Dale Chihuly Ethereal White Persian Pond sculpture. Picture: SUPPLIED
Dale Chihuly Ethereal White Persian Pond sculpture. Picture: SUPPLIED

London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is ablaze with colour. Chartreuse, reds and yellows, purples and blues form a rainbow provided in part by the 50,000 plants in this Unesco world heritage botanical wonderland. A collection of sculptures dot the 120ha park, some appearing to grow out of the flower beds, others creating focal points alongside a temple or in a glade between an avenue of trees. 

Entitled Reflections on Nature, the exhibition comprises 32 installations in the gardens as well as an indoor exhibition of smaller works. A map directs visitors around and I felt like an excited child searching for treasure, with one spectacular discovery following another.

Dale Chihuly, a Seattle-based artist born in 1941, studied glassmaking on the Venetian island of Murano before co-founding the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state in the early 1970s. He has led the development of glass as a fine art.

Not surprisingly for an artist working with glass, he has a lifelong fascination with glasshouses. This has developed into a series of exhibitions held in botanical settings like Kew Gardens. He says, “I want my work to appear like it came from nature, so that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest, they might think it belonged there.”

Chihuly's Copper Birch Reeds among the cherry trees. Picture: SUPPLIED
Chihuly's Copper Birch Reeds among the cherry trees. Picture: SUPPLIED

Coming across his fiery Copper Birch Reeds among the cherry trees, I thought that his work not only belongs in, but enhances, nature. Chihuly’s elaborate, multipart sculptures are artworks that reveal the unique qualities of light and colour that can be attained through the medium of glass. They also bring together the skills of some of the world’s most accomplished glass blowers and elevate what might once have been labelled craft into an art form.

Chihuly is known to have a vocabulary of forms and these are displayed to magnificent effect. From vast flowers to elongated reeds, balls, herons, tendrils and spikes, all are imbued with colour and suffused with light. “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and colour in a way they’ve never experienced,” writes Chihuly.

He was influenced by his experience growing up with a mother who loved to garden. While he preferred playing with his toy soldiers outdoors rather than helping her in the flowerbeds, clearly he was imbibing the beauty of the natural world at close quarters. His botanical sculptures burst forth like horticulture on steroids. The boundaries between nature and glass become blurred as plants begin to intertwine with the sculptures in the beds. Chihuly suggests that his method of glassblowing — eschewing tools for the natural elements of fire, gravity and centrifugal force — enhances the sense that his forms have been “made by nature”.

A close-up look at some of the complex forms like Summer Sun reveals the markings and ribbing on the glass — 1,483 separate pieces are massed together and connected to a steel structure, creating a huge and complex form. This architectural installation is quite astonishing, a Medusa-type tangle of red and yellow sinuous tendrils that perches high above a large pool and is reflected in the calm waters.

I wondered what Monet would have made of the huge white, glass flowers arising from the pool of giant waterlilies in the indoor Waterlily House. The ethereal beauty of these magnificent creations moved me to tears.

The Temperate House at Kew Gardens, the world’s largest greenhouse, has been reopened recently to the public after an extensive restoration that has revived its full Victorian beauty. The glass panes are sparkling, the ornate ironwork and filigree on the spiral staircases are freshly painted. The plants from five continents and 16 islands are lush and plentiful. Walking into this enormous, light-drenched space, the eye darts up to glass roof where a 10m long botanical sculpture, called Temperate House Persians, is suspended in the central space, a giant chandelier in a tumble of lime green, blue and yellow flowers.

At ground level, half hidden among tropical foliage are a series of glass forms in boats. Chihuly first created his boat sculptures in Finland when he tossed glass forms into the Nuutajoki River to explore how they looked on water. Local teenagers began retrieving them as they floated downriver and placed them in wooden boats, which Chihuly now does himself, thereby creating evocative collections of repeated form.

Viscerally beautiful, Beluga Boat is filled with ice-white shapes that resemble floats. Close by, Hebron Vessels is a collection of deep blue balloon and jug shaped vessels. They evoke something archetypal, a mix of mythology and archaeology. Nearby a collection of Fiori Verdi grow out of a pond beneath an indoor waterfall, like giant green and silver aloes.

Sapphire Star. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sapphire Star. Picture: SUPPLIED

Having previously seen Chihuly’s work in museums and galleries, I was unprepared for the impact of his monumental sculptures in nature. His talent is not only in producing the work but in the exquisite placing of each piece in a context that amplifies rather than distracts from the environment.

Who would have thought that a collection of large, multicoloured glass balls would add to the serene atmosphere of Kew’s Zen Garden? The balls positioned about the spacious pool of raked gravel, rocks and shrubs were a sight both joyous and contemplative. Entitled Niijima Floats after an island in Tokyo Bay, these are among the largest glass spheres ever blown and reveal exquisite colour variation.

Chihuly’s masterful use of shape, colour and texture gives each installation a distinct personality from the baroque swirls, twirls  and baubles comprising his Opal and Gold Chandelier to the jewel-like splendour of Sapphire Star, which radiates from a cobalt blue centre, resembling not only a celestial body but perhaps a flower or a collection of icicles. Like the most exuberant landscape gardener, Chihuly has planted voluptuous collections of glass that create a riot of colour, texture and joy.

Throughout August, Kew Gardens has late openings with the glass installations illuminated when the sun sets. If you are in London before late October, do not miss this show.


  • Chihuly’s exhibition can be viewed in Kew Gardens until October 27.