Month: September 2017

Sticks in the Smoke 63: Hammersmith Park, Shepherd’s Bush.

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Crane and Turtle. And Rat (Thursday 17 August 2017)

Until the mid 1800s, Shepherd’s Bush was mostly rolling pasture and woods. Tight growing thickets on common land here were regularly used as makeshift enclosures by weary shepherds on the trek to London’s Smithfield Market, to corral their flocks overnight. From the 1840s, railway lines were driven through these fields with Shepherds Bush station opening in the 1860s, making this prime for development and transformation into Victorian commuter belt.

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The paths are wet from earlier showers as I walk through the South Africa Road entrance into this six acre green space, past football and basketball and tennis courts and on, between lawns and cherry trees, a suntrap seating spot where 3 runners rest and an old man in a cap peers into a newspaper on his daily bench. And there ahead, the rounding metal bows of Tim Fortune‘s sculpture, ‘Three Arches’ appear to launch and swoop above the central shrubbery (above). Beyond this point, the park opens out its wings and takes on a different identity: Japanese peace garden, overshadowed by the massive, white tarpaulin clad curving hulk of the old BBC Television Centre (now being converted into flats, offices restaurants and film studios).

At the turn of the 20th century, 140 acres of land here, including brickworks, market gardens and still undeveloped pasture was chosen for the site of the Franco-British Exhibition which took place from May to October 1908, organised jointly between the UK and France as celebration of the Entente Cordiale agreements signed in 1904. It was overseen by Commissioner General, Imre Kiralfy. This was the largest ever international fair held in the UK, visited by 8 million people during that summer.

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An artificial lagoon was surrounded by a grand array of 140 buildings (above) in an eclectic range of ornate international styles but all uniformly white (which gave this district its nickname of White City). Pavilions, palaces and exhibition halls, linked by a grid of roads, bridges and canals, were designed by a team led by architect John Belcher, to represent the world’s nations and cultures, but also to highlight the achievements of British and French industry, achievements and empires. Viewed from today’s perspective they demonstrated imperialistic high- handedness and superiority, with ‘colonial villages’ including the Irish village and Senegalese ‘native village’, with imported inhabitants demonstrating arts and crafts and scenes from everyday life. There were also cafés, restaurants and funfair rides, including the Flip Flap on which, for sixpence, you’d be gently lifted up on a platform, from where you could experience dramatic views right across London to Crystal Palace, and west to Windsor Castle. Not exactly a white knuckle ride but still attracting tens of thousands of passengers.

The Olympic stadium was a last-minute addition to the White City site when London took over the 1908 Olympics from Rome (which had been due to host the event but had to pull out due to the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 1906).

In the years before the First World War, more big exhibitions took place here, including the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, which brought awareness of Japan to the general public and ran for 6 months. A Garden of Peace was created by a group of Japanese and British gardeners in 1909, part of which forms the heart of this park and is all that now remains of the exhibition.

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I walk through the gate into the Japanese peace garden. Abundant with trees, chestnut, willow, red oak and cherries. A tumble of rocks form the bed for a waterfall (a meagre trickle today), feeding the pond (above) which cuts in an arc through the lawns. The curve completes in a dry rock garden playground (below), a recent addition, which has boulder arrangements on shingle representing the story of crane and turtle on their voyage to Shangri La. A plaque on the site explains the design of this garden was inspired by dry gardens found in Zen temples:

“All dry gardens have a story behind them and each group of rocks plays a part in the story. Ours is a story of the Crane and the Turtle in their voyage to the Island of Shangri-La, a place of eternal happiness floating in the Ocean which takes the shape of the Chinese character for ‘heart’. The ocean is ‘Magatama’ a symbol for good luck. The Crane lives for 1000 years and the Turtle walks the world for 10,000 years. They both symbolise long life. This garden is a metaphor of a child’s journey though life, a materialisation of a desire for it to be happy and that is why it is a playground.”

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I unpack my sketchbook and set up to draw. The day is breezy and, with every gust sissing through the still rain-wet maple leaves above me, a scatter of drops dot my page. An orange plastic bag sweeps across the grass and slaps into turtle rock, clinging fast. I retrieve it and drop it into a nearby bin. Sunlight breaks through the slate grey clouds and dazzles on the white pea shingle.

White City was commandeered for training troops during WW1 then gradually fell into disrepair. Much of the site was flattened in the 1930s to make way for the White City housing estates (the street names of Canada Way, Australia road and India Way are now the only reminders of the 1908 Exhibition). Some of the remaining halls were used for manufacturing parachutes during WW2, but were themselves replaced by the BBC television centre in the 1950s. At the same time Hammersmith Park was laid out below the dramatic modernist curve of the new building, with tennis courts and playground, and accommodating the remnants of the original Japanese peace garden.

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The garden of peace was improved for the Japan 2001 Festival and was restored to a more traditional Japanese aesthetic by Yoshihiko Uchida, Japanese landscape architect, and Satoru Izawa, an engineer and expert in traditional Japanese gardens and a team of volunteers, Funded by the Japan-British Exhibition 100 Committee, the local council, and numerous other supporters. Laid out along the lines of a Japanese Strolling Garden, similar to the Kyoto Garden at Holland Park, which I visited and drew in March 2017 (for Sticks in the Smoke 51) but with a more relaxed feel and freedom to wander. The restoration was completed in 2010, the centenary of the original festival.  In addition a new Japanese- themed natural and adventurous play area has been installed to provide a continuous play trail across the whole site. Other attractions include a maze, a climbing forest and three large play mountains.

The air weighs warm and humid. I wander down to the rock arch bridge and stand aside for a moment while a group of  chatting mums cross over with their children. I stumble back along the rocky ‘beachside’ through the cooler shade and set up to make a second drawing (see below). A notice has a description of the philosophy behind this piece of the garden landscape:

“Japanese gardens try to capture the essential spirit of nature. At the beach, where the pond represents a rocky seashore, the solid, yang element provided by the rocks meet the balancing yin element, the water.”

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The pond has a thick pea soup blanket of duckweed. Green ice where twigs are caught along with other debris, juice cartons, cigarette packs and an empty scotch bottle. Blue shadows spread across the surface. Noise from the construction site, drilling, hammering, shouting. The continual hum and rattle of builders’ lifts. For a moment a the high pitched metallic screech of a drill rakes across the park.

I sit for a while to eat my apple. A dark movement catches at the corner of my eye. I glance across to see the silhouette of a rat under the nearest shrub. Stretching down for a drink.


In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.


 

Hammersmith Park, South Africa Road, Shepherd’s Bush London W12 7RW
Opening times: 7.30am – dusk

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Sticks in the Smoke 62: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Lambeth

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Allées and Dragons (Thursday 20 July 2017)

As I leave Vauxhall station a gauze of light rain is being blown across from the river. It eases as I pass between the two black entrance pillars, tall as trees, each supporting a sculptural outline of a Victorian pleasure seeker (photo below).

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The original garden on this site was in the riverside grounds of Vaux Hall, the stately home of John and Jane Vaux, who were vintners.  Opened to the public in the 1650s as New Spring Gardens by Jane Vaux, following the death of her husband. London pleasure seekers would arrive by boat (it was still a century and a half before Vauxhall bridge was built), to escape the filthy, teeming and stinking city for a few hours and enjoy fresh flower scented air, attractive tree lined walks, shrubberies and fine vistas. Entry was free in the early days, with refreshments sold to support the venture. Sir Samuel Moreland, the inventor, built a central feature for the garden with fountains and a mirrored pavilion.

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The drizzle eases and I trace a tour around the wide undulating lawns, past the riding paddock where a horse stretches out to nibble at the hedge. And the Vauxhall City Farm where damp donkeys nod and bray in earthy pastures. I turn and take in the view across the width of the park to its westmost fringe, where trees partially obscure the mainline railway embankment. And rising behind, the angular blocks of Albert embankment riverside buildings, including the ‘legoland’ postmodern castle of the M16 HQ, behind which the sky is deepening to a threatening pewter. The breeze picks up and rain comes again, more insistent this time. I scurry to the hopeful shelter of the trees which fringe the crescent ridges that bound the western edge.

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It’s relatively dry under the dark canopies of horse chestnut trees and maples which grow thickly all along the ridge top. I scramble down the slope and set up to draw under one of the procession of lime trees on the path towards the Tea House Theatre (cafe and events venue, set up in 2011 in the premises of a Victorian pub which opened here after the pleasure gardens closed). People are scattering away under umbrellas. A few raindrops percolate through but it’s mostly dry under here. The anaemic light and chill breeze makes it feel less July and more like February and I’m wishing I’d brought a jumper!

By the early 18th century, the gardens had developed a reputation for impropriety. The secret walks and hidden bowers made this a perfect location for furtive liaisons. The author, John Lockman described it as little more than a “much frequented rural brothel”. Around 1730 it was taken over by entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers (who had made his money trading leather in Bermondsey. See ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 58). He wanted his pleasure garden to become a “rational, elegant, and innocent” space, a civilised and civilising environment. It was remodelled with help of his friend, the artist William Hogarth, who lived nearby. The garden transformed into a space for performance and display, with specially designed pavilions and  grottoes in the new Rococo style, displays of paintings and sculptures, formal allées and serpentine walks illuminated with many glass lamps. For his inspirational work, Hogarth was given a free pass to the gardens for life.

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The Orchestra (see illustration above), an octagonal building designed for the performance of music in the open air, was opened in 1735, the first of its kind in England. Around it in colonnades, were rows of supper-boxes where people could enjoy the music while eating and drinking. Frederick, the Prince of Wales, was a prominent patron of the Rococo and gave his support to the Gardens, having his own pavilion built here. The central grove, with its classical portico at one end, was like “an ancient Greek agora”. It could accommodate 3,000 people. In 1749 a rehearsal of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks attracted an audience of 12,000.  and in 1786 a fancy-dress jubilee to celebrate the proprietor’s long ownership was thronged with 61,000 revellers. With 100,000 visitors each season, the gardens provided London-based composers with their first mass audiences.

Tyers’ sons Jonathan and Thomas took over managing the pleasure gardens after their father’s death in 1767 (the family name is remembered in Tyers Street, on the park’s eastern boundary). The site was renamed as Vauxhall Gardens in 1785. New entertainments included firework displays, balloon ascents, and tightrope performances by Madame Saqui. In 1817 the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted, with 1,000 soldiers participating.

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As the shower passes people begin to permeate through the gardens again. A 12 strong female fitness class is being taken through their paces on the damp grass. They stand in a circle and flex their limbs at each other. Two guys carry sheets of cardboard to the top of the tree sheltered hummock. They sit on the cardboard and drink lager while watching the fitness class. On the lawn below them a squirrel is digging for nuts, then sits on its haunches and nibbles at its treasure. Trains are a constant rumble and scree.

The sun emerges and a warmth radiates across the park. I finish the drawing (see top) and pack my things and walk past the tea house and across the middle of the garden. Rough carved wood sculptural pieces sit in the grass, including a fire breathing dragon (from the St Georges Festival, an annual event here since 2012. See photo above). Avenues of trees lead to a central grid of beeches, wet foliage dripping onto stone block benches. Shadows flood the gravel between splashes of sunlight like a Parisian park in the summer. Further on, the scuffed grass ground is patterned with beer bottle tops and laughing gas cannisters. Much evidence of pleasure having happened. Over there the remains of a couple of disposable barbecues.

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During the early 1800s, Vauxhall Gardens continued under different owners but suffered financially due to competition from the more fashionable Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 28) and the popular Cremorne Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 16), both on the opposite bank of the river. It closed in 1840 due to bankruptcy then reopened and staggered on for another few years, but its fate was sealed with the building of the 2 mile long railway viaduct from Nine Elms to Waterloo Station, creating a curving cliff that severed the gardens from its river frontage. Visitors lost interest and the gardens fell into disrepair and closed for good in 1859. This site, for 200 years the most famous and notorious of all the pleasure gardens, immortalised by Thackeray, Dickens and Hardy, was wound up and its contents sold by auction for £800.

The land was redeveloped in the following decades and built on with streets and some light industry, but wartime bomb damage and postwar slum clearance saw these 7½ acres of the original site opened up as a public park. This was initially called Spring Gardens but renamed in 2012 as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

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I walk to the western edge, where Goding Street underlines the viaduct. Grassy banks here are covered with yarrow, bright as snowflakes. I set up to draw, with the contrasting background of the railway arches. Umber bricked. The furthest arches are occupied by the Metropolis Motorcycles shop and garage. Ranks of motorcycles outside. Every few minutes a bike roars down the street, echoed and amplified by the high wall. In the nearer arches is the Chariots Roman Spa, London’s biggest and most popular gay sauna.

A man wearing batman t-shirt has a stick and is systematically patrolling the banks, poking and prodding at the long grass. Every now and then he bends down to pick something up. He pauses to look at my drawing and I ask him what he’s looking for. “Money” he says and shows me a handful of coins. He’s wearing plastic gloves. “Anything valuable I hand in. Found a samurai sword once in Vauxhall Park.” (Vauxhall Park is about 300 metres south of here.)

An insistent call of crows from the nearby stand of horse chestnuts is echoed back from the other end of the park. The exchange goes on for a full 10 minutes. Then one takes flight, right overhead, cawing noisily, a ragged feathered silhouette against the clearing sky.


(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 which will be shown in a future London exhibition. www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Tyers Street, London SE11 5HL
Opening times: unrestricted

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