Archive for April, 2011

The Mall

Glimpse from the park of flags along The Mall, ready for the royal wedding procession

The procession for the royal wedding will run along The Mall between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, offering the newly-weds splendid views over St James’s Park. It is the oldest and most popular of London’s royal parks, and has an intimate link with the British monarchy and the romantic liaisons of kings of old.

Originally woodland of sufficient extent to furnish food for a hundred pigs, according to the Domesday Book, and then a site for a Hospital for Leprous Maidens, the area was turned into a royal hunting ground in the early sixteenth century. Beginning in the 1660s, it became a formal, French-inspired park and hub of the London social scene under Charles II and his successors. Finally the naturalistic public park that we know today was created by John Nash around 1828.

It was in about 1531 that the possibilities of this marshy site first drew the interest of the monarchy, in the larger-than-life figure of King Henry VIII. He was in the midst of his battles with Rome over attempts to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and was taking action that led rapidly to the English Protestant Reformation. Having acquired adjacent land from Westminster Abbey on which to build a new royal residence (the grand Palace of Whitehall, which was subsequently destroyed by fire), he saw the fields around the hospital as a potential site for another in the long line of royal hunting grounds, and as a place to woo Anne Boleyn, his future queen.

By 1532 the king had demolished the leper hospital and replaced it with St James’s Palace. Lovers’ knots, entwining the initials H and A (Henry and Anne), were engraved around some of the fireplaces. The land to the south was turned into a small private garden and a traditional hunting park. He also installed a tilting yard (for a popular equestrian activity of the day), a cockpit and a bowling alley. The whole area was surrounded by a “sumptuous wall of brick” to create a private royal pleasure ground.

Norden Map 1593

Royal Cartographer John Norden’s map of Westminster dated 1593 shows St James’s Park in the top left hand corner, some sixty years after it was created.

A more solemn history attaches to the site by the time of King Charles I (1625–49). He was confined in St James’s Palace before being walked through the pleasure grounds to the site of his execution in front of the Banqueting House.

Hollar engraving 1644

A detail from a print by Wenceslas Hollar of 1644, during the time of Charles I. It is still recognisably the park created by Henry VIII a century earlier.

Charles II’s triumphant restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after eleven years of the Commonwealth led to many political and social changes. He was careful to foster an image of himself as a man of the people, charming, nonchalant and seemingly uninterested in affairs of state, in contrast to his haughty father who made clear his belief in the divine right of kings. As part of his public relations strategy, Charles quickly had St James’s Park remodelled in the latest style, to turn it into a place where he could mingle engagingly with his subjects. As a result, as one writer has pointed out, of all the royal and famous people who are linked with the place, “Charles is more intimately connected with the Park than any other great personage.”

St James's Park c1710

The French-influenced layout of St James’s Park, in an engraving by Kip, c1710.

The new park was laid out in the style of French baroque gardens, with a grand canal à la française some 2,800 feet long by 100 feet wide, bordered by avenues and rows of single species trees (mainly elms), with more broad avenues radiating in a goosefoot pattern from the Palace of Whitehall, and two further grand avenues running along the north and south edges of the park, forming The Mall (site of the royal wedding procession) and Birdcage Walk respectively.

Given an ambiguous reference in a letter written around 1694, landscape historians love to debate who designed this new French-style park for the king. Received wisdom suggested for a long time that André Le Nôtre had produced the plan, although that now seems a rather preposterous idea. Whoever it was, St James’s Park became a vastly popular part of the social scene and achieved the king’s aim of allowing him to mix affably (and very visibly) with his subjects.  Charles made great play of opening up the royal park to the public, although there is evidence that at least some people had had access during the Commonwealth.

Charles II and Nell Gwyn

Charles II and Nell Gwyn, being observed by the disapproving John Evelyn, in a painting by Edward Matthew Ward, 1854.

Daily he would stroll along the avenues with his courtiers, or one of his mistresses, and was frequently seen feeding the ducks and pelicans that he had introduced onto the canal. The diarist John Evelyn rather disapprovingly records overhearing “a very familiar discourse” between the king and his mistress Nell Gwyn, who had been installed in a house close to the palace. So much did Charles enjoy his time wandering through the park that one of his courtiers remarked “there was as much of laziness as of love in all those hours which he passed among his mistresses …while a bewitching kind of pleasure called SAUNTERING, was [what] he [most] delighted in.”

1763 Edgar view

An image from 1763 showing the sort of sauntering for which the park had become famous.

While I doubt we will see William or Kate sauntering much in St James’s Park, its close links with the various love affairs of English kings makes it a perfect backdrop to their nuptials.

Anther time I may write a little more about the history of this splendid place, from the wish of one monarch to turn the park into a turnip field, and its role in finding “idle fellows” to fight King George’s battles against the rebellious provincials in the American colonies, to the part possibly played by Capability Brown in designing the current naturalistic layout of the park.

View of Whitehall today

View of Whitehall and the London Eye from today’s St James’s Park

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The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes is a curious relic of France’s colonial past. Yesterday I joined Adam of Invisible Paris for a guided tour of the garden in springtime, and it struck me that it raises some fascinating issues about landscape conservation.

Obscura DayObscura DayCreated in 1899 to test and redistribute plants from the country’s territories abroad, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was the site of a Colonial Fair in 1907 which used displays of plants and buildings to provide a sense of the French colonies for well-to-do Parisian visitors. Elephants and camels were brought in and, extraordinarily, so were des indigènes – people literally shipped in from the colonies to live in huts and tents in the garden and be gawped at by visitors. Adam showed us some wonderful 1907 photographs of the Fair’s buildings, with elephants careering down a specially created water slide, and the indigènes wrapped in blankets against the Northern European chill, staring stoically at the camera.

Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale

The entrance to the 1907 Colonial Fair. Image from http://www.expositions-universelles.fr

The human attractions disappeared after six months (sadly no records remain of their experiences or their ultimate fate) but the buildings and the plants were left in situ after the Fair ended. The site became a hospital during the First World War and home to memorials for colonial soldiers morts pour la France (killed in the service of France).

Madagascar war memorialCambodian war memorial

Some of the buildings were co-opted for other uses, but over the decades that followed most of the site fell into disuse and neglect. Some structures burnt down or were destroyed by weather or time. The exotic plant species gradually died out, to be replaced by volunteer trees and vegetation. The only remaining original plantings are some persimmon, lots of bamboo and a single eucommia ulmoides, or Chinese rubber tree.

Obscura DayObscura dayObscura Day

Then in 2003 the city of Paris took over the site. It trumpeted its wish to restore the garden and its listed colonial structures, and run it as a model of sustainability. A beautifully illustrated book was published about the garden and its history, the Indochina pavilion was expensively restored, and signs of sustainability – such as a mass of beehives – started to appear on site.

Indochina pavilion

But the management of this garden raises some difficult questions. Without an obvious new use for the buildings, why invest the large sums needed to restore and maintain them? The story of French colonisation is undoubtedly important, but it is an awkward – sometimes shameful – part of the country’s history, and so is it likely to provide a popular visitor attraction? In any event, what value do these buildings have historically, as quickly constructed French interpretations of vernacular architecture in Asia and Africa? The garden may be owned by the city of Paris, but it is located in the leafy suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne; how far should Parisian tax revenue be spent restoring a site away from the city?

But if the city does not restore the garden, then its options are limited. Some might argue that the garden should simply be left to continue to decay and eventually disappear, remembered only through old photographs and stories. Such abandon has a certain romantic appeal, while dilapidated structures and wilderness could be a suitable metaphor for the bygone values and beliefs of colonisation.

At the moment, the city seems to be trying to find a middle way between these two approaches. Its staff are trying to stabilise decaying structures and to keep the garden accessible and safe for visitors, by clearing paths, putting up warning signs and fences, and cordoning off dangerous areas. Save for planting the odd new tree, little is being done to change the existing vegetation. Instead the city argues that it is preserving both the mysterious charm and the biodiversity of the site.

To be honest, it feels to me like an uneasy compromise – essentially trying to conserve the sense of history and neglect, while keeping the space safe and useable. The garden is no longer abandoned, but is being managed to appear as if it is. But I have no easy solutions for what else could be done.

With thanks to Adam for a fascinating tour of this little-known garden, and for allowing us to to ponder on the many issues it raises.

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Art des jardins

This week I was delighted to be a guest contributor on the splendidly offbeat Along Life’s Highway blog, offering a rather different view of garden art in Paris.

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