Through the London Gate entrance and down, past the magnificent buildings and courtyards of the Royal Hospital. I see my first Chelsea Pensioner of the day: white bearded and wearing full scarlet coat even on this hot day!
The Royal Chelsea Hospital
was designed by Christopher Wren
and completed in 1692. It had been instituted by Charles II
to provide care for old and injured soldiers, “broken by age or war”
, who had no family to look after them. Until that time, these men relied on church charities or even workhouses. The hospital was built in fields at the edge of the village of Chelsea so they could benefit from the countryside air, with a good view of the Thames. It very soon reached its full capacity of 476 residents. Today there are around 300 living here, including soldiers who served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and World War II..
I walk through the gate into Ranelagh Gardens, following meandering shaded paths which roam through and between the shrubberies, thickets and grassy undulations. I pass a group of mothers and offspring on the middle lawn. The children squealing as they run through the rainbow spray of a sprinkler. Beyond that, all is strangely empty here on such a sultry day.
Ranelagh Gardens was once a fashionable public pleasure garden, along similar lines to Vauxhall Gardens
or Cremorne Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 16)
, but a bit more exclusive. The entrance charge, at half a crown, was more than double the others’ (Horace Walpole wrote soon after the gardens opened, “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.”
). It was opened in 1742 in the grounds of Ranlelagh House, formerly the home of the first Earl of Ranelagh
, treasurer of Chelsea Hospital .
There were beautiful formal garden walks, through trees and around a long ornamental lake (fed by the River Westbourne, which used to flow into the Thames just south of here, but now flows under the plane tree- lined avenue on the east edge of these gardens, as part of the London sewer system
) and a ‘floating’ Chinese pavilion. The entire gardens were illuminated at
night by strings of fairy lanterns and sparkling mirror fountains. But dominating everything else was the rococo Rotunda. It was 185 feet in diameter, built of wood, and lavishly decorated, it had high external and internal viewing galleries and provided an enormous circular arena (the Millenium Dome of its day
). This was a major concert venue, with an organ and staging for orchestras (in 1765 the Rotunda was bursting at the seams for a performance by the 9 year old Mozart
). The central core support of the building housed massive fireplaces and chimneys, which made this an all-year-round venue; the other pleasure gardens were closed in the winter.
visited the gardens on a number of occasions during his London visits between 1746-56 and painted pictures of the gardens and the interior of the Rotunda (see above
) for different patrons.
These 14 acres provided the perfect setting for Masquerade
balls, hugely popular in the 18th Century (think of the last fancy dress party you attended and picture something 10 times more grand, imaginative and intriguing!
). Wondrous pageants of pretence and make- believe. Masquerade was a real leveller at a time of great class division: you could dress up as a prince and rub shoulders with a real prince disguised as a shepherdess; come as a
butcher and hobnob with a baker dressed as a candlestick maker; or you could be a duchess for the day and dance with the devil, a dodo or a dandy! At a time of the strictest social mores, you could let your hair down (or put it up
), and cast aside inhibitions and decorum for an evening. These gardens were especially popular as, inside the heated Rotunda, the Masquerade season could extend well into winter..
In 1803, debts and spiralling costs forced the consortium who owned Ranelagh to cut their losses and close the pleasure gardens after that summer’s season. The Rotunda was demolished two years later. Around 1860, Ranelagh Gardens were redesigned by John Gibson
as a public park, much as it appears today.
I continue through, seeing no-one except a solitary gardener watering a newly sown area of lawn. The air is so still and warm and shimmery. I have the oddest sense that, any moment, I’ll round a bend and catch the slightest glimpse of a harlequin disappearing behind a tree, or the ghosts of masked revellers dancing in a clearing. I walk up to the far southeast corner, amongst the trees and bushes, just behind the brickwork of the The Carabiniers memorial
at the busy Chelsea Bridge crossroads. It’s overgrown and wilder here, and unkempt. Just how I like it! So I unpack my drawing things where I can get a view back through to the empty lawn.
But here is the strangest contraposition: under this overgrown corner copse, just a few feet
away, through the railings, the world is going on in its hootiest, roaringest, roadragest, ghetto- blasterest and diesel fumest! Somehow, though, I can filter all that out, and hear the clear birdsong, the zuzz of passing wasps, and smell the earthy scent of leaf litter, as I look down onto a sunlit scene of tranquility, totally devoid of people. Standing with pinching shoes removed, in my own private estate! .
A little green bud plops down onto my sketchbook page. Then suddenly, just as I’m about to brush it away, it becomes a little cricket and springs onto the rim of my paint water pot, where it stays for ages and doesn’t move even when I rinse my brush.
End of drawing, shoes back on and I take a different route back towards the top part of the garden. Catching views through the western railings to the 13 acre South Grounds; closed off at the moment, to allow the field to re-establish itself. It’s used for a number of large scale events each year, including the Chelsea Flower Show
I find a spot amongst some redcurrant bushes to set up, opposite the gardeners’ depot, to make another drawing across towards the elegant brickwork and roofs of the Royal Hospital. Behind the hedge is the site of the original Ranelagh House. There are greenhouses and a patchwork of allotments which are used by the residents. It’s very warm now, no cooling breeze to speak of. I’m glad of the shade of a horse chestnut but I’m having to bat the wasps away as I work! There’s a constant percussion of hammering from the new Chelsea Barracks
housing development over the road.
A few more garden visitors now, some on shaded benches, some sunbathing. Children chase across the lawns. A convoy of 3 Chelsea pensioners on mobility scooters trundle past. And a pair of the old soldiers march slowly by, they pause to peer over at me. One lifts his stick as though he’s on parade and waves a shaky greeting to me. And I find myself waving a greeting back to him. With my paintbrush.
(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 )
Ranelagh Gardens, Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3 4SR
Google earth view here