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

powis-square-gardns

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 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.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

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