As I approach, the tall tower of St Luke’s Church is clear light gold in the afternoon sun. Opposite, the brickwork of Brompton Hospital is in the shade, windows reflecting pinpoints of sky through the twig lacework of the garden trees. The chill air vibrates with drill and power saw from construction works that are replacing iron railings which separate churchyard and park. A line of netting screens create a vibrant band of artificial emerald, underlining the church’s soaring bath stone walls and buttresses.
This 3 acre garden is a banquet of colour and pattern- bursts of cherry blossom and fruit trees pink and white. A scatter of white blackthorn flowers in the surrounding hedges. Still bare branches hang or radiate. Mature hardy palms cast spiky shadows across the paths, while the looming horse chestnut at the eastern edge spreads its unfolding foliage.
This whole site was originally laid out from pasture and consecrated in 1812 as an overflow cemetery to the Kings Road burial grounds which were running out of room for the burgeoning population of Chelsea village. Within ten years this new, bigger and grander parish church was being built in the centre of the grounds. It was designed by James Savage and was one of the first new Gothic Revival churches to be built in London.
Later in the century, with the advent of the larger city cemeteries (eg: Brompton Cemetery, see Sticks in the Smoke 6) and less demand on the smaller local burial grounds, burials ended here and the land was converted into a public garden, funded by a grant of £1500 from London County Council in 1887. It was laid out by local Kings Road horticulturist, James Veitch, who designed a heterogenous scheme which mixed indigenous trees such as oak, ash and sycamore, alongside more exotic species, such as lime, tree of heaven and catalpa, with a wide variety of shrubs, to ensure a captivating and colourful garden, all year round.
I unpack my drawing things at a bench in the shade, close to an old, dark barked mulberry, whose branches frame the elegant Gothic windows of St Luke’s. Below are scruffy patches of late daffodils, drooping now and interlaced with growing grasses and dandelions. I try to draw the curling and bowing cherry branches, heavy with blossom. A crow hops on the path here and flaps up to the bin, its head on one side to inspect me before pecking at a discarded sandwich packet.
The garden is full of activity, groups of mothers meeting after school, release their children to hop and hoot across the grass, a teenage boy plays his guitar haltingly where the sun has warmed and dried the ground. Old men in scarves and turned up jacket collars talk on benches, heads bent together. A lady with a big, broad smile in a pink coat and pork pie hat that match the cherry blossom, exercises her mobility scooter. She passes by several times, always smiling, traversing the gently curving paths which form an X across the garden. A little later, a small girl with red coat and hair ribbon, scuttles past several times on her pink scooter, followed by a vexed- looking mother pushing a buggy.
I missed a week of Sticks in the Smoke, while on exhibition duties. This is a time of rapid seasonal transition so I decided to return to St Lukes to see how things have changed. And I discover it so transformed! A warm, almost hot day. Trees that were bare branches 15 days ago are now heavy with summer green. The horse chestnut is now weighed down with creamy candles while parakeets screech from its dark interior. The grass is fresh yellow mowed and peppered with daisies. Under the cherry trees, the lawns are thick with pink snow. I walk through wafts of scent, some delicate, some thick as honey.
I lay my sketchbook on a big flat box tomb on the southern lawn. It has script engraved on its lid, but too weather- worn to easily read. My view is east, through the rose bed circlet, dashes of vibrant red and crimson bloom amongst the foliage.
On a bench nearby, a man in shorts and sunglasses gently feeds a drinking straw between his elderly mother’s lips. She sips the juice and slumps down into her wheelchair. His girlfriend / wife helps her up and they try to lift her for a walk but she resists and stumbles and makes a little yelp.
There is still that constant background buzz of drilling, but lifted and somehow made melodic by the birdsong from trees and bushes all around. Chattering and laughs from groups of picnicking friends (maybe hospital staff from over the road taking a sunshiny lunch break). A gust of wind snatches a Pret A Manger bag and tosses it across the lawn, chased and caught by a giggling girl. A full- bearded Irishman in stripy t- shirt wanders over to look at my drawing. He says “beautiful, bea-utiful”, then asks “but where does the Art come from?”. And we have a discussion about the nature of creativity, while the nearby picnickers get up and brush grass off their bottoms.
I pack my things and walk across to the squat stone sundial which stands in the rose garden. Inscribed on its top: ‘Make time, Save time while time lasts. All time is no time when time is past’
(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 )
St Luke’s Gardens, Sydney Street, Chelsea, London, SW3 3RP
Google earth view here