(Wednesday 3 February 2016 )
Chelsea Embankment Gardens and Albert Bridge Gardens spread out like dragonfly wings on either side of Albert Bridge road. They are in four parts, totalling about 2 acres, enclosed and separated by the busy and roaring Chelsea Embankment and the more sedate Cheyne Walk. These gardens were laid out and the roads built in the 1870’s on land reclaimed from riverside clay sludge and shingle after the Thames embankment was completed and Albert Bridge was built.
Albert Bridge gardens are small raised packets of greenery, trees and shrubs, either side of the bridge, behind the embankment path. The path squeezes under the span to link them. At the western end of this strip is a sculpture of ‘Atlanta’ by Francis Derwent Wood erected in 1929 in his memory by the Chelsea Arts Club. She stands looking out across the river, ignoring the heavy traffic only a few feet away. Just behind her is a cherry tree, heavy with early blossom. I walk on and step up from the path amongst privet and evergreen shrubs and ground cover of baby nettles. From here I have the view upstream towards Battersea Bridge and across to where an old masted Dutch barge sits in the low- tide mud, incongruously beneath the new steel and glass development at Albert Wharf. I draw the dark branches of cherry tree reaching across the clouds, the white- pink blossom transformed into fairy lights by intermittent sunshine. I have my back to an old, green, disused and shabby cabman’s shelter. It was called ‘The Pier’ from its proximity to Cadogan Pier, just east of Albert Bridge and in the 1970’s was nicknamed ‘The Kremlin’ due to its clientele of left-wing cabbies (www.cabbieblog.com/green-cab-shelters).
As I draw I try to filter out the drone of engines, hooting and frequent sirens behind me, and focus more on the river sounds carried across on the stiff cold breeze: ferries chugging, geese honking, gulls calling and the drilling from a moored houseboat on the river below. Runners and cyclists swish along the path in high- vis.
I finish my drawing and cross the road, away from the river to Chelsea Embankment Gardens. To the west, it isn’t much more than a route used mostly by dog walkers, running between a strip of lawn on the road side and a ribbon of mature trees, bushes and tall shrubs, shielding Cheyne Walk from the hectic A3212. A statue of a pensive Thomas Carlyle sits up on a stone base. He lived in Cheyne Row nearby from 1834 – 81.
I head for the broader gardens to the east. The path snakes past Bainbridge Copnall‘s sculpture of the boy David ( a memorial to the Machine Gun Corps) high up on a granite pillar. It passes a tall stone drinking fountain above which Ford Maddox Brown‘s sculpture of an elderly Dante Gabriel Rossetti looks out from a niche (Rossetti lived just behind, in Cheyne Row until his death in 1882). I walk out across the lawns and around the viola- planted ornamental beds, but looking down I realise my mistake, discovering I’m in a minefield of poop that dog walkers didn’t bother to scoop: definitely not somewhere for a picnic!
At the far east end of the garden I stand on the roadside pavement, the wind is cold but it’s good to see the broken sunshine. The roar of buses, lorries, vans and taxis stopping and starting at traffic lights just behind, the whiff of diesel wafting across.
I make my second drawing close to the foot of an ancient and wonderfully gnarled beech (I think) tree, the heavy ridges and crevasses of its bark ranging in colour from rich deep browns to violets and sheens of blue. My view is across the lawns and over to the bust of Vaughan Williams (sculpted by Marcus Cornish). He lived at Cheyne Walk and composed much of his work here. Bright crocuses burst through the patchy grass close by. Through the network of winter branches hanging low and the long, narrow thicket of ornamental trees and shrubs are sunlit patches of red brickwork, subdivided by tall white window rows.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )
Chelsea Embankment Gardens & Albert Bridge Gardens, London SW3
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