Month: April 2016

Sticks in the Smoke 13: Berkeley Square Garden

013-Berkeley-Square-Garden(Wednesday 20 April 2016)

An elongated oval of grass and gravel paths of about 2½ acres, gently sloping towards the south. On this perfect spring wednesday almost all the many benches are occupied. Picnickers lounge in groups around the 013a.jpglawns. I came to finish a drawing started last week, of a view from the eastern wing of the park, featuring Ferdnand Leger‘s tall and colourful ceramic sculpture: ‘La grande fleur qui marche’: three metres of exuberant petal- wing- arms which echoed the twists of the plane- tree branches! But today, as I walked up from Berkeley Street into the square, all I could see was an empty space where it had been standing! It seemed the flower really had walked! For a moment I thought it had all been just a mad, cubist dream! But no, it’s ok, I do have photographic evidence that it was there! Berkeley Square is known for its temporary sculptural installations, but I didn’t expect this to be quite so temporary!

Disappointed, I take the outer path, over blurry branch shadows crisscrossing the gravel. The 30 + london plane trees which stand all around this garden and line its paths are some of the oldest in London, planted in 1789 by Edward Bouverie (once MP for Salisbury), resident of the square. This tree was chosen for its resistance to pollution: it can cope with a range of conditions, requires little maintenance and its mottled bark gradually flakes off and regenerates, ridding itself of harmful pollutants.  On the Friday after I was here, a retired couple visited my Stourhead exhibition. Coincidentally, the husband had been managing director of a Berkeley Square company in the 1980s. He told me that after one of the old planes on the south west lawn was blown down in the Great Storm of 1987, he and his young daughter planted a replacement. It now stands proudly, pushing up into the space left by its predecessor.

013b.jpgI walk past the southern gate and pause to look up at the statue of the Woman of Samaria by pre- Raphaelite, Alexander Munro. Intended as a drinking fountain: she tilts an amphora to pour water into a basin below (not flowing today!). This was donated to the garden in 1858 by the Henry Petty- Fitzmaurice, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, whose stately residence, Lansdowne House, stood just over the road.

I retrace my steps up the eastern path and find an empty park bench and, opening my sketchbook on its back, I settle on a view towards the old pump house gazebo (built in 1800), at the cross- paths centre of the garden, with its metal Chinese roof gleaming under an ornamental stone cup pinnacle.  Surrounding the gazebo are eight large black planters, with tightly clipped standard bay trees. They’re oversized Alice- in- Wonderland eggcups, each with its own dark cloud floating above. In the background is No.50 Berkeley Square, dark- bricked and reputedly the most haunted house in London! Next door is No. 48, one of Winston Churchill‘s early childhood homes. He must have hopped and skipped round this park: the thick plane trunks are every child’s hide- and- seek dream! Now divided into apartments, the only residential building left in this square: possibly one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world! The upper floors of buildings appear to dissolve into the bright green- yellow fizz of newly sprouting foliage.

013cThis area 350 years ago was field, pasture and hedgerows, with a couple of farmers’ cottages nestling in the landscape. It was part of the estate of Lord Berkeley of Stratton, who acquired the land following his role as a Royalist general in the Civil War. He built his grand home, Berkeley House at the north side of Piccadilly, with a long tract of gardens, orchards and meadows stretching up behind. The house was sold by his grandson to the first Duke of Devonshire in 1696, with an agreement that the Berkeley Estate would keep this strip of land free from development, to preserve the view north from the house. It is that proviso that has kept the soil of this oval free from stone and concrete, while modest houses and genteel tearooms grew up around the square, followed by grand residences and banks, followed by shiny showrooms, exclusive clubs and hedge fund offices. The board of trustees for the square, set up in 1766, proposed ‘a grass plot in the middle, a gravel walk round, and iron pallisadoes’. So from the start of the 1800s, the garden, with its lawns, gravel paths, gazebo and plane trees, has remained virtually unchanged, a constant in the middle of this ever changing city

Traffic is a constant slow flow around all four sides of the square. It almost seems that it’s the same cars, vans and buses, caught in a surreal, never- ending circuit. There’s too much noise even to hear the song of a nightingale, if there was one. A staccato rhythm of horns and accompanying acrid smell of overheating clutch pads.

As I draw, a sharp breeze whips the rubbish out of a nearby bin. Paper wrappers and a plastic bag go dancing across the lawn and skip across the patch of bent and drying daffodils. A young couple ask if they can sit on my bench. I’d spotted them earlier, and had thought it a bit strange how they were making their way from one occupied bench to another. I smile and nod and they ask about my drawing, but they keep making furtive glances at my rucksack and edge closer to it. After a while they get up and move on. I think they sensed my wariness. Or perhaps they decided that, as an artist, I probably wouldn’t have much of any value. That’s true!

(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. )

Berkeley Square, London W1J 5AX
Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 12: Finsbury Circus Gardens

012-Finsbury-Circus(Thursday 7 April 2016)

I’ve been slow with this post as I’ve been in panic mode, getting ready for my ‘stourhead / fifty- two / twelve / four’ exhibition, which is now up and running until 6 May. I’m hoping to be back up to London some time this coming week.  

The larger part of the narrow western lane leading from Moorgate to Finsbury Circus has been hoarded off for Crossrail works. I’m funnelled through, along with others, coats and jackets flapping, hunched against the raw breeze.

This soaring oval of tall stately buildings draws the eye up and looms across the sky. Today the clouds are slaty and threatening. I walk the 340 metre perimeter of the Circus, looking in at the clattering and crashing Crossrail construction site that has taken over two- thirds of these gardens, leaving only the outer ring of long- established plane trees (much older than many of the buildings here) and evergreen bushes and shrubs.

012cA shaft has been excavated to provide access to the building of the new Elizabeth Line platforms at Liverpool Street Station. Machinery, cranes, temporary offices, stacks of building materials and miscellaneous equipment now stand where there were lawns and shrubberies, pavilion and the gentle clack of bowling green. Hard- hatted figures in orange hi- vis stand in groups or stride purposefully. All is shielded with ivy- clad ‘living hoardings’. At 5½ acres, this is the largest public green space in the City and is much used by city workers for relief from office confines. They’ll have to wait about another 2 years for the gardens to be made whole again, when the new line is opened and the hole filled in.

This isn’t the first time that Finsbury Circus has been disrupted for tube expansion. In 1864 the gardens were excavated to construct an extension to the Metropolitan, the world’s first underground railway. As recompense, the Metropolitan Railway Company pledged an annual £100 to the upkeep of the gardens. This continued until 1900, when the management was taken over by the City of London Corporation.

012bI walk back round to the western end of the Circus, to the remaining pocket of garden, where generous and abundant beds curve around a paved plaza. A tall, mature hardy palm stretches out its spiky fronds. Set against the golden stone background of the grand Salisbury House, you could almost believe you were in a Riviera garden if it wasn’t for this dreary day!  And there, leaning a welcome, above the steps, a tall and spreading camellia, its red flowers blazing through the damp air, improbably bright. There is incessant noise: stone grinders, heavy machinery rumbling, drilling, the sirens of reversing lorries. Pigeons flap and squabble under a laurel. A few people sit on benches, lunching or smoking: one or two Crossrail construction workers and suited office staff.

Human activity here dates back to pre- Roman times; evidence was unearthed a few years ago of an Iron Age settlement on the banks of the Walbrook River (now sadly part of the London sewerage system), which flowed where the gardens are now.

The line of London Wall is less than 50 metres to the south of Finsbury Circus. When originally constructed in Roman times, this massive structure impeded the flow of the Walbrook enough to cause flooding and, over the centuries, this became a lost area of marsh and moor, used for dumping the city’s rubbish.  But after the construction of an opening in the wall: the Moor Gate, in the 15th Century, and various drainage schemes, ‘Moorfields’ started to be used for recreation, such as hunting, archery and ice skating. Not to mention other nefarious activities which were best carried out beyond the city walls!

012dThe area where Finsbury Circus Gardens now stands was formally declared as London’s first public park in 1606. Gravel paths were laid and trees planted. It became a popular escape from the squalid and claustrophobic streets of the city. An orchard of mulberry trees were planted here, their fruit harvested and supplied to the city until the 1920s.

Bethlehem Hospital (known as ‘Bedlam’) was built just south of this park, treating the mentally ill for two centuries until it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1814 (patients were moved to a new hospital over the river, in Lambeth). With Bedlam out of the way,  affluence crept in. The area was remodelled and the current oval of Finsbury Circus was created, but to domestic proportions. Doctors and surgeons set up practices (this is where Moorfields Eye Hospital started life). However, by the end of the 19th Century, medical institutions were, in turn, being driven out by financial institutions. The requirement was 012afor grander and taller, so consequently, by the 1930s, none of the original Georgian buildings remained and the gardens were overshadowed by six and seven storeys of pilasters and pediments.

A few spots and then the threatened rain starts. I give thanks for the bandstand and dash under its cover. I clear away crumpled newspapers and discarded remains of a takeaway and unpack my drawing things on a bench. My drawing view is towards Salisbury House and the crane angling over the construction site, while umbrellas weave like fish through the downpour. Blurred reflections seep down into the paving. Rain rattles on the bandstand roof and I’m joined by all the smokers from Finsbury Circus Offices and their orchestra of conversation, but no-one talking to each other. Once they’ve left, I’m joined by the pigeon gang, pecking at lunch leftovers.

(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. )

Finsbury Circus, London EC2M 7EA
Google earth view here

Crossrail photo from calmeilles photostream

Sticks in the Smoke 11: Rembrandt Gardens

011-Rembrandt-Gardens(Thursday 31 March 2016)

Sunken below the stucco white elegance of Warwick Avenue, this 1½ acre rectangle of lawn and ornamental beds lies alongside the north east bank of Browning’s Pool: a broad triangle at the junction of two branches of the Grand Union canal with the Regent’s Canal.

011dThis is the core of ‘Little Venice‘. The name is said to have originated from a comment by Lord Byron who sneeringly called it ‘Venice’, on observing its contaminated and debris- filled water and squalid surroundings. The name stuck like mud, becoming the affectionate byname for this area ( the ‘Little’ being added early last century), but was only officially recognised in the 1950s. The pool and little island were named after Robert Browning, whose home was close by and is said to have planted trees on the islet.

These gardens were created in 1952, after derelict buildings and artists’ studios had been demolished and cleared. A scheme to replace them with luxury flats was opposed by a campaign supported by some of the evicted artists, including Feliks Topolski, whose first London studio was on this site. They succeeded in having these gardens laid out instead (originally named Warwick Avenue Gardens).

011cI take the steps down into this haven and the traffic noise dwindles. I’m lured on by the lap and shimmer of sunlit water, and walk through to the tow path. Tree roots corrugate the ground and rusty mooring rings wait for a clumsy step. The aroma of fresh coffee wafts from the narrowboat: ‘Essence‘, tied up here. An idyllic view across to the willows on Browning’s Island, new spring foliage drapes down towards squiggly bright yellow reflections. Excited children’s voices skip across the catkin speckled water from the Puppet Theatre barge, eye catching in red and yellow banded tarpaulin. It has been here, moored just below the ornate Warwick road bridge, producing marionette performances for over 30 years.

I walk back through the northern gate and across the damp lawn, between ornamental low- hedged rose beds. I dodge the path of a flying football kicked by a boy towards his disinterested sister. The ball bounces across and comes to earth in a bed of yellow and red tulips, just blooming.

011aBack in 1975, to celebrate the twinning of the City of Westminster with Amsterdam, a bargeload of 5000 tulip bulbs and hyacinths were donated to these gardens in a ceremony which also marked the 700th anniversary of the founding of Amsterdam. And to commemorate the occasion, the name was changed to Rembrandt Gardens.

I retread the steps back up to the railed, WC- roof terrace, palm- potted and fringed with evergreen shrubs, for a higher, balcony view for my drawing. I look down across the park and Little Venice, boat- busy beyond, with Easter holiday sightseers promenading the southern tow path, or queueing for canal cruises, while swans stretch their necks on the island. I really think, with the tree- lined streets and iron railings reflected in the canal below, ‘Little Amsterdam‘ would be a more appropriate name.

Only a little way to the south is the swoop of the Westway flyover, emerging between tower blocks, carrying the relentless A40 into Marylebone. How many times I’ve hammered over there, totally oblivious of down here! Just beyond is the rattle and rush of trains into and from Paddington Station. And running at about 15 metres or so under the 011bbed of Brownings’s Pool is the clattering Bakerloo line which brought me here earlier. Sandwiched between all that haste is the easy and leisurely waterway pace, which percolates through these gardens and soothes the spirit.

A woolly- hatted, dark- coated man paces the path below, back and forth for an hour, muttering and beating a fist rhythmically on his thigh. I like to think he’s a poet, wrestling with his latest piece. The sun is warm and plane tree shadows spread wide across the lawn, but when the fast clouds scoot over, I reach for my coat.

An old man with silvery pony tail sits on the bench to catch his breath and rests his heavy shopping bags. He looks across and asks about my drawing. We chat as I work. He tells me about how shabby this area was in the sixties, with run down properties and rats and rubbish in the streets. The island over there was locally known as Rat’s island. “But my mate Charles, the park keeper, he kept these gardens immaculate”. It was a bohemian enclave before the property boom, he says, with artists and music and parties. You could get a place for next to nothing. “But now..” he jabs his thumb at the row of perfect, gleaming Georgian villas behind us, “millions… Millions!”

(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. )

Warwick Avenue, London W2 1XB
Google earth view here