Sticks in the Smoke 50: Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster

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Sore thumb and golden top hat. (Wednesday 1 March 2017)

Turn through the northern gate into a calm circular courtyard, an anteroom to the main park, a sigh of relief after the stress of zigzagging the packed pavements of Abingdon Street past the Houses of Parliament. The resolute figure of Emmeline Pankhurst, sculpted by Arthur 050dWalker dominates this little space (unveiled in 1930, just 2 years after her death and 2 years after women achieved the same voting rights as men, for which she campaigned most of her life), gesturing towards Parliament with her right hand. Spring blossom and a cluster of daffodils decorate the beds either side of the path. Victoria Tower soars in its majestic perspective seeming to pierce today’s low cloud. The path leads through and the long, triangular 6 acre park opens out. A wild grassy and shrubby fringe garnishes the base of the sedum roofed Parliamentary education rooms. Benches teem with excitedly talkative school groups eating their picnics while another group funnels into the visitors’ entrance.
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Auguste Rodin‘s powerful sculpture The Burghers of Calais sits at the conflux of arching paths. A dark and looming presence above the wide lawn. It was installed in the gardens after the 1st World War. This is Rodin’s memorial to self sacrifice: the six officials of the French port of Calais who surrendered themselves to end a brutal English siege in 1347 during the Hundred Year’s War. The grim and tortured figures, faces downcast, have their 050cbacks turned to the Palace of Westminster, in opposition to its soaring gilded stonework.
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A very different landscape here a thousand years ago- mud flats and reedy marshes, washed by tides. The river wide and swirling. We’d be standing at the southern edge of Thorney Island, originally a wild and inhospitable eyot but, tamed over centuries by the Benedictine monks of Westminster, it became the location for royal palaces and the seat of government, surrounded by natural defensive moats. Fortified walls surrounded the cluster of stone structures and towers of the original Palace of Westminster and Abbey buildings. Over the following centuries, when defensive needs grew less, the River Tyburn, which held the island between its two tributary branches, became more of a hindrance to easy passage to and from the surrounding city. It was eventually diverted into culverts and sewers and filled in.
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Before the 19th century the City’s trade was largely river borne, so much of its river frontage was covered with wharves and quays for unloading building materials, fuel, fish, grain and goods from overseas. A tangle of warehouses and sheds spread out behind. By the time the present Houses of Parliament were built in the mid 1800s, there was a cement works here, along with sperm whale oil refinery and flour mills.
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050eThis riverside park is often seen as a background to TV interviews with Westminster MPs. At times of parliamentary crisis you can guarantee a shot of a junior minister avoiding questions while a Thames barge chugs into one ear and out the other.  No camera crews to be seen today though.
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I walk the embankment path, and weave the line of broad and spreading plane trees which reach their branches out across the tarnished silver Thames. Lunching tourists occupying the seats on raised platforms. Commanding views across the river to Lambeth Palace. Then, at the centre of the park: the Buxton Memorial: a brightly coloured, ice cream cornet that’s been thrust upside down into the ground by a spoilt giant. This neo gothic confection was commissioned by Charles Buxton MP to celebrate those MPs, including his father, Sir T. Fowell Buxton, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery, which was achieved in 1834. It was designed by Samuel Teulon, and built in 1865, originally in Parliament Square, then moved here in 1957. Marble pillars support limestone arches decorated with stone florets and gargoyle like lizards. The pointy roof a colourful 050bpatchwork of enamelled metal. All to give shelter to drinking fountains. Still intact with granite basins and spouts but no longer used in these days of bottled water. A woman is sitting in one of the basins, feet on a ledge, smoking and chatting on her phone.
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As described in the posts for several other gardens in this series ( see Sticks in the Smoke 3, 8, 15 and 31), as part of a Metropolitan Board of Works plan to build a modern sewerage system for London, administered by Joseph Bazalgette, embankments were built along the river frontage, which housed the sewers and also, in some cases, underground railway lines. A partial embankment was built along here in the 1870s which allowed a small square ornamental garden to be laid out at the southern entrance to Parliament. By the early 1900s, the rest of the riverside land had been compulsory purchased. The wharves and warehouses were demolished and the embankment extended southwards. The land was raised using spoil excavated from the creation of docks downstream, and the gardens were extended a further 300 metres or so to the foot of Lambeth Bridge.
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At the western end, where the park narrows, a curving wall is topped with a pair of modernist sculptures of goats with kids (created by Philip Tilden, arts and crafts designer, in 1923). The ground behind is devoted to play: circular sandpit, slide, swings and climbing structures, landscaped with flowerbeds and shrubs. I climb the wide steps up towards Lambeth Bridge. From this elevated level I have a view back across the park. It encompasses everything from the Victoria Tower, the Buxton Memorial, the wide Thames downstream to the flattened arches of Westminster Bridge. I unpack my things and set up to draw.
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050aBehind me the traffic on Lambeth Bridge is a relentless roar. But from down below I hear an intermittent jingling. It’s a square of step chimes in the playground on which children are dancing tunes. Someone’s close to achieving “twinkle twinkle little star”, so nearly got it, when the noble bongs of Big Ben drown out all lesser sounds for the song of one o’clock.
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Tourists on their way down the steps stop to look at my drawing (see top). A trio of Italians take photos of it and as I step back I’m suddenly aware I’ve made the Tower way too big, clumsy and out of proportion, damn it! Standing out like a great fat sore thumb on the page! When they’ve gone I cover it with lashings of correction fluid and rework it at half the width it was.
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A cruiser passes under the bridge and its wake laps the exposed shingle. River breeze ruffles the water and shakes the plane branches. It feels chill and damp and a few raindrops land on my paper but I persist as they get more insistent, peppering the paint. I quite like the effect, but decide to look for cover and head for the WCs, just under these steps. Well worth the 20p entry: warmth and shelter for a while, but even better: a hand dryer! I waft my damp sketchbook under the blast of heat until it feels as crisp as a sun warmed sheet.
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I walk through the drizzle to the Buxton Memorial and lay my sketchbook out on a basin, protected from the rain. To draw through the frame of polished pink pillars across the rising tide to the tall structures on the far bank, ranged like the teeth of a broken comb: the medieval battlemented Lollards and Lauds Towers of Lambeth Palace; the watchtower of 050fthe old St Thomas’s hospital– a riverside perch for seagulls. And misty in the background- The Shard and the high rise blocks of Kennington.
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This park is the proposed site for a Holocaust Memorial, announced by David Cameron in 2016. A range of shortlisted designs were unveiled on Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 (27 January), from artists and architects, including Anish Kapoor, Daniel Libeskind and Rachel Whiteread. However, the siting is controversial. Partly that it will be a massive intrusion into this airy and open space, but more importantly: that the memorial is far too significant to be hidden away here, around the side of Parliament. Why can’t it be placed in a more prominent position (such as Parliament Square or College Green), where it can be an ever present and insistent reminder of the greatest of human tragedies? (You can follow this link to sign a petition to Save Victoria Tower Gardens).
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My drawing nearly finished (see below). The drizzle has eased. A smartly suited businessman comes over, thrusts his phone towards me and asks if I can take a photo of him in front of Parliament to send back home (I think he’s from India). He stands stiffly to attention and grimaces at me. I take the picture then hand back the phone. He thanks me and wanders off, looking at the screen. Then turns around and comes back, shaking his head, “I wasn’t smiling enough, do you mind taking another one?” He stands just the same, but this time I say “Smile!” But he doesn’t really, he just stretches his mouth a bit wider horizontally. I take the photo, then realise he has Victoria Tower exactly sticking out of the top of his head like a very tall, golden top hat. But he seems satisfied, nods, and walks away.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is 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 a London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JA
Open dawn – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

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4 thoughts on “Sticks in the Smoke 50: Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster

  1. Fantastic post. I love the drawing, you’re definitely talented! That’s an expertly written piece as well, so much information and history in one post; I can’t imagine how much research it all took! You’re obviously a talented painter, but you should consider “author” on your list of expertise as well; very well-written with plenty of descriptive language that puts the reader right where you are. Nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant, as usual, Nick. The depth on your second sketch, of the river and the buildings beyond is just so convincing; I feel I am there! (as I have been many times in the past). x

    Liked by 1 person

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