Today a sudden shock of summer in spring. The streets are shimmering with heat haze. I explore the wide, tree- picked lawns either side of the museum. Teeming with visitors, sweltering school groups sheltering in the broken shade of trees just budding. Dazed coach parties straggling to the entrance. I meander to the east fields, the clatter of mower cutting stripes across the lawns of the ‘Samten Kyil’ or Tibetan Garden of Contemplation and Peace (opened in 1999 by the Dalai Lama). In its central circular court a mandala hovers, surrounded by sculptures by Hamish Horsley representing the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. The dazzling white stone slabs reflect the heat and the air vibrates. There’s a scent of jasmine mixed with cut grass.
This was marshy grazing land where spring fed ponds and streams drained into the Neckinger Brook, a tributary of the Thames (its watery past still remembered in Brook Drive, to the south of the park). The area was used for military exercises, assembles and, in 1537, the Guild of Fraternity of St George was granted a charter by Henry VIII allowing them to practice archery here (after which it became known as St George’s Fields). Forts were built during the Civil war to house Roundhead soldiers. Over the following 100 years, drainage was improved, roads and rough settlements spread. The fields were used for fairs, pony races and other public entertainment. In the 18th century the old Dog and Duck pub, which stood here, was upgraded to accommodate a growing numbers of visitors, attracted by nearby mineral springs. Renamed St George’s Spa, it provided tea rooms, a music gallery, ladies’ and gentlemen’s baths, skittle grounds, bowling green, but over the years became notorious and rowdy and was closed in 1799.
My priority today is to find some cool shade to set up and draw in, and eventually in desperation step over railings into a shrubby bed where a tree (which I’m struggling to identify) with thick dark foliage is the parasol I need. Over there, a stand of mature plane trees are just leafing, their green yellow fizz at the ends of long twisting branches, through which I can see the museum’s copper green dome set against the perfection of today’s sky. The great naval guns at the entrance gleam greenblue through the trees. On the grass, families, lunching office staff and students picnicking. Dogs chase and tumble. Sunbathers exposing winter skin and turning pink. The ‘Peace’ tree sculpture (carved from a diseased plane tree by mORGANICo) stands twisty- sinewy in the sunlight.
From the sports courts to my left come sporadic shouts and screams from 5 a-side football and a netball match. The frequent clash of ball against wire fencing.
In 1810 plans were agreed for The Royal Bethlem Hospital (known colloquially as Bedlam) to move to this site. Its governors had been offered 12 acres of St George’s Fields in exchange for the site it had outgrown at Moorfields. The new neoclassical building was completed in 1815 and patients moved in. Expansion over the following years brought new wings and blocks, including the copper dome, designed by Sidney Smirke. In the mid C19th, the care of the mentally ill improved, largely as a result of the work at Bethlem Hospital by Dr Charles Hood and his colleagues. Their more compassionate approach brought about better furnishings, books, art and music introduced as well as the laying out of lawns and flowerbeds, ornamental and kitchen gardens and the planting of trees in the land around the hospital.
The day heats more. Stifling even in this shade. But then briefly, a welcome gust of cool air. A silvery lilt of birdsong (maybe a blackcap?) streams from the dense foliage above. A man cycles past on the path and calls across, laughing “hey, Mr Artist, save yer trouble and get yourself an iPad and stylus..” I smile back and carry on scribbling but within seconds my pen runs out!
I walk back past the museum frontage and linger in its shadow. A tall chunk from the demolished Berlin Wall is a big grafitti mouth shouting “CHANGE YOUR LIFE”. Opposite is an ice cream van and I think that at this moment my life would change for the better with the addition of a cold cornet. But, deterred by the long queue, I opt for tea from the cafe and carry it to the far west corner, where busy picnic tables submerge into dappled tree shade (hornbeam and english oak, part of the Ice Age Tree Trail around the park). I set up my drawing things, looking across a raised flower bed. Large fatsias, laurel, tulips and gone over daffodils are a foreground fringe. Beyond, seated figures at the tables are ever changing silhouettes against the brightness of the field beyond, punctuated by many trees, lampposts and in the middle: the Soviet WW2 Memorial is a hunched soldier- bell tower (sculpted by Sergei Shcherbakov and unveiled here in 1999).
In 1926 Bethlem Hospital moved to Bromley and the existing patient wings were demolished. The land and buildings were purchased by Viscount Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, who presented it to the London County Council for use as a public park for the ‘splendid struggling mothers of Southwark‘; and named in memory of his own mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. The Imperial War Museum was established in the remains of the hospital in the 1930s (the collection previously housed in South Kensington).
Sudden loud laughing from The Tankard pub on the corner, behind me (it was built in 1825, and had a large roof terrace so customers could look over the high wall into Bedlam and gape at its residents!).
For a while there is the low thrum of a guitar from a man sitting on a rug, his back against the wide belly of an oriental plane tree. As he plays, on this day of the turning of the seasons, I’m sure I can actually see the unfolding of leaves.
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.
Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, Kennington Rd, London SE1 6HZ
Opening times: unrestricted
Google earth view here