St Johns Sculpture Garden

There is a small oasis of tranquillity at the heart of London. Outside the traffic rages ferociously and trains screech by on the overland line linking Charing Cross to London Bridge. This is the geographic centre of London.  In the middle of the garden stands a church, St Johns, built with public money in 1824, nominally to celebrate the victory of Waterloo, but genuinely because those in power were frightened that rebellion and revolution might spread from the continent to England. The Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded parliament to give one million pounds and a total of more than 600 churches were built. The poor old Duke of Wellington, at that time, used to sit in his mansion at the south end of Hyde Park and regularly have his windows smashed by the mob. Religion was seen as the best way to control the masses and keep them away from sedition, revolution and the dangerous ideas reaching England’s shores from Europe.

St Johns Church was considered to be quite plain when it was built. Nevertheless it was still imposing. There was seating for up to 2000 people. And around it a little  garden where those with money could be buried. In the end there was no revolution, just two world wars and the rise and fall of empire. So perhaps the church played its part. We had a gradual change, an evolution, the abolition of slavery, the sharing of the vote, education and health care. There are still many problems, but we tend to argue about them, rather than fight – except when it’s abroad. 

In the second world war St Johns took a direct hit and the roof was blown off. That night 166 people had sheltered in the crypt and all of them survived. The church was rebuilt and in 1951 re-opened as the Festival of Britain church.

Homelessness became a big issue in the 1970s and 1980s.  It remains so today. St Johns Church garden became part of cardboard city, and when the street people were cleared away from the tunnells around Waterloo station and the Imax cinema, many of them moved with their makeshift tents and companion dogs to the garden. Sometimes scores of people slept rough there. The crypt of the church found a new role as a St Mungo’s Daycentre, which remained open until 2005.

But more recently, something has changed. A team of gardeners, Putting Down Roots, have worked with homeless people to plant flowers, landscape the gardens and transform it into a jewel.

At this time of year in the spring, there are upward of 100 people sitting in the garden at lunch time on a fine day. When the sun really warms up the garden will be completely full. Musicians from Southbank Sinfonia, actors from Futures Theatre Company, students from Kings College, workers, travellers, lovers, those at rest can sit there and pause and enjoy their surrounds.

The head gardener, Jonathan, has a nose and an eye for the seasons. He’s carefully planted in the micro-climate of this walled garden, so there are a huge variety of flowers in bloom and fragrances in the air from March until December. What was once a desperate grave yard has been transformed into an exquisite garden.

In 2006 local people were consulted and said they wanted a sculpture garden in this space. In mid-spring you will hardly notice the sculptures, tucked away between bush and flower. The art works in themselves are rather fragile and delicate. But in winter they come into their own, reminding us that if we survive the cold, the warmth will return, and if we see out the lean, there will be plenty again. The sculptures draw your eye and refresh your memory, so that if you take time and use your skill and imagination, you can enjoy beauty in the things created and the nature around.

The artists at Southbank Mosaics- sculptors, ceramicists and mosaic artisans work together on the understanding that everyone (and we don’t just mean the chosen) has a sacred spark of creativity within them. Stamp out the spark, lock-up the potential and you get no-go zones, where the bully boys hold court. What has happened since St Johns was dedicated as a sculpture garden, is that local people have realised the potential to create something special and unique, within themselves. They have worked in partnership with the authorities, who through laziness or neglect, allowed the space to deteriorate; and without argument, they have rejected indolence, rolled up their sleeves and created a memorable place.

This task has been realised by including the destitute, depressed and downtrodden. Those with odd-ball ideas and crazy twitiches can find a place here too. We may not like everything you do or say, but we respect the sacred life within you and are ready to include you in our merry crew. Could the run-down estates, the desolate streets and mown over sparse lands, be opened up by those in nominal authority and shared with local residents? Instead of indolence could we find the means to nurture creativity? This opens up a pandora’s box of potential horror as well as delight. Certain ground rules will need to be agreed early on: some sense of sharing, communion and peace. Some way of allowing work that has no durability or is out of place, to be put to one side and replaced. But could we create hundreds of jobs, making our towns and cities beautiful? Could local residents start to look at the dull streets, the forgotten parks, the run-down estates around where they live and join with others to do something about it? Could we start to create employment in tangible posts that make a difference?

There is a memorial to the homeless people in St Johns Sculpture Garden. It is a form of sculpture in itself: a part yoni-linga. The inspiration for the mosaics was Monet’s water lillies, painted in the last years of his life, when he was unable to leave his own garden and went down to its pond, repeatedly painting the water lillies there. For some people, their whole world is a very small place. The seating built in St Johns Garden has to be made so no one can sleep on it, so there are some unusual shapes. The memorial has the names of those who have died written on to the ceramic leaves of a plane tree and embedded into the seat. But people have continued to die in the garden or on the streets outside. So a new Tree of Life, topped with a sculpted cat and owl, has been built next to the memorial and lines have been left down the side of the Tree of Life, where new names can be added. The first name has been placed on the Tree of Life: Gary Pierce. Gary had been living on the street and around St Johns Garden, since 1979, when the sad death of his wife shocked him into a breakdown, from which he never fully recovered.  Gary loved his music and would often talk about Mahler or Brahms, or a concert he was hoping to get into at the Festival Hall. He brought the good out in many people. Surely his life is as valuable as an investment bankers?