It’s been months. Ages since my last London drawing trip. So much has got in the way. Plenty of good things (but some not quite so good). As soon as I walk into St George’s Gardens on this perfect spring morning I feel all those outside things lifted away. As though their strings caught on the iron park gates. Down the slope and into the gardens, tree shadows criss and spread across the curving paths and winterworn lawns.
Formerly meadows, this land was acquired in the early 1700s for use as burial grounds serving two nearby Bloomsbury churches, both dedicated to St George. The walls are lined with tomb stones formerly located within the burial ground. I wander between the stone urns and box tombs, many of which are unusually built up on brick plinths. They rise up from the ground, like a scatter of steep rocky islands. In one shaded corner stands a tall and imposing Portland stone obelisk, but with no indication of who it commemorates. Most inscriptions are eroded and difficult to read, but there are some famous people buried here, including Anna, grand-daughter of Oliver Cromwell (d.1727), and the anti-slavery campaigner Zachary Macaulay (d.1838). A gruesome claim to fame is that the first official record of body-snatching was from these burial grounds in 1777.
A Rasta- hatted, hi vis jacketed gardener is tending a central flower bed. Above him a terracotta statue of a robed and barefooted woman (Euterpe- the muse of music), her powerful forearms held defensively across her chest. She’s been garlanded with a string of artificial flowers. Plane, lime and oak trees surround the park, their branches still wintery but some just specked with bright buds. They fragment the surrounding views of Victorian townhouse backs, the rear of the Foundling Museum and the Coram campus to the south. A magnificent magnolia bush is decorated with starbursts of flowers and I want it in my drawing, so set up to draw looking back towards the west gate with the pedimented Mortuary chapel, and a view to the distant scaffolded Telecom tower framed by the terraces of Handel Street. The gardener (JB) comes to look at my drawing, his smile a flash of gold. He tells me I’ve come at just the right time for the magnolia, “in two weeks them petals’ll be rotting on the ground”.
The grounds were closed to burials in the 1850s, after which they became neglected and overgrown. 30 years later they were converted into this single public garden, one of the first undertaken with the help of the Kyrle Society (founded by Miranda Hill), which aimed to improve the lives of the poor through the provision of playgrounds for children and the creation of public gardens on unused spaces, with an emphasis on converting the numerous disused burial grounds that had closed as a result of the Burial Acts of 1852 and subsequent years.
Birdsong cascades through the tangle of magnolia branches, but I can’t see its source. Then drowned out by the clatter of a JCB. I can see the powerful yellow arm flexing and juddering behind the north wall.
Many park visitors, ambling, dashing, lunching. Dog walkers. A shaggy border terrier scuttles across and drops its muddy red ball under my easel and noses it towards my foot. I kick the ball back across the grass and it’s retrieved and brought back. A voice from down the path- his owner, a man in his early 50s on a mobility scooter: “Teddy! Here!” He comes over and we chat briefly about our Border terriers and their idiosyncratic natures. He brings Teddy here every day, “He’s my life” he says before driving off, dog trotting alongside.
I pack my things and walk out of the gardens and back along Handel Street. Only 200 metres brings me to the tiny oasis of Marchmont Community Garden. At about 35 metres long and less than 10 wide, it must be the smallest public green space I’ve visited in this project, but such a little snip crammed with life and colour and, most of all at this moment: light! Young trees in blossom, or just budding- cherry, apple, catch today’s sunlight and burst into flaming flares against the shaded brickwork of Marchmont Street. Light pushes down through bushes and shrubs and rakes shadows across the winding path, with bright tulips- flashes of red and orange amongst the undergrowth. I set up to attempt to trap some of this light in my sketchbook.
This old demolition site, a redundant gap and eyesore, under the north cliff face of the Brunswick Centre, was recovered and developed by the Marchmont Community Garden Partnership (MCGP), with much involvement from the local community. It opened in 2011.
Many people pass through, from street to street, to catch a momentary breath of beauty and nature. Or pausing on benches with coffee or to read the news or simply to sit. A blackbird’s song joyfully filters through the space. A crow lands on a tree branch directly overhead, cawing noisily. Its call reverberates, amplified by the high surrounding walls. It tugs and twists at a twig then flies off.
Drawing finished, I walk back up the sloping boardwalk. Past two young girls trying to fix pink plastic daffodils into their hair.
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.
St. George’s Gardens, Handel St/Sidmouth St, Bloomsbury, London. W12 7RW
Opening times: 7.30am – dusk
Marchmont Community Garden, Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, London. WC1N 1NJ Opening times: 10.30am – 8.00pm / Sunday 10.30am – 6pm / Closed Mon + Tues
Google earth view here