(Thursday 18 February 2016)
A bustling and busy pedestrianised West End area, with theatres, multiplexes, casinos, grand hotels, fast food restaurants (and some not so fast). A multiplicity of architectural genres. Currently the whole block on the west side a construction site sheathed in fluttering plastic and, next door, an empty space where the old 1930’s Odeon West End building used to stand until its demolition last year, allowing a temporary view across to the south west roofscape.
The park is just less than an acre, a concentric fit, owing its not- quite- square shape to the original piece of common land in the rural parish of St Martins. It was bought by the Earl of Leicester in the 17th century to build his home, but he was ordered to keep ‘Leicester Field’ open for the use of parishioners to “Drye their Clothes there as they were wont, and to have free use of the Place..”
As London developed through the 1700s, houses were built around the square and the gardens became gentrified, with railings, lawns and gravel paths and, in the centre, a gilt statue of George 1 on his horse. It was a fashionable site for duels to be fought. Later in the century other amusements included the Museum of Natural Curiosities, known as The Holophusikon (later known as the Leverian Collection). You could pay to view the severed heads of executed traitors on Temple Bar Gate through a telescope. Or you could watch street acrobats, fire eaters, dancing bears and fortune- telling buderigars.
The buildings grew and jostled together through the 19th century. There were theatres, music halls and James Wyld’s very popular ‘Great Globe‘ which was built in 1850 in the centre of the gardens on top of George 1’s statue. It housed a giant scale model of the earth, which you could walk inside and view all the features of the planet in brightly coloured relief. This was demolished after 10 years or so and the gardens were re- modelled. In the centre, George 1, havily vandalised and dismembered, was replaced with a statue of Shakespeare raised on a plinth with dolphins and a pond. There were also busts of famous residents of Leicester Square, including William Hogarth, Isaac Newton and Joshua Reynolds, but after the park was redesigned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2012, only Shakespeare remained.
The lawns are triangles of late winter- green grass, roped off to protect the soft ground from the many, many feet. I walk the wide paths of the giant X which crosses the garden, then past the shivering queues of hopeful theatregoers outside the TKTS Lodge on the south perimeter and lay my sketchbook on a low wall in front of a box edged bed of euphorbia. I peer past the new wavy stainless steel railings, across towards M & M’s World, like a curved blue curtain at the north west corner. The majestic plane trees, their knobbly bark catching the sun, arch over like cathedral vaulting. Seed- baubles dangle and semi- deflated Chinese New Year balloons bob and tangle in the twigs.
All humanity passes, this feels like a global square. Everyone’s here to seek amusement: as I draw I get snips of excited conversations in many languages and I realise that laughing doesn’t have an accent.
I stroll to a bench in the centre of the park, and start another drawing towards the open south west corner, the sun streaming through. In front of me, Shakespeare stands high, pigeons landing on his head from time to time. His unfurled scroll reads: ‘THERE IS NO IGNORANCE BUT DARKNESS’ while he looks out towards the Vue Cinema, with its Deadpool billboard declaring ‘WAIT TIL YOU GET A LOAD OF ME!’ Below, newly opened daffs are gold against the shadowed marble.
There’s hardly any sound of traffic here, apart from a few momentary sirens. Instead, the sound of amplified voices from competing street theatre and acrobats, along with onlookers cheering and whistling. Half- term kids yell and chase the pigeons. Two children come over and stare and ask if I’m a famous artist. I reply not yet but I’m working on it. Groups of padded- jacketed tourists grin together under selfie sticks.
(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 )
Leicester Square Gardens, London WC2H 7DE
Google earth view here