Month: December 2016

Sticks in the Smoke 42: Powis Square Gardens, Notting Hill


Coco the Poodle and the Pantomime Donkey (Thursday 8 December 2016) 

A damp-chilly sort of December day. On the way I window shop the eclectic independent stores and artisan bakeries of Portobello Road and a quick glance at the Joe Strummer mural (“without people you’re nothing”), before heading for Powis Square. We’re merely a pigeon’s hop from Colville Square Gardens (which I drew back in February for ‘Sticks in the Smoke’2), an almost identical, half- acre rectangle. A slight slope down to the south.

Bare plane tree branches tremble over the garden. Accumulations of mulchy leaves on the rough ground. This is a space for play and activity; spread over most of the top half a tarmac ball court with basketball net and goalmouth. The lower end is a playground with swings and slide and climbing nets. Rough concrete sculptural crags with scramble- through holes rise from the undulating ground. And a quirky little bronze of two figures (no indication of the sculptor), constructed from pipes and tubing and machinery parts, an Adam and Eve of the industrial age; lower edges and corners polished to a gleam by years 042cof tiny stroking hands.

This was all farming land (part of the large Portobello Estate, that took its name in honour of the British naval victory at Porto Bello in Panama in 1739) until the mid nineteenth century, when improvements to roads and railway links meant that land values started to increase, luring speculating builders to bid for parcels of prime building land. In 1860, a young entrepreneur, George Tippett bought 25 acres which he reckoned would be most saleable as they were the closest plot to the City. This was quickly turned into a building site which became popularly known as Tippett’s Brick Fields. He built these streets of tall stuccoed terraces to a consistent design, aiming to cram as many properties as possible into the available space while still retaining a sense of elegance which he hoped would appeal to upper middle class families. The centre of the squares were laid out as private gardens with trees and lawns and gravel walks.

Tippett sold some of the houses he had built, but held on to the rest to lease out. His downfall came when, in the 1880s, he found it difficult to persuade many of the genteel leaseholders to renew: put off by the noise and bustle of the growing Portobello Street Market nearby and the influx of tradespeople, manual workers and immigrants which they 042dfelt ‘diluted the social tone of the neighbourhood‘. Poor George’s project ended in bankruptcy. His properties were taken on by Colville Estates, who started to subdivide them into flats or leased them as boarding houses or to institutions.

I balance my drawing things on the cross beam of a climbing frame and draw towards the upper part of the garden, and over the road to the Tabernacle Centre (originally an evangelical church built in the 1880s. Opened as the ‘Tab’, a Community Arts Centre and music venue in the 70s, since when it has staged acts including Misty in Roots, Joe Strummer, Brian Eno and Lily Allen). For much of the time there are only four other people in the garden: a father on his phone and his daughter in the playground; a young woman on a bench, wearing stripy fingerless gloves and matching hat, smoking and working at her laptop; and an older woman, dwarfed inside a big blue puffy coat, is throwing a ball for her little tartan jacketed poodle. She calls ‘C’mon Coco, fetch the ball!‘ But Coco ignores the ball and trots purposefully over and starts yapping up at me as I draw. Coco’s owner smiles nervously and apologises and drags the little dog away.

042aAs the 1800s rolled to a close, Powis Square became increasingly multicultural. The Wren College was set up here as an exam crammer, particularly for the Indian civil service. It’s students occupied many of the nearby boarding houses and, for a while, the square became nicknamed ‘Little India’. Over the next half century, waves of immigration increased the ethnic diversity of this district. Walking through these gardens in the 20s and 30s, you’d be very likely to hear Russian, Polish and Yiddish spoken. And English in accents ranging from Irish to West Indian. Many of these new residents became prey to greedy and unscrupulous landlords and subletters, leading to a high turnover of occupancy and a steady degeneration of these tenements, small flats and bedsits. In the 50s and 60s this became the heart of Peter Rachman‘s shady and squalid slum empire. Several houses hosted unlicensed basement clubs. Drug dealing and prostitution were rife. Racial tensions in the summer of 1958 led to race riots, ignited by attacks from local white youths, with pitched battles and cars burning here and in surrounding streets.
The early 60s drew young political radicals, poets, artists and musicians into Notting Hill. Powis Square became a focus for hippy counterculture. The heady smoke of 60s idealism, dreams and passion wafted through this space. Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones, lived here. As did the beat poet Michael Horowitz and photojournalist John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and fashion designer Ossie ClarkDavid Hockney had his studio here. Scenes in the 1970 film Performance, starring Mick Jagger, were filmed in the square. The London Free School, a community action adult education project was set up here in 1966; foremost in the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Throughout this time, the garden remained padlocked and private, overgrown and poorly maintained. After a number of local children were knocked down while playing in the surrounding streets, there were campaigns of loud and colourful marches for the opening of the garden as a safe playground for ‘local kids to 042bgenerate more positive energy’. In the end the gates were forced open by activists dressed as gorillas, clowns and a pantomime donkey. Revellers poured in, celebratory bonfires were lit and the garden filled with festival fervour. This was viewed as more than just breaking into a private garden, it was seen as a small breach in the thick walls of the establishment (Poet and playwright Neil Oram decsribed it as ‘a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world). As a result of this direct action in 1968, Kensington and Chelsea Council compulsarily purchased the space and formerly opened it for the whole community. A playground was built, the gardens were landscaped and replanted. Since then it’s been the venue for music festivals and events, including the World Music stage for the Notting Hill Carnival.
My eye is caught by a sudden flare of sunlight, breaking through the clouds and turning the Tabernacle’s tower spires momentarily to fire! As I scrabble in panic for my orange crayon, my cold, numb fingers knock the box off its precarious support and its contents scatter across the earth. I stoop to retrieve them. When I look back up the blaze of light has gone. The building settles back into its heavy Romanesque solidity as the day settles towards dusk. I look around and shiver. Apart from me the garden is empty.

(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 and early 2017, 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 the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.) 

Powis Square Gardens, Notting Hill, London. W11 2BN
Open 7.30am – ­ dusk
Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 41: Kensington Memorial Park


“Don’t you go taking our sunshine away with you!” (Thursday 1 December 2016)

A perfect blue hangs over this first day of winter as I take the turn into the park. I hear yells of schoolkids from the tennis courts and sharp shouts of encouragement from the teacher. Sounds of scuffing on tarmac and a ball bouncing hard. The air prickles with cold. 041bIn front is a wide expanse, 2 acres or so; shadows stretch long stripes from a regiment of bare Lombardy poplars alongside the path. They catch the sunlight and light up like skeletons of flames. I sit on a bench for a while and watch dog owners, scattered across the field, throwing balls for an assortment of breeds, who hare across the roughish grass to retrieve. The nearest dog, a kind of terrier, yaps enthusiastically as it bounces after the ball then leaps and catches mid air every time!

Rising behind the row of housebacks on the north, like the ghost of a drum, is the empty framework of one of the, now disused, Kensal Green gasometers.

Two hundred years ago this was still farmland, which had been carved out of the original Forest of Middlesex in Saxon times. Marshy pastures watered by the springs below Notting Hill, which gently seeped down to Counters Creek, just beyond the west flank of this park (Counters Creek now mostly underground until it drains into the Thames as Chelsea Creek)041cGrazing cattle knee deep in mud. This was known as Notting Barns Farm and had been inherited by the St Quintin family of Scampston Hall, Yorkshire, who grandly elevated its status to Notting Barns Manor. The farmhouse (or Manor House as the St Quintins preferred!) was only a couple of hundred metres south of here and still standing at the end of the 19th century. It was only after the 1860s, when the new Hammersmith and City railway opened up these fields to the city, that Colonel Matthew Chitty Downs St Quintin, in need of funds, leased the land to the entrepreneur Charles Henry Blake for housing development. To his credit, Colonel St Qunitin specified a high quality of housing design and amenties, which prevented these streets slumping into slumland, as happened in other parts of North Kensington by the mid 1900s. The family name endures in St Quintin Avenue and St Quintin Estate, south of the park.

It’s a busy afternoon despite the cold. Processions of schoolchildren to the sports fields. Trains of steamy breath. A few mums and toddlers in the large playground. Bright coloured space rocket skelter slides and climbing frames and springy animal bouncers (in summer, 041dthe waterpark opens for colourful cooling water play, with pools and fountains and waterjets and aquaslides). I stroll past the refreshments kiosk, shuttered like an off season seaside cafe, and up into the formal gardens. Shrubberies, lawns, a tall tree palm, central to circular beds, just planted out with winter bedding. At the top a pergola. A young couple entwined together on a bench.  The girl sits across the boy’s knees, pummelling his shoulders with her fists and laughing! He impassive. In the middle of the lawn, an olive tree is silver blue in the sunlight, its trunk twisting like a knurled torso out of the thickness of a lavender bed. I want this in the foreground of my drawing, so set up my easel on the damp grass (see drawing at top).

After the 1st World War, this 7 acre piece of land was bought by the Kensington War Memorial Committee for £8,800 and handed over to the London County Council in 1923 to be laid out as much needed recreation land in this built up area, with children’s playground and sports fields. In 1925, part of the site on the south west corner, behind where the waterpark now stands, was sold off for the building of a children’s hospital, much supported by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. It was a paediatric hospital for 40 years or so until the ’70s when it switched to geriatrics. Now the Princess Louise Nursing Home..

A group of teenage boys arrive piecemeal and gather under the pergola at the top of this formal garden. Loud and high spirited. I think it’s a regular hang out. Two of them arrive 041aon motorbikes and have kept their helmets on. They walk over the grass to look at my drawing, a muffled: “nice, nice, really sick, man!” The young girl is shrieking and jumping up to reach her mobile phone that her boyfriend is holding out of reach.

The future of this park is uncertain for these informal park visitors, dog walkers, picnickers and school PE sessions; earlier, on the way in to the park my eye was caught by a laminated poster reading “PLEASE HELP SAVE OUR PARK”. A plan by Kensington and Chelsea Council to replace half the grass here with an artificial football pitch would make this space less of an attraction for most of the people I’ve seen here today. The consultation period ended the day before my visit and the proposals are now being considered. I’d love to be able to come back here in 5 or 10 years time and still watch dogs chasing balls through those long poplar shadows stretching across real rough green grass.

My fingers are getting numb with cold and I have a serious need to wrap them around a hot chocolate. As I pack my things, a broadly smiling park attendant in yellow hi-vis coat is cycling slowly around the paths on an inspection tour. He wobbles over on his bike and calls over cheerily: “How ya doing Bruv? Bee-utiful day! Don’t you go taking our sunshine away with you!”



(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 and early 2017, 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 the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.) 

Kensington Memorial Park, St Mark’s Road, London. W10
Open every day 7.30am – dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 40: Golden Square, Soho, London


Delilah and the Giant Stiletto (Wednesday 23 November 2016)

Here, trapped between the ever busy parallels of (Upper and Lower) James and John Streets in the closely packed lattice of Soho, full of film and media organisations, theatre agents, publishers, art galleries, and an eclectic mix of cafes and restaurants, is a breathing space of trees, shrubs and flowerbeds. And more!

I arrive later than intended and feel under pressure to get my drawing done before precious daylight begins to fade. But as I turn the corner I have to stop and stare; Golden Square really is golden! Bathed in gold! Not from November sunlight (in short supply today), 040abut from the canopy of deep yellow hornbeam foliage, still hovering there, although many leaves have taken the plunge already, blown into yellow drifts on the paving and, at this moment, being swept into a bin liner by a nonchalant gardener.

Until the mid 17th century this was mostly grazing pasture in a tract of farmland called ‘Windmill Fields’. It was acquired by a pair of brickmakers and canny building speculators who had an eye on the city’s relentless expansion, and especially the craving amongst the gentry for smart properties at London’s fringes. Their plans for the square had to conform to strict design, drainage and usage guidelines laid down by Sir Christopher Wren (Surveyor General of His Majesty’s Works). Permission was granted in 1673, but it took about 30 years for all four sides of the square, with its 39 houses, to be eventually built. The new square had been given the name Gelding Close, alluding to its farming origins, but was quickly changed to Golden Square when it was realised that perhaps an address meaning ‘castrated horse’ would not be the best selling point! The houses were quickly snapped up by the aristocracy, clergy and political and military bigwigs. But it’s heyday only lasted half a century as, by the mid 040c1700s, the more socially active families had moved west to the newer, grander and more fashionable honeypots, such as Mayfair.

I walk all four sides, peering through iron railings into the garden: a rough grassy margin surrounds a raised paved square, with chopped corners. Gates on all four sides lead up steps onto this stage. Seated figures on benches are hunched and huddled against the cold breeze. A close group of young men, collars turned up, smoking and laughing, seemingly unaware of the ensemble in front of them: a trio of striking bronzes of human torsos, one reaching up with tied wrists (Homage to Prisoners of War): a temporary display of work by sculptor Josie Spencer. Rising above, and central to the square, is a white stone statue, a regal figure, dressed as Julius Caesar, frozen in mid speech with right hand outstretched (thumb broken off), but looking too much like Tommy Cooper in Roman soldier garb, with bare paunch overhanging his gladiator skirt. A pigeon sits proudly on his head. On the ground below him a large, open discarded umbrella rocks against the shrubs.

But over there, on the other side, and dominating all, is a massive 6 foot high, blue steel stiletto shoe (titled ‘Stiletto Heel’ by sculptor Kalliopi Lemos. Also a temporary installation). The heel is shaped as a highly reflective stiletto dagger. I decide to make it the foreground 040bfeature for my drawing and I open my sketchbook, trying to imagine the giant owner striding over the buildings to reclaim her shoe

This was originally laid out as a private garden with grass and gravel paths for the residents of the square. The central statue by Jan Van Nost was installed in 1753. The park information sign says that it’s of Charles II, but other sources claim it as George II. I think George wins, as he was on the throne at the time (and anyway, Charles is well represented around here; there’s a statue of him only a few streets away in Soho Square Gardens which I visited for Sticks in the Smoke 19  back in June).  Allegedly this statue was presented to the square by a benefactor who accidentally bid for it at auction!

By the start of the 1800s, the residential character of the square had changed. Original 17th century family homes were split into lodging houses, many occupied by foreign workers, from the district’s theatres and music halls. Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), wrote of Golden Square:

“.. Its boarding ­houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square.  On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer­by, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee­ singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries..”

A large group of about 20 tourists press together for a photo in front of the statue. They arrange themselves in rows like a sports team. Some of them fling out their arms to copy George’s gesture.

040dDuring the rest of the 19th century, many original houses were demolished to make way for warehouses and office blocks in a chaotic and unrelating mix of architectural styles, many of which still stand today. Golden Square developed as the centre in London of the woollen and worsted trade, partly due to its proximity to the largest concentration of tailors in London. By 1900 there were seventy textile companies in the square.

Under the surrounding looming buildings, and with its mature plane trees blocking light, the garden became a shady and dismal space. During the second world war an air raid shelter was dug under the garden, the enclosing iron railings removed to provide metal for the war effort and the space was used as a dumping ground for bombed debris. In the 1950s it was taken over by Westminster City Council and completely refurbished to more or less the current design. The plane trees were felled, light was allowed back in and the hornbeams planted. The gardens were renovated again in 1984 with new shrubs and flower displays.

Light is fading fast, the late afternoon chill descending. I try to work more quickly. Colours seem to change dramatically every moment I look up from my sketchbook. A pink glow spreads through the sky and the streetlights have turned on. People scurry. The sound of many wings clapping, pigeons hurrying to roost.

As I pack up, a booming, out of tune singing starts up and echoes around the square: a busker sitting on his coat on the steps is belting out ‘Why, why, why, Delilah?‘ using a large traffic cone as very effective megaphone!



(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 and early 2017, 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 the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.) 

Golden Square, Soho, London. W1R 3AD
Google earth view here

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