Transportation and ‘Walking in the Air!’ (Wednesday 21 December 2016)
A winter solstice leaden sky threatens rain as I approach Millbank Gardens, along John Islip Street and behind Tate Britain. The parade of roadside plane trees are leafless, their pollarded branches reaching up like gnarly arms shaking fists to the sky. Seeds dangle like Christmas baubles. Below, leaf imprints in the tarmac are like faded fragments of an antique tapestry.
is a half mile or so riverside sweep south of Westminster
, deriving its name from a water mill built by the monks of Westminster Abbey
(see Sticks in the Smoke 39
), that stood at the outflow of the River Tyburn
into the Thames. Prior to the 1800s, this low and marshy piece of land was sparsely populated, merging into riverside mudflats, where mists would rise, pierced by the echoing call of snipe and the cries of gulls. Rough farmsteads squatted in these boggy meadows, cattle grazing down to the water’s edge.
This ground was long considered unsuitable for housing or development. But the perfect place, away from the city, for incarcerating enemies and undesirables, where
considerations for health and wellbeing were not high on the agenda. In 1651, four thousand Scottish Royalists were captured during the Battle of Worcester
(the final battle of the English Civil War
). They were force marched the 100 miles to Millbank and held here in a makeshift prison camp, where 1200 of these bone- weary prisoners died and were buried in mass graves. The survivors were sold as slaves and transported to the plantations of Barbados
. Many of whom perished under creaking decks on the long ocean voyages.
Two pieces of lime green training equipment have been installed on the central terrace
of the garden (installed by The Great Outdoor Gym Company).
They look like user- friendly torture devices.
A personal trainer in pink top is putting her two clients through their paces: one a smallish young woman, the other a large man, like a bear in sports gear. As I walk the boundary paths, the trainer’s antipodean twang bounces around the garden: “Ok guys just 20 more seconds now……keep with it!” “C’mon! Don’t think about it, just do it!”
I set up my easel and drawing things (that’s my exercise for the day!)
next to the oblong brick pavilion, in case it starts to rain and I have to scoop my things under cover. I glance over: they’re now doing bench presses on the park benches.
Guided by the spirit of Christmas, I choose a large variegated holly bush as my foreground and draw the view into the eastern half of this garden (see drawing above
) where four Whitebeams (I think
) grow from the lawns, displaying red clouds of delicate berries. I can just make out bright green bulb shoots cautiously emerging from a bare rectangle of earth. In the background an upper terrace behind ironwork balustrades, with large terracotta pots containing trimmed standard hollies. A fringe border of laurels and palms and evergreen shrubs. Graffiti adorns several of the rubbish bins. The trio have just finished doing crunches
amongst the leaf litter.
The large bearlike man lies on his back panting and groaning loudly!
These gardens stand exactly central to where the Millbank Penitentiary
was built in the early 19th century. This massive eight- sided structure covered a site of 18 acres. It rose grim and fortress- like from the muddy ground, having to be built on a concrete ‘raft’ to stop it subsiding. Six cell blocks heaved outwards, from a central circular core, where the main terrace of the gardens are today. It contained a chapel and the governor’s residence. Millbank was the largest prison in Britain, housing 1100 male and female convicts. However, the inherent dampness of this place seeped into the mildewed walls and, from its earliest days, fostered a general unhealthiness, contributing to epidemics of dysentery, scurvy and depression. In the 1840s, because of this, and the high running costs, long term prisoners were moved to other prisons and, this became a holding depot for convicts prior to transportation.
They were held in solitary confinement for three months until their destination was decided (mostly Australia
). After the brutal policy of
transportation ended in 1867, Millbank reverted to being a local prison, before finally closing its heavy studded doors in 1890.
You can still see the octagonal impression left by this structure on today’s street plan here
, an indelible geometric ghost from a grim past.
A blackbird flies a blue-black flash into the holly bush and chirrups loudly from its interior. A man comes through the gate, wearing a tall white knitted hat and clutching a whisky bottle. Tightly. He talks at me for 5 minutes in non-sequiturs, about how he used to draw but was told his line was too heavy; about the steep rise in council tax; and the cost of getting a haircut. The scotch in the half full bottle sloshing as he speaks (Later, while visiting the Tate, I see him curled in a booth seat opposite the Tate cloakroom, hat off, and fast asleep!).
The forbidding prison walls and buildings were demolished and the site, now drained, was broken into large plots, subdivided by a grid of streets, with John Islip Street (named to commemorate John Islip, abbot of Westminster in the 16th century
) bisecting north- south. For most of the 1890s and into the new century, the site echoed with the clang of construction; materials offloaded from barges moored where, only 40 years earlier, chains of convicts were being loaded onto transportation ships. The first building to be opened faced out across the Thames in its classical porticoed poise. This was the National Gallery of British Art, later to be known as the Tate Gallery (after its founder Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate
) and more recently, Tate Britain
. Its back is turned to Millbank Gardens; the only concession
to art back here is a statue of John Everett Millais
, Pre-raphaelite painter, brandishing his palette and standing sentinel on a high plinth.
Millbank gardens was laid out at the heart of the plan. A recreation breathing space for a new community of working families, housed in 17 redbrick mansion blocks, built by the LCC (London County Council
) in the western half of the old prison footprint, using bricks salvaged from its rubble. Following Arts and Crafts Movement
principles of design and respect for the individual, they welcomed their first tenants in 1903. Inspired by the proximity to the Tate, each block is named after an English artist. The gardens are overlooked by the Turner, Ruskin, Millais
Houses, which embrace the space and reflect a terracotta warmth even under today’s damp blanket of cloud.
The exercising trio have gone. Two young sisters wearing Rudolph antlers are now playing on the gym equipment, supervised by their Dad. They’re joyfully singing ‘Walking in the Air’.
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.
Millbank Gardens, John Islip St, London. SW1V 3SG
Open 8am – dusk
Google earth view here