A long 2½ acre rectangle of formal, daisy- spotted lawns subdivided with a regular pattern of straight and circular paths. It’s a warm day, almost hot! I try to keep to the shade of the mature and overhanging trees of the deep shrubbery which screens the halting and tooting stream of Victoria Embankment traffic.
The gardens are dominated by three grand statues, on high stone plinths, of William Tyndale at the southern end; Sir Henry Bartle Frere standing at the centre of the gardens, looking out across at the line of bright- coloured coaches parked on the Embankment, with the London Eye behind: that big bicycle wheel on the London skyline. At the northern end is Sir James Outram who peers through tree foliage at the the structure of The Golden Jubilee Bridge, like a giant array of randomly aimed arrows, leading across the river to the vibrant Southbank. Each stands in a circular island lawn, surrounded by high palms and rounded beds planted with a wide range of flowers, making distinctly coloured brackets of bright orange, deep reds and forget- me- not blue, giving each man his own individual celebration of colour.
This ground is where once were the tide- washed mud flats and shingle banks of the Thames, just beyond the walls of the Whitehall Palace. From 1530, this huge sprawling citadel was home to the British monarchy until 1698, when much of it was destroyed in a fire. Later, the gardens of grand townhouses rolled down to the river, until the construction of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). This, most importantly for Londoners, created the space for a massive brick sewer (still in full use today), diverting raw sewage to treatment works to the east of the city, rather than pouring straight into the river, which eliminated London’s regular and catastrophic cholera epidemics. Excavated soil was used to create a series of public parks and gardens, including Whitehall Gardens, alongside this stretch of the river. Bazalgette even designed the decorative iron railings for this garden (they were removed during World War II and replaced with chain- link fencing. The current railings are based on the original design). The garden was laid out in 1875 by George Vuilliamy who worked alongside Bazalgette as chief architect for the MBW (he also designed the writhing dolphin lampposts that can be seen all the way along Embankment walls).
I follow the long, straight eastern path, pink and dappled violet- grey under today’s strong sun, then loop around the statue of James Outram, past two picnickers sitting on his plinth base, and walk back on the other side, with Whitehall Court (built in the 1880’s, it was the home to MI6 during WW1. Now the 5- star Royal Horseguards Hotel), rising like a huge French chateau, with its impressive towers and pointed slate roofs. Under its spell, the gardens become a Parisian park, flat and long and elegant, with ornamental lime trees, lit up like flares in the sunshine. An ancient Catalpa tree leans across the lawn, its twisting branches held up on long supports: a frail old man leaning on several walking sticks.
Many people promenade alone or in pairs, or jog, or sit and relax. One dishevelled snoozer stretches along a bench, hat sagging over his face so that all that’s peeping out is his grey beard, like some kind of furry creature.
I make my way back to the Horseguards Avenue end, where I perch my sketchbook and box of drawing things precariously on the edge of a rubbish bin, under the watchful eye of Tyndale (sculpted by Sir Joseph Boehm in 1884), whose left hand clutches a manuscript to his chest, and his right rests on an open bible, balanced on what appears to be a road drill, but I think is intended to be an early printing press.
It’s busy here and tourists pause behind me to look as I draw. I feel like I should be putting on more of a performance and worried that, at any moment, my drawing box could overbalance and empty its contents into the bin! A man in his 60’s approaches and starts proudly telling me the names of artists whose exhibitions he’s seen recently and do I know them? He asks me what my name is and I tell him and he shakes his head dolefully and says “No…..No, sorry” and walks away.
(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 )
Whitehall Gardens, Victoria Embankment, London, WC2N 6PB
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