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Here’s my version of flower arranging: Wrestle flowers onto drainboard. Shred paper covering. Whack bunch with chef’s knife. Cram into vase. Add water. Poke gingerly at stems, trying to rec­tify damage done. Regard results skeptically. Finis.

    As an actress, I’ve received my share of bouquets. In fact, during my play’ Blown Sideways Through Life, I became quite picky’ about what was delivered to my dressing room. “Hmmph. Bit fussy,” I would sniff. After the show closed and the flower-importer boyfriend had, um, ended, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Go to the source—London, where flower arranging is a cultural imperative—to study with the master, Kenneth Turner. In England, Turner is a Martha Stewart—style fixture (Kenneth Turner books, Kenneth Turner store, Kenneth Turner school) known for his cheeky juxtapositions— artichokes paired with pink roses —and for rustic arrangements of gloriously explosive proportions. When the emir of Kuwait entertained the queen of England at Claridge’s, it was Turner whom he first summoned. 

    So here I go, to tiny South Molton Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare off posh New Bond Street, past London’s chicest lined up for their morning lattes. The reception room at the Kenneth Turner Flower School is filled with Turner’s own poplar—scented candles and willow-patterned Spode china and elegantly trousered women smiling. With my coffee and biscuit, I perch on a bench and look around. My classmates are more than “ladies who lunch,” they’re “ladies who garden.” There’s an Hermes-encrusted Japanese woman, two Swedish ex­pats, an English garden writer, and a Uruguayan florist.
We bustle in to a large, sunny room with a worktable running against one wall, a platform for the teacher, and a grand mirror suspended from the ceiling for aerial views of the arrangements soon to be in progress. Plus, at each workstation: Galvanized buckets filled with chicken wire and glue guns and staple guns and chubby little scissors with orange handles. Our very own aprons. And the flowers. Oh, the flowers. Buckets and tubs filled to overflowing with velvety balls of peonies, teeny pink spray roses, perfumy lilacs, blobby buttercups. The smell in the room is not just the smell of flowers, but that of water and dirt and moss - the place smells alive.

From Left: Turner binds rosemary to what will be a candle holder; creates a chicken wire souffle in a moss-covered plastic bowl; adds Oriental lillies as an anchor; introduces double parrot tulips and spray roses for "height, colour, impact"

    I'm here for two days. Tomorrow is the master class with Kenneth Turner himself; today’s subject is how to arrange garden flowers. Our teacher, Turner acolyte Sharon Melehi, snips and shakes and considers the various blossoms she's inserting into a plastic bowl filled with a scrunched soufflé of chicken wire. As she works, she tosses out advice: “Bash woody stems; cut fleshy stems cleanly at an angle to maximize water absorption. Soak flowers for a day before arranging them. Drinking puts them in top condition. (Funny it works the Same way for me in London!)

    She finishes and we file past her frothy construction, murmuring our admiration. Then we try to duplicate it. Everyone smiles lovely smiles at one another while reaching for the most perfect branch of lilacs. We stagger back to our workstations with armfuls of flowers and push the stems through the mesh, trying to achieve the same insouciance that Sharon did. The Uruguayan florist is the leader of the pack. Mine, I'm sorry to say looks as though it’s just woken up from a nap. Sharon helps it along, moving stems so they hang more naturally concentrating colors, until, to my amazement, it all starts to make sense.
            We pause for a stylish school lunch of poached salmon and various salads and breads—”No dessert?” tut the women. In the afternoon, Sharon fills an “oasis” (a green foam ring) with white flowers (Casablanca lilies, Bianca roses). then pours a punnet of huge, perfect strawberries in the middle, “like strawberries in a great blob of cream,” she says. Yum. She tells us we’re ready to tackle some real building. We each sulk a thick branch of birch into a tub of plaster, cover it with chicken wire, attach Dixie cup—size terra-cotta pots at winsome angles, fill them with red and pink geraniums, then hjde the chicken wire by weaving it with sheaves of rosemary. Squishy carpet moss is packed into all the pots. At the top of the branch we fasten another pot in which we place a giant Kenneth Turner candle. We line up our planters in two rows, and the effect is fantastic—"We do this for brides," Sharon says, and I imagine Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream traipsing down such a magic corridor.
        At the end of the day, as we struggle on the stairs toting our first arrangements, one of my classmates (wearing the largest diamond I have ever seen on a human hand) offers me a lift. Waiting on the corner is a gleaming mahogany-colored Bentley and uniformed chauffeur. A perfect mode of transportation after such a day.
        The next morning we finally meet the man. His hands fascinate me—long. elegantly formed hands that are chapped and thickened from years of wet work. Turner holds a flower and exclaims: “Oh, look at this Nicole rose — gorgeous!” I  think, How many roses has he arranged, and yet he still sees this one? His fingers pass tenderly over a peony and it... opens. When I try it. I snap the head off. I watch him and try again, gently fluttering my fingers and — it opens!
        One after another, Turner creates arrangements that range from a green-and-white cluster of hellebore, Bells of Ireland, and laburnum to a nine-foot-tall, three-tiered wall fountain. Balancing on high stools in our aprons, with Kenneth Turner notebooks and pencils in our laps, we scribble emphatic bits of Turner wisdom. Turner is always emphatic: “Not arrangements . . . tapestries!” “Don’t dither about, sticking one red rose here, another there. Think groupings—pockets of color.” “Why approach fruits and vegetables simply as accents? Consider them containers, centerpieces.” He plunges some burnt-orange Leonidas roses next to a clump of magenta somethings. “Look at that!” he says. “Yves Saint Laurent colors!”
        Standing on a ladder while constructing the aforementioned trebled extravaganza, he’s so intense, so committed, that even if we all tiptoed out, I think he’d keep going. Wiring a bowl and covering it with moss, he becomes so adamant about how securely this must be done that he brandishes it over his head and whips it around, bits of moss flying off and pelting the squealing ladies. Who love it.
        After lunch, we choose from buckets of amaryllis and parrot tulips and ferns and roses—we’re serious, we’re inspired, it’s our turn to create. Finally, everyone stands back nervously as Kenneth walks up to each arrangement. critiques it, and then . . . fixes it. Whoa. It’s like a magic trick. He just takes one flower out or shoves a few more in or calls an assistant to bring a new stem, and the difference is breathtaking. He certainly fixes mine. “Her first arrangement and it’s not a total abortion!” he declares of my shaggy attempt.
        Back home, I still grab a paper cone of flowers at the deli, but I no longer just hack at it and jam the bunch into a jar. I stop for a moment and really look at my paltry six tulips or budget-conscious carnations. Then I start fishing in the vegetable crisper and the fruit bowl.

Taken from Travel & Leisure May 1999


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