(Wednesday 28 September 2016)
Like two wedges of Camembert pointing at each other across the cheese board, these two gardens are laid, with a whiff of France, at the edge of Belgravia
. They sit within a long ‘X’ of mid- nineteenth Century Parisian style houses, tall and stately, with white stone arches and pillared porches, and ornamental ironwork balconies.
Built in the mid 1860s, these palatial terraces were designed by Thomas Cundy II
to celebrate Gallic design and culture, echoing the newly opened French Renaissance- style Victoria Station. In fact there were 3 generations of Thomas Cundys (or would that be Cundies?)
, all of them surveyors to the Grosvenor Estates
, spanning most of the 19th century. Between them they created the grand squares and terraces of Belgravia. This area was instantly fashionable, but I’m imagining the 3 Thomases collectively spinning in their graves at the thought that the houses they built are now some of the most expensive in the world, fetching up to £100 million.
Upper Grosvenor Gardens
This is the north garden, almost touching the grounds of Buckingham Palace
, corner- to- corner, across busy Grosvenor Place. As I stroll around the modest wedge of lawn I sip a rich Sicilian coffee, bought at Victoria Station. Mature plane trees, foliage in yellows and ochred greens. Wafts of fallen leaves on the ground. Beds of evergreen shrubs in front of iron curlicued railings. An unremarkable piece of ground but for the dynamic and powerful 30- foot bronze of a ferocious lioness hunting an antelope. These tensely muscled dark forms dominate the space. It was commissioned by the Duke of Westminster
from sculptor Jonathan Kenworthy
and installed here in 1998.
I set up in front of a locked and stone- piered gateway, to draw the sculpture within its setting. Backdrop of a heavily ivy- covered tree, dark against stately stonework catching the sun. A halting flow of buses become a broken banner of red. Not many garden visitors. A few workmen lounge on the grass and smoke. One jumps on the back of the antelope and mimes a riding action and shouts to his mates. Who mostly ignore him. Behind me, just outside the railings is a traditional green wood cabbies shelter
, dating from the late 1800s. Aromas of fry-up lunches and loud snatches of cabbie conversations filter through. A young family walk over to the lioness. The father reaches his son up to sit him on its back, but the little boy starts crying when his dad walks away to take a photo, his roaring mouth so similar in shape to the lioness’s.
The silhouetted figure of a soldier stands to attention high on top of the Rifle Brigade Monument
, forever facing across and over the wall of Buckingham Palace Gardens.
Lower Grosvenor Gardens
I leave the pointy end of upper Grosvenor Gardens and head across the 25 metres or so of tarmac and traffic towards its twin. But only twin in shape. Though also a triangle of lawns, and also with mature planes, this space is far more decorative, with circular planted beds, tree ferns and box hedging.
Halfway down, on either side of the park are two ornamental garden huts, which are embedded all over with seashells (mostly scallops, with conches in the pediments), pieces of volcanic rock and gravel in bands and diamond patterns. This afternoon the western hut is in the shade, but the eastern one is sitting in a pool of sunshine and, with the effect of light reflected from its textured surface, appears to be glowing golden and lustrous, and dissolving, as though only partially there, like a holographic projection. I get out my drawing things to try and capture this mirage.
After the second world war, the gardens were in serious need of a makeover, having suffered much from bombing, with piles of rubble and air raid shelters dug for the local residents. It was agreed to appoint French architect Jean-Charles Moreux
to redesign the gardens in an ornate French style to celebrate Anglo- French entente cordiale. As part of this project, the shell huts were built in the tradition of French ‘Fabriques de Jardin
‘ (small buildings as decorative landscape features, similar to British follies ).
These are now the only surviving parts of Moreux’s original design.
The remodelled garden was opened in 1952 bythe French ambassador, who dedicated it to Marshal Foch
(French hero and Allied Commander during the final year of the First World War
), whose horse- mounted statue (scuplted by Georges Malissard in 1930
) sits high on a plinth at the south entrance to the garden and looks sternly across Buckingham Palace Road at the teeming entrance of Victoria Station
Being just across from Victoria, this garden is heaving! Lots of travellers pass through with rucksacks and rattling suitcases, office workers having late lunches on the lawns, groups of construction workers from the site at Victoria, a few daytime bench boozers, several rough sleepers like bundled snoozing caterpillars on the grass. An old bearded man in a shabby suit and broken baseball boots, systematically riffles through the bins. The lawns are threadbare and strewn with the debris and detritus of its thousands of daily visitors. As I leave I notice a sparkling bracelet lying in the grass. But suddenly a huge cloud of pigeons burst around me from the other side of the garden, then swoop and gather expectantly in a dense flock around a woman who has put down her collection of heavy shopping bags with relief. When I turn back round to pick up the bracelet, there’s absolutely no sign of it, no matter how hard I look.
(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 )
Upper and Lower Grosvenor Gardens, Belgravia, London SW1W 0EB
Google earth view here