Tag: Pimlico

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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 . 


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.


(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

Sticks in the Smoke 29: Bessborough Gardens, Pimlico

029-Bessborough-Gardens(Thursday 1 September 2016)

From Pimlico Station, I dash across Lupus Street through the cool white columned entrance portico and iron gates into the dazzling sunlight and shady leafage of Bessborough Gardens.
On two sides are tall and elegant Georgian style stucco terraces, whose front gates open straight onto the park. I step down and follow the asymmetric pattern of stone and brick paths around and across the summer scorched lawns. There are several generous plane 029aand sycamore trees, and wide fringes of mature shrubs are flickering thickets to screen out the relentless Grosvenor and Vauxhall Bridge Roads.
A map of Pimlico sites it in a rounded swoop of the Thames, just south of Westminster, on what was once marshy grazing land, known as ‘The Five Fields’. In 1666 it was inherited by a scrivener’s baby daughter, Mary Davies as part of a legacy (which also included the land that Knightsbridge and Mayfair now stand on). At the age of 12, Mary married Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet. Her dowry was to become a large part of, what is today, the massive property corporation: Grosvenor Estates.
It was some time before any real development happened in Pimlico, however. This was not a popular area, partly due to its marshiness (a branch of the River Tyburn, which was pretty well an open sewer in the early 1800s, flowed through here and flooded regularly); and partly because the infamous Millbank Penitentiary, only 150 metres away (where Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Art now stand), cast a grim shadow over the area from the early 19th century. For part of its history it held prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia.
It’s a warm day with a gentle breeze rattling leaves across the path. I walk to the south end and slowly circumnavigate the tall, three- tiered fountain a few times, letting its mist cool 029cmy forehead. It was installed in 1980 to celebrate the Queen Mother‘s 80th birthday and is set in an octagonal stone pool. It was designed by the landscape architect, Peter Shepheard, based on George Vulliamy‘s dolphin motif that you can see twining around the lamp stems on the Embankment walls. I scramble up into the raised shrubbery at the southern end to perhaps draw a higher view back across the park, but trip over the edge of some flattened sheets of cardboard and, hidden under bushes, there are plastic bags of belongings. I have the feeling I’m intruding into somebody’s makeshift bedroom, so I make a hasty exit.
I find a view from a shady corner at the other end, looking back across the lawns towards the fountain. The glittery blue St George Wharf Tower, at over 180 metres, appears ready for launch in the background.
In the 1820s, developer Thomas Cubitt saw the potential of the district for high-class housing. He started buying parcels of land from the Grosvenor Estate. The boggy ground was drained and was made firm with thousands of bargeloads of soil and rubble excavated during the construction of St Katharine Docks downstream.  Cubitt created a grid of streets and squares of grand white stucco houses and smaller terraces. As part of this scheme, a wedge-shaped garden was laid out in 1843 to serve the surrounding properties, with Holy Trinity Church being built a little later on the south side (the church was fire bombed in the 2nd World War and subsequently demolished in 1953).
Much of Pimlico was severely affected by the Big Flood of 1928, where a downstream deluge of winter melt water met an upstream storm surge, causing the Thames to gush over and through the Embankment to inundate a large part of the city. Cubitt’s Bessborough Gardens terraces were badly affected. They were also much damaged during the second World War and deteriorated further over the following decades. Eventually they 029bwere pulled down as part of a major road scheme. In the 1980s new buildings went up, about 50 metres to the west, in the original style, containing 140 luxury apartments with underground parking, and the present gardens were created.
The gardens are full of chatter and laughter now from bunches of lunchers sitting on the dried out grass. A plane tree on the middle lawn is spreading its shade in a wide circle, over a group of workmen who are joking and throwing someone’s boots and mock insults at each other. A mother and 2 daughters come over to watch me draw. Then every few minutes the girls run across from their picnic to see how I’m getting on with the sketch.
After lunchtime the gardens quieten down and the true Bessborough residents emerge:
A woman with shorts and spotty sun top struggles across with bags and bottles and sets up camp with a bright orange sunlounger. She ineffectively dabs suncream on her shoulders and neck and knees before stretching out with magazine and headphones.
An elegant lady with grey hair in a bun shuffles past with stick and a highland terrier in tow.
029dA pigeon gang strut about and peck at picnic fragments. A tawny cat stalks around them into the undergrowth. It emerges 10 minutes later and strides proudly back with a shrew (I think) swinging from its mouth.
The sound of a piano trickles from an open upstairs window. I look up to see a small child’s face gazing down into the garden.
A man in a long dark and dishevelled coat comes up and asks if I can spare some change. I drop some coins in his hand and he pushes at them with a long fingernail and nods and thanks me. As he walks away I wonder if it was his ‘bedroom’ I stumbled across earlier. He works his way methodically around the park, stooping over every person. Some reach into their pockets. Some don’t. The orange sunlounger lady dismissively wafts him away and reaches for the suncream.

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.


Bessborough Gardens, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Pimlico. SW1V 2JE
Google earth view here