Tag: westminster

Sticks in the Smoke 50: Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.


 

Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JA
Open dawn – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

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Sticks in the Smoke 44: Millbank Gardens

millbank-gardenTransportation 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.
Millbank 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 044bconsiderations 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.
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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.  
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044cGuided 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!
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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 044dtransportation ended in 1867, Millbank reverted to being a local prison, before finally closing its heavy studded doors in 1890.
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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.
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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!).
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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 044eto art back here is a statue of John Everett Millais, Pre-raphaelite painter, brandishing his palette and standing sentinel on a high plinth.
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Next to the Tate, and filling the southern corner of the site, the Royal Army Medical College was built in a grand mix of Baroque and French Renaissance style. Since 2005, the buildings have been home to Chelsea College of Arts.
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 and Leighton Houses, which embrace the space and reflect a terracotta warmth even under today’s damp blanket of cloud.
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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

Sticks in the Smoke 39: Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey

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Tranquility and Sanctuary and keeping off the grass. (Wednesday 16 November 2016)

Away from the tumult around Parliament Square and the Westminster tourist hubbub and forests of selfie sticks, push past packs of tour groups flocking The Sanctuary, then through the Deans Yard arch and gatehouse. Phew! Step back in time into this tranquil collegiate acre of lawn and mature trees. I slowly walk the lane around this ancient square, past a mixed collection of dignified buildings, dating from Tudor to Georgian, Victorian and prewar, pressed together like a well- thumbed collection of leather bound volumes around the walls of a hushed library. The north and east side are some of the oldest. They house abbey offices and parts of Westminster School. On the south is the majestic Church House, which is the headquarters of the Church of England. And the buildings on west side 039dcontain Westminster Abbey Choir School (founded in 1560, and still educating the 35 or so choirboys, aged 8 – 13, who sing in the Abbey). I walk under its oriel windows and the lilting and piping notes of flute and piccolo spill from an upstairs music classroom; a calming counter to the hoots and toots of relentless traffic beyond this square. There are 10 original Victorian iron lamp standards at intervals around the square. I try to imagine their weak greenish gas glow filtering through the thick smogs of 100 years ago.

The land that is now Westminster was once a teardrop shaped island of about 660 acres, called Thorn Ey (later Thorney Island), where branches of the River Tyburn (now underground in conduits and sewers) flowed into the Thames. Wild, inhospitable and overgrown (hence ‘Thorney’). A small Benedictine monastery was founded here in the early 900s. The land was laboriously tamed and cleared by the monks so that it became one of the most fertile and productive pieces of land in London, with fields, orchards and gardens. Deans Yard is roughly where the monastery farmyard was shaded by an elm tree grove (which gave this part of the monastery it’s popular name ‘The Elms’). In the 11th century Edward the Confessor built the original Westminster Abbey on adjacent land and his Palace of Westminster close 039bby. Two hundred years later, Henry III rebuilt most of the abbey in the new, elegant Gothic style, housing a shrine to the canonised Edward the Confessor. Over the centuries, many additions and changes were made; the twin western towers being finally completed in 1745.

I pause at the far end in the shade of Church House and look back across the lawn; swathes and scatters of leaves garnish the mowed stripes. There, rising above, are the magnificent towers. The Portland stone ethereal and gilded in the sunlight. Almost vanishing behind the canopies of plane and chestnut: hanging veils of crumpled gold. A birch tree is a slender, sinewy, pale blue pillar. A plump crow picks the ground around its base, hunting worms.  I put my rucksack down on the kerb edge of the lawn (a nearby sign reads ‘PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS’), and set up my easel. Uniformed Westminster School students walk between lessons. They traditionally refer to this space as ‘Green’. I overhear odd snippets of teenage conversation: “…go on, just put your tongue behind it and pull!..” and “..hmm, not a bad film, I rate it approximately 6.75 out of 10…”.  A couple of hurrying boys take a shortcut across the grass.

039aWestminster school is one of the UK’s most esteemed public schools but has its origins as a small charity school provided by the abbey’s Benedictine monks in the 12th century. Following the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the school was allowed to continue. Today there are about 750 pupils from age 7 to 18 (mostly boys, although girls are admitted into the 6th form at 16). Traditionally they have the right to play football on Green.

Until the 17th century, pupils at the school had to share this space with a changing community of dangerous criminals and villains, who took advantage of ‘ecclesiastical sanctuary‘, which traditionally offered immunity from arrest within the abbey precincts. The area in front of the abbey is still called The Sanctuary, but I wouldn’t advise running here after robbing a bank and hoping you’ll be safe, you’re 400 years too late!

Today’s shifting sunlight dramatically changes the mood of  the abbey towers; one moment they seem to dissolve into luminescence; then a shadow passes over. Bringing weight and solemnity.

039cBehind me, a burst of sudden laughter and the sound of shoes clacking on the raised paved terrace of Church House and down the steps. Some pause to look at my drawing and one tells me she can’t even draw a straight line. I say I can’t either. They’re delegates taking a break from a local government conference being held today. Church House was originally built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and intended as a central meeting and administrative building for the Church of England. It was redesigned by architect, Sir Herbert Baker to provide more space and was completed in 1940. Only a year later it took a direct hit during the Blitz, but suffered very little damage. For this reason it was requisitioned to serve as a more secure, wartime Houses of Parliament. After the war, in January 1946, the newly created United Nations Security Council met for the first time in this building. Today it houses various departments of the Church of England, and hosts the annual General Synod meetings. It is also a prestigious venue for all kinds of events, from conferences to weddings.

I close my sketchbook and pack it away. Muffled piano notes float down from the music room window. A leaf lazily twists and gently drifts to earth, exactly in line with the birch tree trunk.

(There are three other original gardens within Westminster Abbey which are free to enter: the Garth, the Little Cloister and College Garden. I’m hoping to return to draw them in early spring.)


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.


 

Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey, London. SW1P 3NZ
Opening times: 10-4 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Free entry
Google earth view here