Tag: Embankment

Sticks in the Smoke 57: St George’s Square and Pimlico Gardens

st-georges-gardenRose bed to riverbed (Thursday 18 May 2017)

A couple of minutes walk from Pimlico tube station, St Georges Square is more of a long rectangle, the proportions of a school ruler, jabbing at the Thames to the south (Pimlico Gardens is the southern continuation of this rectangle to the river’s edge, see below). As I approach, exuberant yells and cheers from Pimlico Academy sports enclosure bounce  and rally across the square. Background accompaniment for the whole time I’m in the gardens.

SITS057a

Pimlico’s early history of marshland and riverside grazing is described in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 29: Bessborough Gardens, just 250 metres to the east. This unpromising land was acquired wholesale in the 17th century by the Grosvenor family through marriage. After substantial drainage and embankment schemes, it was subsequently developed into grand squares of stuccoed terraces, elegant streets and avenues by surveyor and architect Thomas Cubitt. By the 1850s, St George’s Square had been built and laid out. Take up was brisk, residents moving in to enjoy private access to these gardens, stretching 240 metres down to the Thames,  its own pier for river steamers.

I walk the park’s perimeter path, following its long, straight tarmac paths still bordered with Victorian stone barley sugar edging. Plane trees with occasional sycamore, ash and horse chestnut cast floods of shade. Abundant shrubberies dense and dark to my right. Damp soil scent after yesterday’s rain. On a bench some roses are tied with a ribbon. Also two balloons. Red and blue. The brass plaque says the bench is dedicated to someone who died last year. Far too young.

SITS057b

Wide lawns, open and sun streaked on my left. In the centre is a fountain pool and rose beds. A family follow their toddler’s wobbly circuit of the pool and lunge forward as she lurches towards the water’s edge. Benches occupied by a handful of concentrating newspaper readers.

Kindergarten sports are happening on the grass. As I walk past, most children are hopping towards the bench where a teacher is waving and encouraging. But one little boy ignores her and spins on the spot while looking up at the sky. A dizzy twist of branches, clouds and vapour trails. That would’ve been me.

SITS057d

The path follows through the gate at the southern end and turns around an area of rough grass that’s reserved for the use of dog walkers (and their dogs). I traipse the long path back up the east side of the park. Sun reflects and dazzles through the trees from the square’s cream stucco terraces. At the top end is a rounded box hedged rose garden, flower beds with perennials. Lilies, hellebores. A herbaceous border. Sunbathing ducks don’t even move as I walk by. Definitely the place to draw. I set up easel and unpack drawing things. Behind me stands St Saviour’s Church (designed in the early 1860s by Thomas Cundy the Younger, surveyor for the Grosvenor estate)

This is a surrogate back garden for lots of mothers and toddlers. One pushes her buggy to the middle of the lawn and spreads a rug. Her young daughters scuttle a bee line for the bench with the flowers and try to pull the balloons off. The mum goes over and unties them and gives them to her little ones, who run around gleefully, balloons bobbing, but let go when snacks are offered. A gust bounces the balloons over to the bushes.

Beautiful lilting blackbird chorus from a high up tree branch. I see him silhouetted, the sun bursting through the foliage like a supernova. A glimpse of a plane above making a diagonal trail. The blackbird flits to a wheeliebin in the service yard behind me and stages a chirruping contest with an unseen rival. As I draw a bee buzzes against my nose and rebounds away. Then a robin’s tik, tik, tiktiktik!

SITS057c

Blue uniformed little schoolchildren pour onto lower lawn. They run about excitedly. A moment later I look back across and they’ve all taken their blazers off in the sunshine and are now little white specks darting about. A mother and teenage daughter are throwing a red frisbee. The daughter is bored and listless and deliberately makes wide throws to force her mum to run extra far. A policeman and policewoman in shirtsleeves patrol the path and come to look at my drawing. She nods and says “very nice”. He says “better than I could do!”. I take that as a compliment (see drawing at top).

Thick slate clouds scud across from behind the amber nib of the church steeple. I start to pack my drawing things. A woman strides over to the bush where the balloons have caught. She retrieves them and takes them back across the lawn to the bench. She reties them and stands for a moment watching them. Bumping against each other, alive in the breeze.

SITS057e

Pimlico Gardens

I hurry the length of the gardens and cross Grosvenor Road, I want to beat the inevitable downpour.  A 1½ acre pocket of lawn and paths, butting up against the Thames. Just as I  enter the park, the leading edge of the cloud blanket blots out the sun. Tall mature planes and evergreen shrubberies add to the dimness. Peering down over the high embankment wall, thick tree boughs swing towards the grey ripples. The tide is low, revealing a stranded riverbed strewn with rocks, bricks, timber and mud. Reflections from buildings on the Nine Elms bank opposite shiver and splinter.

SITS057g

On the eastern lawn, John Gibson‘s 1836 statue of William Huskisson MP in draped Roman robes (but which look more like he’s just got out of the bath), is a spectral marble whiteness against the dark foliage behind him (photo 5). Despite a glowing political career, Huskisson is best know as the first ever person to be killed by a railway engine, having been fatally struck by Stephenson’s Rocket during the 1830 opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway . 

SITS057f

On a pole at the other end of the park is Andre Wallace‘s ‘Helmsman’: a bronze sculpture of a helmeted sailor at the helm of a stylised ship. Unveiled in 1996 to celebrate London’s rich maritime history. I set up to draw this powerful piece (see drawing at bottom), with my back to a tree trunk for shelter. Across the river behind it is the glass honeycomb cube of the nearly completed US embassy, due to be opened later this year.

The park is empty, darkening. The breeze, a chill contrast to this morning’s warm sunshine, brings a light spatter of drizzle. I work on, swiftly, and raise my umbrella. I try to continue under heavier rain but, with my sketchbook page soaked I have to abandon painting and drag my things under the fire escape shelter of the Westminster Boating Base (a charity teaching sailing, canoeing and watersports to adults and children). The downpour rattles and pings on the metal steps above me.

pimlico-gardens


(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 

St George’s Square Gardens, Pimlico, London. SW1V 3QW
Pimlico Gardens, Grosvenor Road, Pimlico, London. SW1V 3JY
Open daily 8am – dusk

Google earth view here

Advertisements

Sticks in the Smoke 53: Battersea Park (North), London

Peace-Pagoda-Battersea-Park

Pagoda and plinths (Thursday 30 March 2017)

I cross Chelsea Bridge on this perfect sunshine day and enter the park through Chelsea Gate. A meander westwards along the wide riverside terrace of lawns and enclosed shrubberies, stands of planes, chestnuts and limes. Bursts of blossom. Past the entrance to the Children’s Zoo. A glimpse of lemurs performing high- rope acrobatics. I wander across to the embankment path, dodging the many joggers and dog walkers. Then, when it starts to get hot, I escape back to the relative shade of the tree- lined North Carriage Drive, where cyclists whisk past on two wheels, and processions of riders on three- 053awheeled recumbent bikes (hired from londonrecumbents.com in the park). I soon realise that, at 200 acres, this is another huge green space that I’ll have to tackle in more than one visit. So today I decide to concentrate on the northern half of the park.

Originally the tidal Thames spilled across this low lying land. Mud banks and reedbeds were washed by tributaries and the now continuous south bank was once a strew of islands. Battersea is first written in Anglo Saxon as Badrices īeg (meaning the island of Badric). There was a manor here, presented by the King Caedwalla of Wessex to Saint Earconwald (Bishop of London 675- 693). It was used as a spiritual retreat by his sister, Saint Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking, whose memory is held in the names of a nearby street and community centre. These were marshy meadows to the east of the farming village, which was roughly where St Mary’s Church, Battersea now stands. Over the centuries, the riverbanks were raised, ditches dug to drain the land and streams channelled into culverts. Battersea Fields were some of the most productive in the district, with a patchwork of market gardens growing vegetables (including the famous ‘Battersea Bunches’ of asparagus) and herbs, including lavender to sweeten homes in the stinking City across the river.

The park is teeming- as well as the successions of runners and dog walkers and cyclists, 053b..there are tourists, families and parents with buggies. Toddlers lunge unsteadily across the grass arms held up and pudgy fingers spread. Groups of schoolkids on Easter holiday playing football, unruly piles of jackets and scooters.

And there’s the Peace Pagodalooming closer, its double roofs spread like bats wings, proudly commanding this stretch of the park. A beacon of serenity. Built by monks and followers of a Japanese Buddhist movement in 1985 to advance the cause of peace, its large gilt-bronze reliefs gleam out, depicting significant stages of Buddha’s life. Maintained by the saffron- robed monk, Gyoro Nagase, who spends his days in meditation within.  A sound of cheering from the grassy banks outside the pagoda momentarily breaks the calm: a group of about 20 excited students (?) are holding up giant polystyrene letters and posing for photos.

I set up to draw under the spread of a just budding oak tree, surrounded by a flock of daffodils and enclosed in a ring of ironwork fencing. A further outer ring of temporary 053gfencing is fixed with warning posters reading ‘BEWARE!, Processionary Moths and Caterpillars. KEEP OUT!’. (I look this up on my phone and read about the spreading invasion of these oak loving creatures, known to have toxic hairs which can cause rashes and skin irritation. Luckily it’s a bit early in the season). To the left of the Pagoda is the haze of Chelsea Bridge. My eye traces the opposite Chelsea riverfront upstream of the bridge. Almost entirely free of high rise or modern development. A progression of fine brickbuilt Dutch gabled townhouses behind a tree lined embankment.  I can see the treetops of Ranelagh Gardens, which I drew on that sultry day last August (see Sticks in the Smoke 28). River breeze softens the traffic noise to a gentle hum.

Back in the 1700s this was a popular place for day trips, for its mostly rural location by the river, a ridge of woodland to the south. Visitors would arrive here by ferry boat at the picturesque Red House Tavern and walk out across the fields, play sports and games or go pheasant shooting. However, by the early 19th century, the tavern had gained an infamous reputation for gambling, debauchery and theft. In the 1840s, the local vicar, Rev Robert Eden put together a plan to solve these antisocial problems. He proposed the creation of a large Royal Park and was financially supported by Property developer, Thomas Cubitt (who had an eye on the potential for building here!). This received Parliamentary 053eapproval in 1845, with a grant of £200,000 from the Commission for Improving the Metropolis to buy the land and develop the park.

The park and gardens were laid out by Sir James Pennethorne to have carriage drives running around its perimeter, plantings of trees and shrubberies. Terraces of tall town houses were built on surrounding avenues. Battersea Park was opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria. Chelsea Bridge was completed in the same year which made the park easily accessible (Albert bridge, at the west corner, opened 15 years later). The embankment wall was completed in 1877, giving the park this broad riverside esplanade.

The park became increasingly used for sports: the first FA rules football match happened here in 1864. Grounds for cricket, croquet and tennis were rolled and laid out. Today there’s a well used running track and tennis courts in the north east portion, all weather astroturf pitches, cricket ground and football pitches in the west. I look up from my drawing- a sweating runner has paused in the shade for a rest, hands on knees, panting at the ground.

During both World Wars, Battersea Park was roped into the war effort with the football pitches dug up for vegetable growing, shrubberies turned into a pig farm and the croquet ground used to site anti- aircraft guns. Great grey silver barrage balloons floated overhead like whales, to protect against air raids.

053fDrawing finished (see above), I pack my things and continue my walk, following the North Carriage Drive as it turns and becomes the West Carriage Drive. The day warms and park visitors lounge summerlike on the grass. I’m led by a leafy pathway into the Old English Garden, an idyllic sanctuary of rose beds and herbaceous borders laid out in 1912. Herringbone brick paths. Lilacs and blossoming fruit trees. A gushing fountain urn and cool shaded arbours. Old men on benches with newspapers seem as permanent as the surrounding walls. Today, I could easily and happily join them and take root here. But I leave and continue across the wide green expanses of the cricket grounds and busy football pitches. The long Central Avenue cuts through as straight as a throw, once lined with elms. Today strongly decorated with shadows from its parade of plane trees. I arrive at the central hub of the park, like a circular forest clearing, where the bandstand stands. An intriguing choice of six pathways lead away.

I take a path northwards, which brings me out into blinding sunshine. When my eyes get used to the dazzle I see that I’ve arrived in the 1950s. This was the site of the Festival Pleasure Gardens, one of the locations for the Festival of Britain, which took place across FoB-battersea-cover-smthe country in 1951, intended as a colourful and exuberant celebration after the devastation of war ravaged Britain. To lift people’s view out of the greyness of the postwar years, towards a more optimistic, exciting and brave new world of design, colour and technology. Here, colourful geometric planting displays by the garden designer Russell Page, were interspersed with theatrical sets, pavilions, tea terraces, a miniature railway and fountain pools by artists and designers including John Piper, Rowland Emett and Osbert Lancaster. One of the most popular features was the Guinness Clock which, every 15 minutes, gave a fantastical kinetic performance. After the end of the festival year, most of the structures were dismantled but some of the original landscaping remain, such as paved areas, lawns and the fountain pool. In recent years, some features have been restored or replicated in the 50’s ‘contemporary‘ style, to give a sense of the original festival feel: flower displays, a whimsical pergola, tea tent, restored fountains. The ‘sputnik‘ design railings remind me of a primary coloured 1950s magazine rack that my parents had (used to make a satisfying doinking sound when hit with a wooden spoon!).

I set up to draw at the edge of the rectangular fountain pool. It feels like a lido, the heat shimmering off the water. Foursquare groups of pollarded trees stand around the pool edge, alternating with oblong flower beds, planted with red and yellow tulips. A pair of brown and ochre Egyptian geese are very active, flying from the poolside and honking every time a dog or child gets too close, sometimes landing on one of the blue and white fountain podiums and strutting angrily.

053c

There was also a funfair which sat to the east of the Pleasure Gardens. This continued as Battersea Fun Fair for another two decades. The main attraction was the Big Dipper rollercoaster, but a tragic accident in which 5 children were killed led to the eventual closure of the funfair in 1974. From where I am I can just see the white roof of Battersea Evolution, which now occupies the funfair site. It hosts temporary events, conferences and exhibitions (including the Affordable Art Fair, where I’ve had work on show several times).

A group of excited schoolgirls, all wearing hijabs, form a lively sculptural arrangement on top of an empty plinth which sits above the fountain pool. Classmates keep arriving and, when that perch is full, run round, past me, and occupy the plinth on my side. Much laughing and calling and urging each other to jump in the water! But no one does.

It does look cool and inviting on this scorching afternoon. I’m tempted. But… Maybe another day!

Fountain-Pool-Battersea-Par


(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 

Battersea Park, Battersea, London SW11 4NJ
Open 8am – dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 50: Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster

IMG_1041

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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
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).
.
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.
.
IMG_1040

(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

Sticks in the Smoke 35: Ropers Garden, Chelsea

ropers-garden-2

Thomas More’s Head and Epstein’s Plinth (Wednesday 19 October 2016)

Walk here from the east along the Chelsea Embankment and, as you pass Chelsea Old Church, there’s a painted statue of Sir Thomas More (by Leslie Cubitt Bevis ), erected in 1969, with gold hands clasped tightly in prayer, sitting up on a plinth in a little semicircular garden (if you look on Google Street View, his face has been blurred out, which seems macabrely appropriate considering his fate!). Revered scholar and 035astatesman, Thomas More settled in Chelsea in 1520, where he built a grand home: Beaufort House, just round the corner. (Chelsea was a popular  rural location for the wealthy to build their large houses, conveniently close to the city, but far enough away from the stink! It was once described as “a village of palaces”). He had a close association with the Old Church and built his own chapel there.

The orchards, meadows and formal gardens of his estate rolled up from this stretch of riverbank where his official barge was moored (In the 16th century travel by river was much more reliable than the rough and rutted roads; Sir Thomas could get to Westminster or Hampton Court on state business with relative ease).  More was living here with his family until he was arrested for treason for refusing to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the English Church. He was executed at the Tower in 1535. Beaufort House remained standing for a further 200 years, but now only few fragments of orchard wall remain in private gardens nearby.

I cross Old Church Street and take the steps down into this sunken rectangle of a third of an acre. The roar of embankment traffic dulls as I descend. I catch the scent of tidal water. Lined with characterless 1960s brickwork, two kerb edged lawns and a raised seating area with naked timber pergola (office staff and workmen lunching and smoking: a stage with ever changing progression of actors). Ivy and climbers trail down from beds at the 035ctop of the walls. A simple, well- used space with benches and lawns worn and earthy, but is lifted out of its functionality by the captivating bronze nude: ‘The Awakening’ by Gilbert Ledward (1888-­1960), which stands on a square column at the centre and, arms reaching high, dominates the garden. I walk around to get the best view- through tree branches, silhouetted against the river sky or looking down from the embankment wall. I choose to draw her (see drawing above) framed by the straight lines of the apartment block behind and the tall medieval windows of Crosby Hall (this is the surviving part of one of the mansions of Richard III, originally built in 1466 in Bishopsgate. When threatened with demolition in 1910, it was carefully dismantled and rebuilt on this spot, with neo-Tudor brick and stone additions added more recently and made into a private mansion). 

My easel is perched on the edge of the eastern lawn. There’s a litter of black nut husks from a walnut tree at one end. At the other corner is a dark barked cherry tree, planted to commemorate Gunji Koizumi, father of British Judo, who died in 1965. A magpie strides around the grass, chakking proprietorially. Above, patches of hazy blue sky between the clouds. Cries of soaring seagulls are interrupted by the rumble of aircraft, following a northwest flight path. The noise is somehow amplified as it rolls around the brick walls. The woody donk of walnuts dropping onto flagstones.

A sudden glint of light catches my eye as a woman slides open an upper door in the apartment block. She yawns, then leans over the balcony and shakes three rag dolls over the side. One after the other. Then aggressively whacks them on the rail. Then she returns 035bwith some small rugs and does the same with those.

Ropers Garden is on the site of riverside orchards which were part of the wedding gift from Sir Thomas More to his daughter Margaret on her marriage to lawyer, William Roper in 1521. Margaret Roper was one of the most learned women of the age: writer, translator and poet. After her father was beheaded, she managed to rescue his head from its spike on London Bridge and is said to have pickled and preserved it in a barrel of spices, until her own death in 1544 at the age of 39

I move my drawing things to the courtyard area at the eastern end of the garden. This is the site of a warehouse building which was one of Jacob Epstein’s earliest sculpture studios before the 1st World War. I start to draw the standing stone relief by Epstein (see drawing below) which stands here on a circular plinth (unveiled  in 1972): ‘Woman Taking Off Her Dress’, an unfinished piece in white stone, but fabulously full of energetic evidence of chiselled scores and notches. Arms grappling above the head, crudely echo the reaching arms of the Ledward bronze. Behind is a magnolia tree, its curving branches spread out above four rose beds, which have seen their best and are now little more than twisted sticks. And there, I can see, just above the wall, Thomas More in his garden next door.

035dA woman leans over the wall and calls “the plinth!” I look up and realise she’s talking to me. I say “sorry?” And she nods at the relief, “the best part of that thing is the plinth!” and walks off disdainfully. I get the feeling that the Epstein’s not very popular with the locals!

The buildings here were destroyed by a parachute mine on 17 April 1941 during the Blitz. On the same night much of Chelsea Old Church next door was reduced to rubble, apart from a section which included the Thomas More Chapel. Following the war it was painstakingly rebuilt and was reconsecrated in 1958. This garden was excavated out of the bomb site, designed, laid out, and opened in 1964, dedicated to Margaret Roper.

A taxi driver has parked his cab and is smoking on the steps. He blows a last cloud and wanders over to look at my drawing and we talk about art for a minute or two. He narrows his eyes at the Epstein and says “Not really my cup of tea, mate. Reckon the best bit is…the plinth!”

 ropers-garden-1


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, 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 an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Ropers Garden, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London. SW3 5AZ
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

victoria-embankment-gardens-1(Friday 16 September 2016)

A day of blustery showers: an autumn taste. I enter the gardens at the narrowest end, away from the sound of traffic splishing along the Embankment, and follow hurrying figures along the curving puddled path. Mature planes, catalpa and metasequoia, yews 031aand laurels, luxuriant plants, exotic shrubs and banana palms line the way and provide backdrops for an array of statues and memorials, including one to Sir Arthur Sullivan by Sir William Goscombe John, put up in 1903, with semi- naked muse draping herself seductively in grief (he ignores her, but looks across to the Savoy Hotel, which was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas). Further along, I try out the brass button of the drinking fountain, memorial to Henry Fawcett (political reformer and campaigner for women’s suffrage), work of sculptor Mary Grant in 1886. It still works after all these years and spurts a forceful jet of water from its dolphin spout which sprays over me and a shocked tourist couple, who jump back, already damp from the rain! Then there’s the grand white Portland stone monument to Lord Cheylesmore (Army major- general and chairman of London County Council who, in 1925, was the first member of the aristocracy to be killed in a car accident), designed by Edwin Lutyens, behind a circular ornamental pond. It’s back to back with the Belgian War Memorial, which faces out to the Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle.
.
031bThis garden was one of several created after the completion of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, along the northwestern bank of this mile long, dog leg bend of the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. The Embankment was built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, as described in my blog post about Whitehall Gardens (only a stones throw south of here), back in May. A hugely ambitious project to tame the Thames and assert London’s authority over nature (an embankment and road had originally been proposed 2 centuries earlier by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666). This string of gardens forms the decorative icing on this massive practical and utilitarian cake. Take a slice through and you have the Circle and District line, running just below (not tunnelled, but cut down from the surface and then covered over). At a ventilation opening on the east edge of the gardens, you can feel and hear the rumble and screech of trains below, pulling in to Embankment station. And under the road, there’s the cavernous Low Level Sewer, a major conduit which flushes much of central London’s effluent away to be treated to the east of the City.
.
A few spattering drops then the heavens open again and I make a dash for the cafe. A mug of tea bought, then I set up in the dry under the cafe canopy, looking across through a varied pattern of partially autumnal foliage, along with limes, tree fern and fig tree, towards the pink granite of Cleopatra’s Needle, stabbing up towards a slaty sky. Glimpses of the river, slipping silvery under Waterloo bridge. Snatches of chatter and drifts of tobacco smoke from occupants of other tables. A bedraggled looking blackbird scrabbles among the soggy fag ends beneath a dripping viburnum.
.
031dThe rain eases and I wander between lawns and brightly planted beds of rudbeckia and banana palms. The garden layout was designed by landscape designer, Alexander McKenzie in 1870 and is little changed. Curving rows of empty blue deckchairs are a patient audience to a closed up bandstand. I sit for a while. A couple are taking selfies, posing with a plastic white knight from the giant chess game. I watch some surveyors in hi-vis jackets battling with a mis-behaving theodolite. And a little girl in a yellow raincoat is chasing her father around the lawn. She’s parked her very shiny matching yellow ‘ride-on’ Mini Cooper expertly by the path edge.
I make my way out and wander through the heaving Embankment station and up the steps to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I follow the raised walk away from the river, towards Charing Cross and find a covered balcony that overhangs Villiers Street. From here my sketchbook is protected from raindrops and I have a pigeon’s eye view down towards the garden entrances: between scalloped walls and railings, with plane trees forming a welcoming party. I can watch the crowds, scurrying to and from Embankment station; transitory snippets of hundreds of lives. A rumble of thunder rolls and echoes down the street. And then a sudden raucous screech of female laughter from the trattoria opposite. When I glance round I notice a blue plaque which announces that Rudyard Kipling lived there from 1889 -91, where he wrote his novel The Light That Failed, which references this area.
 .
That building also houses Gordons Wine Bar, established in 1890: easily the oldest wine bar in London with, what looks like, its original drab brown Victorian frontage. Before the Embankment was built, it had been a warehouse on the river’s edge, where sacks of seed 031cand grain would have been winched directly from river barges. It sits on the corner with Watergate Walk, where you can follow the path along to the York House Water Gate. This impressive arched gateway was built in 1626, designed by Sir Balthazar Gerbier as the river access for York House, the residence of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Originally lapped by the grey Thames waters, it’s now landlocked, looking out onto the potted palms, flowerbeds and lawns of Victoria Embankment Gardens.
.
Drawing done, I close my sketchbook. My eye is caught by a gleam of evening sun, which streaks into the Pink Pansy flower stall at the bottom of the street, between the gardens and the station entrance, shimmering down into the wet pavement.
  victoria-embankment-gardens

 



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, 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 an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Victoria Embankment Gardens, Villiers St, London WC2N 6PB
Google earth view here