I push impatiently through the milling Westminster crowds as midday simmers and the Big Ben bongs follow me down Millbank. I take a right and into Smith Square where the white baroque St. John’s church fills the space and the senses. Charles Dickens once described it as: “some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air”. Following devastation caused by an incendiary bomb in 1941, it lay semi derelict for 20 years, but was restored and reopened in 1969 as St Johns Smith Square, concert hall, now used regularly for BBC music broadcasts. There’s also the Footstool Restaurant in the crypt downstairs where I had an exhibition back in the 80’s. This is the first time I’ve been back here since. I remember fumbling my paintings up onto nails in the brick walls and embarrassingly dropping one with a splintering crash that echoed around the vaulted space!
As there wasn’t room for a churchyard in this modest residential square, a nearby field was bought from the Grosvenor Estate, and was consecrated for burials in 1731. I walk in the sombre footsteps of countless corteges over the centuries, 100 yards down to the busy Horseferry Road and across to St. John’s Gardens which now occupies the site of the old burial ground.
In the 18th century, this was a rapidly growing part of London. The burgeoning population was reflected in heavy demands for burial here. Within 20 years it was bursting at the seams (a contemporary report states that 5126 graves were dug over a 10 year period!). To ease the congestion, 3 feet of extra topsoil were laid on top and retaining walls built, but by the early 19th century it was getting overcrowded once more. In 1823 an extra strip of land was bought to provide an extension.
The graveyard also needed watchman armed with pistols, to guard against grave robbers (the resurrection men). Body snatching was a serious problem at this time, but was serving a growing demand. Medical schools and private anatomical schools paid well for fresh specimens for medical research. The 1832 Anatomy Act required anatomy teachers to be licensed and only permitted donated bodies or those unclaimed to be used for dissection, which more or less put an end to this grisly activity.
I walk through the gates into the garden and there are bodies everywhere; lying on the grass, sitting on benches eating sandwiches or lounging with backs against ancient worn gravestones which are cemented to the perimeter walls. Couples are strolling the barley twist edged paths. A pair of shirtsleeved businessmen, drinking coffee and smoking, are leaning against a half buried and wonky monument (it almost looks like they’re pushing it over!). It commemorates Christopher Cass, master mason, who died in 1734. A highly successful stonemason in his time, who worked on the construction of of the four corner towers for St. John’s church. I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave at the thought of the crumpled Costa cup perched on the pediment of his granite gravestone.
There’s a shady coolness here. Plane tree branches rise and seem to knit together high above, where their foliage forms a high and airy canopy, gently moving and throwing flickers of light onto the paving. People gather and mingle around the fountain pool and sit on the edge, the refreshing trinkle of water behind them. This paved central area with its planted beds has the air of an alfresco meeting place, like a Mediterranean town square. An informal business conference seems to be happening on one side, dapples dancing over dark suits and blue shirts. Just over there is the HQ of Burberry; maybe the air con had broken down and they’d decided to move outside.
I skirt around the spray of a lawn sprinkler watering a triangular bed planted out with cineraria and geranium. The long yellow hose snakes and twists across the lawns. I walk further and sit on the ground behind another flowerbed and start a drawing looking across towards one of the garden’s two tall and slender gingko trees.
By the 1850s, this ground was closed for burials. It became neglected, overgrown and a haunt of villainous gangs. In the 1880’s a committee of residents raised money for it to be tidied up and, with the support of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and a bit of help from the Duke of Westminster, had it laid out as a public garden, which was opened on 23 May 1885. Not much has changed to the garden’s layout since then, apart from the replacement of the original central shelter with the fountain and pool.
The garden is closely overlooked on its east side by the ten storey 1930s brick cliff face of Westminster Green, originally Westminster Hospital. Opposite is St John’s buildings, equally tall, which were built as Queen Mary Nurses’ Home and Training School. Since the hospital’s relocation to Fulham in the early 90s, both buildings are now mostly upmarket apartments, with these 1½ acres serving as their back garden. At the base of Westminster Green, openings in the garden wall are filled with a series of (‘30s inspired) abstract metalwork grills by renowned jeweller, Wendy Ramshaw, commissioned in 2005. Looking up, I see a large 4th floor window is wide open, a woman puffs a blue cloud of cigarette smoke; a little dog cradled under her arm.
As I draw, the shh – shh of the sprinkler is a steady rhythm. A jackdaw scritches around amongst leaf litter under the shrubs behind me. A flock of pigeons take off as a body and I feel the breeze from their wings. A bumble bee flops down onto my paper and skitters about in the wet paint. I help it onto the grass but it makes a bee line for my sketchbook again. I gently scoop it over to the nearby flowerbed.
A gardener, phone clamped to her ear, turns off the sprinkler one- handedly and pulls it over the lawns towards the bed just in front of me. I decide its time to finish quickly or face another soaking like I had at Kensington Gardens two weeks ago!
(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 )