and music, dancing and fireworks displays saw the revellers through into the early hours.



These days, the Serpentine Summer Party is the place to be: marrying the worlds of fashion and art. It’s frequented by stars who sip Champagne in the sunshine before the evening performances get under way. Held every June in partnership with Chanel, it marks the opening of the year’s new Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens.

Modern marvels
Today’s garden party host should aim to cover all bases: that is, they should put on a party that encourages good times and great conversation by day and the chance to loosen one’s tie (if not one’s morals) by nightfall. An early afternoon tea is the perfect starting point, but it mustn’t be allowed to drag on – lest the party starts to stagnate. After a certain hour, refreshments should be of the adult variety, with jugs of Pimm’s, grapefruit-garnished gin and tonics and light, crisp Champagne on offer.

A garden party isn’t the time to dust off the most grown-up china collection – instead, mix and match colourful pieces such as Wedgwood’s Hibiscus and Wild Strawberry Gold collections. Floral table arrangements are necessary, even if your garden is abundant, and a bright hat or fascinator paired with a floral fragrance will add summery saturation to your outfit. We’re big fans of Jo Malone London’s Frangipani Flower Cologne (from £49 for 30ml) and London-based milliner Rachel Trevor Morgan’s pieces look as good in the garden as they do in the royal box. Games on the lawn are a great way to keep young invitees entertained and help transition the party into the evening hours, too. Geoffrey Parker’s croquet and boules sets are must-haves for the summer season. |

Images courtesy of Jo Malone, Geoffrey Parker, Rachel Trevor Morgan