At 6 acres, this is one of the largest garden squares in London. And even on this cold January day (my first London visit of 2017) it’s pretty busy; scatters of visitors enjoying this airy space, figures seated on sunlit benches, people hurrying briskly through, school groups marching the diagonal between the British Museum and the Russell Square tube station. And, with its close proximity to University College London (UCL), which occupies many of the buildings on the north and west of the square and beyond, there are plenty of students racing the shortcut across to lectures or taking a break here. A girl is cross legged on the grass playing a guitar and singing. Breath steam wisps with her song. A young guy filming on his phone.
I stroll the sinuous paths across and all around the park looking for a suitable view to draw. I’m attracted by the long tree shadows raking across the lawns and the lacework patterns decorating nearby trunks cast by the lime tree tunnel. Reflected stabs of light dazzle between winter branches from windows of the buildings around the square.
The earliest written mention of this area which was to become Bloomsbury is in the Domesday Book, described as fertile land with vineyards and a “wood for 100 pigs”. In 1202 a carucate of this land was sold to the Norman landowner, William de Blemont (a carucate was a medieval unit of land which a plough team of eight oxen could till in a year: about 120 acres). For the next 200 years his family developed and managed the estate, which became known as the manor of Blemundsbury. At the end of the 14th century, Edward III acquired the land, and bestowed it to the Carthusian monks of Charterhouse Priory, who leased it out for farming.
In the 16th century, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Bloomsbury manor was seized back by the Crown and granted to Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, a loyal counsellor of Henry VIII. His great grandson, the 4th Earl, built stately Southampton House in 1657, later Bedford House, on what now is Bedford Square, just west of here. After his death, his daughter married William Russell, son and heir to the 5th Earl of Bedford, bringing the Bloomsbury Estate into the Russell family.
I set up to draw the curving ribcage of the lime tree tunnel, underlined by shadow stripes. The Senate House Library, in it’s box- shouldered Art Deco solidity (when it opened in 1936 it was, at 209ft the tallest secular building in London) rises in the background behind the square’s terraces. And, in psychedelic contrast to the elegant and serious buildings around this square, I discover a brightly decorated feeding box for squirrels, jauntily fixed to a tree trunk, and decide to include this in my foreground.
My daughter Millie joins me for lunch (in her 2nd year of an Art History degree at UCL, she’s been studying in the library today, just a few minutes away). It’s good to catch up but she’s very distracted by the many dogs being exercised here. Every moment another little pug or pup to coo over! An elderly lady, warm and smart in a long dark coat with fur trim stops to let Millie fuss over her little westie. She tells us she has to travel on the bus here every day “to come to a proper park to walk my Fluffy”. A slight mid European accent. A man with bright white trainers is walking hurriedly, a phone clamped to his ear but stops every minute or so to shout “Reg! REG! C’mon!” to his stout and dawdling border terrier. Which ignores him. A little black spaniel suddenly appears and drops a ball at my feet, which I kick away through a flurry of pigeons. The little dog whisks off to retrieve and brings it back like a dark flash. I pick up the slobbery ball and throw it further away but it’s returned in seconds. This goes on until its owner, a girl with crimson hair appears and says “I see Tessa has found a playmate!”
This area to the north of Bedford House was known as Southampton Fields, a mix of formal gardens, nurseries, pasture, and processions of lime trees creating a vista from the back of the house, with views across open countryside towards the village of Hampstead. It was developed from about 1800 when Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, had Bedford House demolished as he was no longer using it, and commissioned property developer James Burton to develop the land to the north into a residential area with Russell Square forming the focal point. Handsome terraces of brick and stucco were built, most of which still stand, with wrought iron balconies to overlook the gardens. The area came to be known as ‘Judge-land’ as many of the properties were taken up by members of the legal profession, Lincoln’s Inn and the Royal Courts being only a short carriage ride away.
Russell Square garden was designed by Humphrey Repton after the success of his work for the Dukes of Bedford’s Woburn Estate. It was originally intended for the private use of the square’s residents and guests. A genteel Georgian playground, where they could walk the perimeter promenades while protected by a high hedge from any awkward encounters with tradesmen, street hawkers or grimy child beggars. They could parade the gravelled diagonal paths intersecting the lawns, to be seen and be sociable with their neighbours. Or through the rounded walk of the lime tree cloister, providing cooling summer shade and secret glimpses across the lawns. If they wished, they could find more private seclusion in seats under twining vines around a central shelter. Dominating the space then, as now, a statue of Francis Russell (by Sir Richard Westmacott) at the south gate, with his back to the garden. He stands high and proud, as benevolent agriculturalist, with a plough, and holding stalks of corn. Farm animals and allegorical farming figures beneath his feet.
Millie leaves to get to a lecture. A young boy and girl run across and stand on either side of my easel to watch me draw. I say hello and the girl tells me she likes drawing animals. I scribble a little dog on my drawing for her. They carry on watching. The rest of the family arrive and gather behind me and stand there. I say hello to them and carry on drawing. They watch in silence. For just a little bit too long. Slightly awkward.
In 2002, after changes to the layout in the previous few decades, the garden was re-landscaped in a style based on the original layout, reintroducing the serpentine paths from the four corners, weaving through the lawns and flower beds, and partial restoration of the lime tree tunnel. In addition, the café in the square was redeveloped and a new ornamental fountain installed. Not working today but when it’s warm, young children and drunk students love playing dare through the spurty water jets.
I pack up and walk through the west entrance to buy a cup of tea from the cafe in the green wooden Victorian cabman’s shelter. Originally there were over 60 of these shelters around London, providing hot food for hansom cab drivers. Only 13 shelters survive, some still used, like this and the one outside Upper Grosvenor Gardens (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’32), and some sadly redundant like ‘The Kremlin’ on Chelsea Embankment (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’3). I carry my tea across to the eastern corner and set up to draw through the half moon shrubbery: a wintery mix of evergreens and complex patterns of twigs and dried stems and seedheads, towards busy Southampton Row. The squeal of buses and taxis and the wail of sirens surge through the open gates. My easel suddenly starts to shake. I look down: a squirrel is dibbling at the soil, its rear paw grips the leg of my easel. A tiny silver grey hand.
(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
Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London. WC1B 4JA
Open 7am – dusk
Google earth view here