Sticks in the Smoke 38: Grosvenor Square Gardens, Mayfair

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“As I was walkin’ ’round Grosvenor Square. Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air..”* (Thursday 10 November 2016)

The Ronald Reagan statue gleams at me as I cross the road on the southwest corner of the square. I walk past the modernist US Embassy building (designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1960. Although I think it’s been used as a model for countless multi storey car parks since it was built!). A powerful statement in an otherwise predominantly Georgian and neo- Georgian part of London, spanning the whole west 038awidth of Grosvenor Square. Its great gilded eagle, spreading wings on the roof, ready to soar over the luxury hotels and other embassies standing around these 6 acres. Debris and crumpled placards from last night’s protests against Donald Trump’s election lie discarded amongst the fallen leaves.
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There’s been an American presence in Grosvenor Square since the 18th Century, when John Adams became the first American ambassador to Britain and, from 1785 -88, lived in a house on the north east corner of the square (ten years later he was elected the second president of the United States). The US Embassy and other departments have been here since the 1930s (Eisenhower had his HQ here during World War 2, when the Square was popularly  known as ‘Little America’). In 1968 there were large anti war protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War and, over the years, this square has been the focus for the venting of feelings about American international policy. Security has become a huge issue since 9/11 and the road in front of the US embassy was closed permanently to traffic in 2001, and defensive barriers put in place. However, partly because of continuing security concerns, and partly out of a need for a 21st Century upgrade, USA is now building a new high security embassy across the Thames, sitting close to the old Battersea Power Station. An energy efficient glass cube, due for completion in 2017.
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Sunshine as I enter the park (and definitely a nip to the air!), speckled shadows over golden orange leaf litter under a grove of plane trees. This is a broad and airy space, which feels like a piece of ancient land. Which indeed it is; just like Berkeley Square, down the road (see Sticks in the Smoke 13), this was a piece of original pasture retained within a fine square of elegant houses when Mayfair was first being developed by the Grosvenor family in the early 1700s. It was laid out as a private garden to serve the residents of the square. Oval in shape, enclosed by railings, with hedges and elm trees. Formal gravel and grass 038dpaths and a pattern of shrubberies around a central statue of George 1 in a commanding position on his horse. It was redesigned in the 19th century, made less formal and with tennis courts and children’s swings, and the elms were replaced with plane trees, which could better cope with acid fallout from the smoke of the city’s hundreds of thousands of coal fires. George 1st’s statue had fallen into disrepair so was removed.
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Heavy slate purple clouds are building from the west. Rain was forecast. I take the perimeter path, past the tall Eagle Squadrons Memorial, erected in 1985 at the southern end of the main paved axis of the gardens. The bronze eagle sculpted in 1985 by Dame Elisabeth Frink sits on its peak, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It commemorates the 244 Americans and the 16 British fighter pilots who served in the three Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons before the US officially joined the 2nd world war.
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On to the far end, where the September 11th 2001 garden faces the American embassy across the lawns. A semicircle of colourful and textural planting, symbolic of love, 038bfriendship and remembrance, including lilies, rosemary, ivy, lavender and roses. A wide green oak pergola, inscribed with the words ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’, houses memorial plaques for the 67 UK citizens who lost their lives in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on that awful day. An anonymous sleeping bundle is swaddled in a blanket on a bench under the pergola.
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There’s the smell of approaching rain, so I walk across the lawn and make a speedy start on drawing the view towards the Stars and Stripes on the US embassy flagpole, twisting and furling through bare oak twigs (see image at top). Many well dressed people stride past, talking earnestly, with a serious and important air. A jaunt of smart suited men with scarves talking Italian (the Italian embassy is behind me on the east flank of the square). Two high vis clad workmen stop to watch me draw. They’re taking a break from conservation work on one of the older houses in the square. Replacing cornices. One comments that drawing must be such a relaxing thing to do. I reply “Hmm, yes, it is sometimes!”, while consciously trying to unfurrow my brow and loosen the tight grip on my pen.
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The inevitable downpour arrives and I quickly gather my things together and beat a retreat under a tree. For a while it’s torrential. I stand under my umbrella for half an hour, 038cwatching figures scurrying by under their brollies, fragmented reflections in the paving. Trees and buildings fade in the rainy haze. My shoes are soaked.
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After the second World War, as the perimeter iron railings had been removed to support the war effort, it proved impractical to keep people out of these private gardens. And with so much surrounding devastation, access to green space was more important than ever. So it was decided to officially open Grosvenor Square Gardens to everyone. The garden was redesigned by architect B. W. L. Gallannaugh, with peripheral holly hedge, Portland stone axis path, pools, fountains and a bronze statue of Franklin D Roosevelt, sculpted by Sir William Reid Dick, high up on a stone pedestal (this intended as a commemoration to American support and sacrifice during the War and the relationship between US and the UK. It was 038eentirely funded by the British public). He stands tall and stately with cape and stick, above a seating area, flower beds and yew hedges. And pleached limes behind him.
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The rain eases and the sky begins to clear and I squelch across to look at the statue of Roosevelt, reflecting down into wet paving. A lone bouquet of white hydrangeas has been placed on his steps. The note reads: “THERE WAS NEVER A DEMOCRACY YET THAT DID NOT COMMIT SUICIDE” –JOHN ADAMS. As I draw the statue (see image below), set behind a bed of fading shrubs, those words bounce around my mind. And I think of last night’s protests and the discarded placards. And I think about the memorials here to the consequences of inhumanity. And humanity. The sky is now clear and pinky blue; the sun has dropped below rooflines. A crane alone is catching the light and glows a silver gold. My shoes are cold and damp and I stamp my feet.  A nanny, pushing a pram that’s almost as tall as she is, stops and watches me drawing and we talk. She tells me she loves to paint flowers and won the art prize when at school in the Philippines. I look in at the baby and wave my fingers at her and say “helloo there!” She just stares out at me with the brightest, steadiest, most intense eyes. Full of promise.
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(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 )

Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, London. SW1W 0AU
Google earth view here

 *From ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by The Grateful Dead

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8 thoughts on “Sticks in the Smoke 38: Grosvenor Square Gardens, Mayfair

  1. Awesome post, very descriptive! The way you described the square and your walk through it was truly immersive (though from England, I haven’t lived there since I left when I was very little, but I’ve visited once or twice and your descriptions make it seem like I’m right there walking along!). Very informative and expertly written!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The note “THERE WAS NEVER A DEMOCRACY YET THAT DID NOT COMMIT SUICIDE” as the final touch to your drawing is quite disturbing. Nice to read. I’ll be following this blog. Many thanks for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

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