Favorite

The quiet passing of an artisan whose palette was the world's gardens. 

Tom French Turner

There was no published notice. Tom French didn't want one. But since the floral artist's death on April 26, word has trickled out slowly that one of Richmond's most energetic and talented citizens has departed.

"Have you heard about Tom French?" asked Pamela Reynolds, a local arbiter of taste, as she strolled through Capitol Square after a tea at the Executive Mansion, two days after he died. "I am distressed."

"Oh, no!" exclaimed Alice McCabe, an artist who teaches in Henrico. She and French had been pals in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Other friends and clients continue to make a pilgrimage to the business that bears his name at 17 N. Belmont St. Once inside they've broken down in tears.

Outside, a memorial window includes his yellow clogs and a photograph of French with a grinning Katie Couric.

Tom French was a floral artist, not a florist or even a floral designer. His talents were called upon when his loyal following wanted something special, something with impact, something luxurious.

No shrinking violet, he was as much a shrewd businessman and marketer as an artist.

At the funeral for Lewis F. Powell, the associate justice of the United States, French's floral display was unlike Richmond had ever seen. The chancel of Grace Covenant Presbyterian was adorned with healthy swags of mostly cream-colored roses. The flowers were a perfect antidote to the dark wood of the 1920s-style, Gothic sanctuary. The scene was a sumptuous Ivory Merchant film come to life. Amazing, but not overdone.

But something else was on display, if only briefly: The artiste himself. Minutes before the nine members of the Supreme Court filed into the church and prior to the family's arrival, French, dressed in black, his long hair tied back in his characteristic ponytail, glided onto the chancel and lightly fluffed the flowers. A last-minute check.

What a rascal, what a diva turn. And before a live, world-wide television audience.

I could sense Tom grinning inside, "The world will know who did the flowers for this occasion."

In graduate school, Tom was drawn to printmaking. In his spare hours he loved antique shopping and placing his objects about his house. He was a good cook. But in flowers he found his medium. Maybe it was predestined. As a boy growing up (as Tom French Turner) in Columbus Ga., his family always cultivated a large flower garden. But there was one unwritten rule: Do not pick the blooms. "This must have brought on a frustration to be a florist," he once told me.

When he opened his first shop in the Atrium of the James Center, he began a happy routine of arising at 5 each morning to go to market to pick fresh flowers. Not content with the usual, he would order summer wildflowers from around the world—poppies from Italy, yarrow from Scotland and delphinium from England. Roses and lilies were constant favorites.

Moving from the kiosk-sized Atrium shop to larger quarters on Belmont, and always the marketer, Tom began using his middle name.

In the weeks since his death, that image of French adjusting the flowers at Justice Powell's funeral keeps coming back to me. But there's more.

"He was very excited about meeting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that day," says Tom Binns, a business associate. "He admired her greatly. He wrote to her and she wrote back."

If French was interested in justice, there was precious little in how he died. He had been awaiting a liver for two years and he died during the transplant operation. He left his body to science.

He wanted no funeral, no service, no observance. The rascal. He probably thought nobody was up to doing the
Favorite

Latest in Miscellany

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Edwin Slipek Jr

Connect with Style Weekly

Newsletter Sign-Up

The Flash
The Bite
The Scoop

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2017 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation