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 lawns. 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.
I 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.
This 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. www.nickandrew.co.uk )
Berkeley Square, London W1J 5AX
Google earth view here