‘Peter Pan and the Foundlings’ (Thursday 16 March 2017)
The younger and smaller sister to Russell Square (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 45), a short walk From Russell Square tube station. That same airy Bloomsbury morning feel under today’s blue skies. But as I enter at the western gate, eyes still muted from the gloom of Underground and shaded streets, I’m unprepared for the resonant vivid green bounce from the new spring grass which hits me and, for a moment, turns everything else to monochrome: hulking silhouettes of surrounding buildings; still winter-bare Oriental Planes, with their swollen-bellied trunks; and the rounding tarmac paths, crisscrossed with shadows, which circuit these 2 acre gardens.
With a line of natural springs, this piece of land was always well watered and ideal for grazing. Since Elizabethan times it was known as Lambs Conduit Fields, named after the benefactor, William Lambe, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal who, aware of the increasing problems of access to fresh water in 16th century London, funded the construction of a reservoir to feed a large lead pipe or conduit which carried the water into the City. He also paid for 120 pails to be given to poor women so they could earn a living by distributing the fresh water.
The fields were highly popular for sports and recreation and, in the early 1700s were used as a cricket ground for some of the first matches to be played in London.
I turn my back to the sun, following my purply shadow along the northern path. A man with a bright orange scarf is sitting on one of the benches, drinking coffee and throwing a ball for his yipping dog. Well tended beds and bountiful borders edge the park. A volunteer gardener is on her knees in the soil, armed with a trowel, headscarf tied around her hair (although Brunswick Square is maintained by Camden Council, volunteers from The Friends of Brunswick Square provide a little extra love and care into the planting and aim to encourage wildlife and biodiversity).
In the 1740s these fields were purchased for building the Foundling Hospital. Established by philanthropist Thomas Coram, who had been so moved by the frequent sight of abandoned infants on the squalid London streets, that he campaigned for and achieved a Royal charter to set up a children’s home. This was the ideal location (peaceful, fresh air, out of the City) and a large functional building was erected with dormitory wings and a central courtyard (built with bricks made on site from clay dug in nearby fields). This grew to became London’s most popular charity, supported by donations from wealthy benefactors. Artists such as Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth and composer Handel all gave money but also donated works to the Hospital’s collections, to enlighten the children and enrich their surroundings. It became one of London’s first public galleries.
Babies up to a year old were accepted (a basket was hung outside the gates for anonymous deliveries). Most would then be sent out to families in the countryside, paid for by the charity, to be raised until the age of 5. They then came back to live here and were eventually apprenticed out (at 14 for boys and 16 for girls) as servants, factory workers and a variety of other occupations.
On the eastern boundary of the park is a raised bank, ridged with a swathe of narcissi which seem to transmit their own citrussy light. I walk up amongst them taking photos. On a bench below, a workman has pulled his hi- vis hood over his head, like a giant daffodil closing its petals in on itself. On the other side of the fence is the Harmsworth Memorial Playground, where a lively football training session is being led by a passionately enthusiastic coach. That’s all part of Coram’s Fields: on the old Foundling Hospital footprint: seven acres devoted to the physical, mental and social wellbeing of children and young people (no adult can enter without being accompanied by someone under 16).
I walk across to the central hub of the park and set up my easel to draw. A circular fenced bed of shrubs and perennials and three snake bark acers brandish their angular branches, strikingly patterned as if birthday wrapped in exotic paper, colours changing from gold and blue grey in the sunshine to purple and ochre when the clouds close over. Workmen picnic on the grass. A constantly changing population of office workers, students and tourists on the park benches. While I’m drawing, the bench nearest to me has the following sequence of occupants:
- 3 girls in sports gear drinking coffee and chatting loudly and talking over each other.
- 2 guys with packed lunches. Much packet rustling but not a word passes between them. One’s smoking, the other bats away the clouds while trying to eat.
- A bearded man in sunglasses and cycle helmet stretches his legs and smokes a cigar.
- A pair of girls taking selfies and laughing. One of them has a laugh that sounds like she’s crying hysterically.
- A man in a cap plugs himself into his phone, looks up to the warm spring sky, smiles and then nods rhythmically.
By the end of the 18th century, with the huge demands on its generous services, the governors of the Foundling Hospital decided to develop the surrounding estate to raise extra funds. Continuing the symmetry of the hospital and its grounds, two near- identical squares of elegant terraces were built, opening like wings on opposite flanks of the hospital grounds (Brunswick Square on the west and Mecklenburgh Square to the east). The square and the gardens were completed in by 1804 and named after Caroline of Brunswick, wife of the Prince Regent.
In Jane Austen‘s Emma, John Knightley and his family move into one of Brunswick Square’s townhouses. boasting: Our part of London is so very superior to most others. The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. We are so remarkably airy!’
A blackbird lands in the flowerbed and hops amongst the shooting irises and twitches the yellow ring of his eye towards me before flapping under a shrub. A female appears and there’s much chittering and fluttering. I think I’m witnessing the start of a beautiful relationship.
By the early 20th century, this once ‘airy’ piece of suburban London had been enveloped by smoky smoggy London. The governors of the Foundling Hospital considered it unhealthy for its young residents and in the 1920s it upped sticks and relocated to rural Surrey and then to purpose built premises in Hertfordshire (now Ashlyns School, Berkhamstead). There was a plan to transfer Covent Garden Market to the vacant site, but this was fought off by local residents. The original hospital building was eventually demolished. Over the years all the original Georgian houses around the square have been replaced: by UCL (University College London) buildings (the School of Pharmacy and International Hall of Residence) and, on the west side, the iconic Brunswick Centre built in the late 60s: Patrick Hodgkinson‘s modernist tiered apartment block, shopping and entertainment centre, with distinctive pairs of ventilation towers protruding ladderlike to the sky.
Thomas Coram‘s legacy still lives on here. The original charity has become the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, structured as an umbrella group of charities working with vulnerable children in different areas. It has a headquarters and a children’s centre on the site of the original Hospital and also the Foundling Museum, where you can view the Hospital’s extensive Art collection (including Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley and Gainsborough’s ‘The Charterhouse’) in recreations of beautiful eighteenth-century interiors from the original Hospital building.
A coffee at the Foundling Museum cafe then out into the afternoon sunshine. Now a slight chill in the air. The statue of Thomas Coram smiles beneficently from his plinth. A man whirrs past on his mobility scooter. Closely followed by his elderly 3 legged spaniel which hobbles along and keeps having to sit down in the path. I notice that all three of them (Thomas Coram, the scooter man, and the dog) have virtually identical hairstyles.
Some magnificent trees in this park. But stretching over the south west quarter is the second oldest plane tree in London: The Brunswick Plane. I make my way over to its trunk and run my hands around its knobbly crocodile bark. I sense its roots coursing and pushing down, through the centuries, the same soil compressed by the feet of modern Londoners, medieval villagers, livestock and Anglo Saxon travellers. I set up to make a drawing of the tree with the square shouldered Brunswick Centre in the background (see drawing below). Branches spread out appearing to defy gravity, this closest one quivers as though the tree is breathing. It twists with the great gnarled elbows and the bubonic biceps of some great beast.
When he first arrived in London, the young writer J M Barrie lived in cheap lodgings just over to my left, on the south west corner of the square (a blue plaque marks the site). In Peter Pan, he based the Darlings’ home here and, when writing stage directions for the play, specified that Peter and Wendy would fly out of the window and over the treetops of Brunswick Square.
I look up and imagine them momentarily perched and swaying on those highest twig tips, stars above them flickering like fireflies.
(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. www.nickandrew.co.uk
Brunswick Square Gardens, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1AZ
Open daylight hours
Google earth view here