Thomas More’s Head and Epstein’s Plinth (Wednesday 19 October 2016)
Walk here from the east along the Chelsea Embankment and, as you pass Chelsea Old Church, there’s a painted statue of Sir Thomas More (by Leslie Cubitt Bevis ), erected in 1969, with gold hands clasped tightly in prayer, sitting up on a plinth in a little semicircular garden (if you look on Google Street View, his face has been blurred out, which seems macabrely appropriate considering his fate!). Revered scholar and statesman, Thomas More settled in Chelsea in 1520, where he built a grand home: Beaufort House, just round the corner. (Chelsea was a popular rural location for the wealthy to build their large houses, conveniently close to the city, but far enough away from the stink! It was once described as “a village of palaces”). He had a close association with the Old Church and built his own chapel there.
The orchards, meadows and formal gardens of his estate rolled up from this stretch of riverbank where his official barge was moored (In the 16th century travel by river was much more reliable than the rough and rutted roads; Sir Thomas could get to Westminster or Hampton Court on state business with relative ease). More was living here with his family until he was arrested for treason for refusing to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the English Church. He was executed at the Tower in 1535. Beaufort House remained standing for a further 200 years, but now only few fragments of orchard wall remain in private gardens nearby.
I cross Old Church Street and take the steps down into this sunken rectangle of a third of an acre. The roar of embankment traffic dulls as I descend. I catch the scent of tidal water. Lined with characterless 1960s brickwork, two kerb edged lawns and a raised seating area with naked timber pergola (office staff and workmen lunching and smoking: a stage with ever changing progression of actors). Ivy and climbers trail down from beds at the top of the walls. A simple, well- used space with benches and lawns worn and earthy, but is lifted out of its functionality by the captivating bronze nude: ‘The Awakening’ by Gilbert Ledward (1888-1960), which stands on a square column at the centre and, arms reaching high, dominates the garden. I walk around to get the best view- through tree branches, silhouetted against the river sky or looking down from the embankment wall. I choose to draw her (see drawing above) framed by the straight lines of the apartment block behind and the tall medieval windows of Crosby Hall (this is the surviving part of one of the mansions of Richard III, originally built in 1466 in Bishopsgate. When threatened with demolition in 1910, it was carefully dismantled and rebuilt on this spot, with neo-Tudor brick and stone additions added more recently and made into a private mansion).
My easel is perched on the edge of the eastern lawn. There’s a litter of black nut husks from a walnut tree at one end. At the other corner is a dark barked cherry tree, planted to commemorate Gunji Koizumi, father of British Judo, who died in 1965. A magpie strides around the grass, chakking proprietorially. Above, patches of hazy blue sky between the clouds. Cries of soaring seagulls are interrupted by the rumble of aircraft, following a northwest flight path. The noise is somehow amplified as it rolls around the brick walls. The woody donk of walnuts dropping onto flagstones.
A sudden glint of light catches my eye as a woman slides open an upper door in the apartment block. She yawns, then leans over the balcony and shakes three rag dolls over the side. One after the other. Then aggressively whacks them on the rail. Then she returns with some small rugs and does the same with those.
Ropers Garden is on the site of riverside orchards which were part of the wedding gift from Sir Thomas More to his daughter Margaret on her marriage to lawyer, William Roper in 1521. Margaret Roper was one of the most learned women of the age: writer, translator and poet. After her father was beheaded, she managed to rescue his head from its spike on London Bridge and is said to have pickled and preserved it in a barrel of spices, until her own death in 1544 at the age of 39.
I move my drawing things to the courtyard area at the eastern end of the garden. This is the site of a warehouse building which was one of Jacob Epstein’s earliest sculpture studios before the 1st World War. I start to draw the standing stone relief by Epstein (see drawing below) which stands here on a circular plinth (unveiled in 1972): ‘Woman Taking Off Her Dress’, an unfinished piece in white stone, but fabulously full of energetic evidence of chiselled scores and notches. Arms grappling above the head, crudely echo the reaching arms of the Ledward bronze. Behind is a magnolia tree, its curving branches spread out above four rose beds, which have seen their best and are now little more than twisted sticks. And there, I can see, just above the wall, Thomas More in his garden next door.
A woman leans over the wall and calls “the plinth!” I look up and realise she’s talking to me. I say “sorry?” And she nods at the relief, “the best part of that thing is the plinth!” and walks off disdainfully. I get the feeling that the Epstein’s not very popular with the locals!
The buildings here were destroyed by a parachute mine on 17 April 1941 during the Blitz. On the same night much of Chelsea Old Church next door was reduced to rubble, apart from a section which included the Thomas More Chapel. Following the war it was painstakingly rebuilt and was reconsecrated in 1958. This garden was excavated out of the bomb site, designed, laid out, and opened in 1964, dedicated to Margaret Roper.
A taxi driver has parked his cab and is smoking on the steps. He blows a last cloud and wanders over to look at my drawing and we talk about art for a minute or two. He narrows his eyes at the Epstein and says “Not really my cup of tea, mate. Reckon the best bit is…the plinth!”
Ropers Garden, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London. SW3 5AZ
Google earth view here