By Joanna Fortnam
Mark Fane, chair of the Garden Museum board of trustees for 12 years, will be stepping down from his position next June. He remembers his first encounter with the Museum, back in the late 90s, very well: “It’s seared on my brain,” he says. Tom [Stuart Smith] said to me, ‘have you been to the Garden Museum? Do go along, but there’s no heating so take an overcoat.’ It was bloody cold and there was one tiny lav out the back somewhere. I bitterly regretted that I hadn’t taken two overcoats.”
As a GM Friend who dates from that period I can attest to the village hall ambience – glacial draughts wafted around the neck and toes during winter talks but, hardy gardeners all, the audience would warm up afterwards over a supper of lashings of quiche and heroic wine-quaffing. There were two loos, but it was traditional for one to be out of order.
It was no coincidence that Tom Stuart-Smith (a Museum Trustee) urged Fane to visit. He had known Mark since Chelsea 1998 and had already earmarked him as a likely candidate for the voluntary job of chair, which involves taking four board meetings a year and leading on strategy and governance.
For those unfamiliar with the Fane backstory, Mark is co-director (along with Peter Clay) of crocus.co.uk, the online gardening behemoth. Crocus is also one of the leading builders of Chelsea show gardens, hence the connection with Tom. Since those early days, Crocus has clocked up 33 Chelsea gold medals (many of which also won Best Show Garden) – and Tom hasn’t done too badly either.
“Mark is absolutely reliable,” says Tom. “If you’re in deep trouble on a build he won’t throw a hissy fit and leave you to sort it out. He’s the calmest, most reasonable person I know. That doesn’t mean he’s a pushover, he can be very firm about stuff – but he never reacts by reflex.”
Besides the day-to-day challenges of running a successful company, Fane has a habit of taking on voluntary responsibilities – he served on the RHS committee for 10 years, and is today a trustee of Project Giving Back, which matches young garden designers with Chelsea sponsors, and also Chatsworth.
When he joined the Museum, big challenges lay ahead: “Christopher had the idea that the Garden Museum couldn’t stay as it was,” says Mark. “The building wasn’t right and needed major redevelopment.
“He wanted someone [as chair] who shared his vision and had the energy for it – rather against the odds. It was at least a five year project. But I could see the potential, at the time there was nowhere in London where people could gather to talk about gardening.”
Tom adds: “We needed Christopher to be able to function from a position of knowing that he was supported. We also needed to raise about £8.2 million – and we knew Mark has a very sound business head on him and would be able to reassure the funders.”
The Woodward/Fane partnership became the success story that drove the larger success of the Garden Museum. Fane is well aware of their complementary skills: “Two people who fixate on spreadsheets wouldn’t have worked. Christopher is an incredibly talented and creative individual. I immediately trusted him and I did buy his argument [that the GM needed to change]. We’ve never fallen out – lots of debates, yes, we’ve chewed over stuff. But the trust element is pretty important.”
Starting in 2015 and reopening in 2017, the 900-year-old church and its graveyard morphed into the modern, multi-tasking hub for education, events, art, archives and food that we know today.
Fane compares the process to trekking an endless mountain range through a blizzard of mind-boggling challenges. The GM team navigated everything from the reaction of the head of planning at Lambeth: “This is unquestionably the most complicated site I’ve ever seen…” to the discovery of 30 coffins in the crypt. “What a struggle… but we got there in the end.”
Not only was the building hailed a success, but Woodward’s vision for the future became a reality. The Museum now offers better access to a much broader range of visitors: it can put on a programme of events to attract a local audience of schools, families and young people, but still retains its members – gardeners happy to pay £14 for an exhibition followed by a delicious lunch in the café.
“Out of the 150 or so schools within a 2-mile radius of the Museum, 70 visited last year,” says Fane. “Compare that with the seven who were visiting 12 years ago.”
The Museum continues to look for forward-thinking trustees from all walks of life. Florist and broadcaster Hazel Gardiner, who has a background in marketing, press and digital events, is the most recent appointment.
“I’ve known the Museum for about 10 years and we started working together in 2021 after British Flowers Week,” she says. “I have a huge affection for what it does. When I saw an ad for a trustee, with a specific remit to attract a more diverse, younger crowd, it very much spoke to me.
“My appointment was quite sensitive, in that there was no one else black on the board. It was apparent that they needed a person of colour – and I was happy to take it on. They needed someone who has some understanding of otherness.”
She credits Fane with smoothing her path – the Museum has been notable for avoiding “culture wars” style baggage. “Mark’s fantastic. He’s always been completely transparent and is just a huge asset as a chairperson and as an individual. He navigates everything with aplomb.”
So why is he stepping down now? I was half-expecting the ‘spending more time with the family’ line, but Mark was matter-of-fact:
“Don’t outstay your welcome. Change is good. There are lots of exciting new projects coming up and if I stayed on to handle these I would be 17-18 years in the role, which is no good for anyone.”
The ‘exciting new projects’ are the development of Benton End in Suffolk as an outlier venue for the Garden Museum and Lambeth Green (the green areas outside the Museum walls), which has come into its remit for redevelopment as a public green space.
“I’ve relished the entrepreneurial side of the Museum. Fundamentally we are quite fleet of foot when it comes to getting things done,” says Mark.
And as ever, his can-do attitude will continue to make itself felt. At Chelsea next year, a garden designed by Sarah Price will be sponsored by Nurture Landscapes, a company Mark runs with his brother. The garden is inspired by the spirit of Benton End, former home of artist-plantsman Sir Cedric Morris, and all the plants will be repurposed there after the show.
Yet another peak on the mountain range…