CamdenNewJournal

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WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Gillian Wheeler, founder of the Covent Garden Academy of Flowers

'Flowers are always changing, ever evolving. They are a piece of art.'

17 March, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya

Gillian Wheeler teaches people flower design in Covent Garden

To this day, the streets of Covent Garden offer a subtle throwback to its flower-filled past.

Road names such as Rose Street and Floral Street remind passers-by that the area was once a bustling market filled with barrows and stalls, where flowers were a key commodity. Gillian Wheeler, who opened a flower design school and florist with her daughter Fleur six years ago, celebrates this connection to the past.

“Where we are in St Martin’s Courtyard, Covent Garden, itself makes it special because we are where the old Covent Garden flower market was,” she says. “There’s a lot of history behind it.”

Gillian, who is principal of the Covent Garden Academy of Flowers, has 30 years of experience behind her.

“The courses here are life-changing for some people, getting them into something they have always wanted to do,” she says.

With courses ranging from one day to 30 weeks, some take them purely for the “feel-good factor”, but for others it is the start to a new career. Gillian’s own passion for flowers began when she was very young, so it was an obvious career choice. Before launching the academy, she used to teach at the University of the Arts London, where she ran courses in flower design.

“There isn’t anything I dislike about the job,” she says. “When you really love your job, it doesn’t seem like work.”

Being based in St Martin’s Courtyard in Slingsby Place, a quaint area in the heart of London, filled with shops and restaurants “attracts a wide interest” she says.

“We get many pictures of the shop taken on Instagram all over the world. It is lovely to think that we are visited by so many people. The area really helps.”

“Working in the West End, we do lots of the bouquets for West End shows’ first nights. Flowers are always changing, ever evolving. They are a piece of art. They bring happiness to people in good times and sad times. They give people a lot of peace and joy. People now appreciate flowers are a form of design and artwork.”

Gillian, who studied as a graphic designer, before doing a masters degree in design study at Central Saint Martins, explains that even when things don’t go completely to plan you can use your creativity to turn a tricky situation into a positive one. She recalls when she was invited to make table arrangements for a special lunch the Queen would be attending during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Gillian and her students had prepared some designs using natural materials such as moss and rosemary, alongside Queen Elizabeth roses. It was pouring with rain when they arrived at the venue, so the blooms got a little wet when they carried them in – not a problem, thought Gillian, the flowers just looked nice and fresh. But the tables were laid with white tablecloths and as her students eagerly placed the arrangements they didn’t realise the wet moss was leaving muddy rings on the cloths.

“Panic set in” says Gillian, who thought fast, and ran to the nearest art shop to grab some materials and get creative. “I brought some soft pink card the same colour as the roses, and we cut circles to put under the plates. Panic resolved and everyone commented how they loved the pink circles as they enhanced the roses.”

Gillian works alongside her daughter, who quite fittingly is named Fleur. “It’s wonderful,” Gillian says, “We both think very much alike. It is lovely working with my daughter.

“As for how she was named, when she was born, I was surrounded by flowers at the hospital. My little son who was four at the time came to visit me. He said that I hadn’t had a baby, but I had a flower. That’s why we called her Fleur.”

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