As Catherine Middleton walked up the aisle at Westminster Abbey she must have known the eyes of world were upon her. It’s difficult to imagine that kind of pressure, but one man who knows more than a little about what the now Duchess of Cambridge felt that day is Shane Connolly, the floral designer chosen by the royal couple to help turn their wedding into a floral spectacle.
Because just as the eyes of the world were on Kate Middleton, they were also on her bouquet, the bouquets of the bridesmaids, and the stately maples and hornbeams that lined the aisle she walked down. So how did Shane deal with the stress?
“It wasn’t really nerve-wracking until the press got involved!” he says. “The week before, I was asked how I felt about having the whole world waiting to see what the flowers looked like and, to be completely honest, I hadn’t thought about it like that before at all – it was only at that point I realised.But I think that the job of any florist is to please the client and to make sure that the client’s personality is reflected and the client’s wishes are carried out. So that’s what I kept thinking about – as long as I do that then it’ll be all right. I think the whole ethos of it was that it was as much a family wedding as possible.”
Shane grew up in Northern Ireland and studied psychology at university before having a total change of career and moving into floristry, training under London’s leading floral designers. He set up his own business – Shane Connolly & Company – in 1989. He is no stranger to royal occasions, having designed Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall’s bouquet and all the flowers for her marriage to the Prince of Wales in 2005 (the company was awarded a Royal Warrant of Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales in 2006). His signature style – the use of trees and growing things such as the maples and hornbeams in Westminster Abbey – was in evidence then too.
“All of my career – for about 21 years – I’ve always used growing things,” he says. “We used four trees at the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall but they weren’t really noticed as much in St. George’s chapel. Actually the gothic architecture – the vaunting of gothic roofs – was very much inspired by trees and their branches so when we were thinking about what we could do in the Abbey I suggested an avenue of trees and we all liked the idea.”
Shane has written a book on floriography – the language of flowers – and in Catherine Middleton he found a bride who was very much a kindred spirit. All the flowers, plants and trees chosen for the big day were very deliberately picked for their deeper meanings – e.g. Sweet William for gallantry and hyacinth for constancy. “It was very important to the Duchess,” he says “And it suited me too. The flowers were selected for their meanings and for being seasonal – which was also very important to the couple. The selection was very carefully done and that was what made it so special for me. I would love to think of that as the legacy of the day – people putting more thought into their own weddings.”
At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, Shane is working with Tendercare – the company that supplied the six English field maples and two hornbeams for the royal wedding – promoting the use of living plants and trees at events. It’s something he believes in passionately and it’s an angle he think other florists need to look at too. Pointing to two small apple trees behind us, he says: “How lovely would they be in a church instead of an arrangement of Dutch flowers? Then, after the wedding you have them for the rest of your life. You could give one to each set of parents. You can even do it if you don’t have a garden. The British Tree Society let people sponsor trees or even avenues of trees which could be used in a wedding and then planted in a public space where the couple live and where they could visit them. It’s about being more thoughtful.
“Living plants can decorate the outside of a church and make great presents for the bride and groom. People may shy away from that but I think it’s the perfect way to remember the day. I love the idea that things aren’t wasted and that idea is very important these days. I would love florists to be a little more thoughtful and look what they can do to be greener (in the true sense of the word) and more meaningful – just to look at the meanings behind things, at why they use them. Don’t just don’t have roses from Holland because they’re the right shade of pink, think what else you could do.”