Well it’s been a while, for obvious reasons, but I’m finally back pounding the pavements of the mighty capital albeit under the constraints of the “new normal”. In order to minimise use of public transport today’s walk isn’t contiguous with the previous outing back in March. Instead we’ve hopped off the train at Vauxhall and crossed the bridge of the same name to explore the area where the southern part of Westminster rubs up against Pimlico, home to Tate Britain, MI5, Channel 4 and the Royal Horticultural Society.
Vauxhall Bridge is looking a bit of a mess at the moment as it’s in the throes of three months’ of “critical maintenance” which will include addressing the corrosion and deterioration of the Edwardian structure’s metalwork and bearings. As such it’s closed to all vehicles other than southbound buses. In addition to this, just upstream from the bridge on the south side is one of the construction sites for the 25km long so-called “Super Sewer” which will finally prevent raw sewage flowing directly into the Thames when the 150 year old existing Victorian sewer system overflows. This is scheduled for completion in 2024. Let’s hope they manage to keep to the timetable better than Crossrail.
The present Vauxhall Bridge was opened in 1906 replacing the first iron bridge to be built across the Thames which was put in place a century earlier. The new bridge was originally intended to be built of concrete faced with granite in a neo-Gothic style. However when it was discovered that the clay of the riverbed at this point wouldn’t be able to support the weight of the concrete it was decided to impose a steel structure on the granite piers which had already been embedded. The bridge was built to a functional design by engineers, Sir Alexander Binnie and Maurice Fitzmaurice (yes I know). After something of an outcry from the architectural community, Alfred Drury and Frederick Pomeroy were appointed to design four monumental bronze statues each to be sited above the piers. On the upstream piers are Pomeroy’s Agriculture, Architecture, Engineering and Pottery, whilst on the downstream piers are Drury’s Science, Fine Arts, Local Government and Education each of them weighing approximately two tons (just look closely).
At the north end of the bridge we turn right on Millbank towards Tate Britain but as I’m slightly early for my booked visit we can knock off Ponsonby Terrace and Ponsonby Place on the way.
Jeté, a bronze sculpture of a dancer, cast by Enzo Plazotta in 1975 which stands outside no.48 Millbank.
Standing opposite Tate Britain on the west side of Atterbury Street is Chelsea College of Arts. The college started life in 1895 as one of the schools of South-Western Polytechnic (which actually was in Chelsea). In 1908 this merged with the Hammersmith School of Art to form the Chelsea School of Art. The school was renamed Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1989 and then acquired its present name in 2013. It only took over the site here on Millbank in 2005, the buildings having originally been built to house the Royal Army Medical College in 1907. Prior to that, Millbank Prison had occupied the site of both the college and Tate Britain for around 80 years. Amongst its alumni Chelsea includes Anish Kapoor, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger.
As mentioned, I had pre-booked my visit to Tate Britain in accordance with the current requirements. I had decided to forego the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition and follow the designated route devoted to British Art from 1930 onward despite the fact that there aren’t that many Britons among my favourite artists of the 20th century. The selection of highlights below therefore eschews the obvious Bacon’s and Hockney’s in favour of some lesser-known lights.
Milk and Plain Chocolate (1933) by Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982). Nicholson’s second wife was the much more widely known sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. The Mondrian influence on his abstract work is clearly apparent here.
Morvah (1958) by Paul Feiler (1918 – 2013). German-born Feiler, he was sent to school in England in the thirties, was a member of the St Ives School of painters. Morvah is a village west of St Ives.
Family Group (1949) and King & Queen (1952-3) by Henry Moore. Immediately recognizable of course. Personally I much prefer Moore’s figurative work to the abstract stuff.
More Moores. Including the posthumous 2020 work “Masked Man” there on the right.
Inversions (1966) by Mary Martin (1907 – 1969). Not just picked in order to provide the reflection of the day.
As noted above, the institution first known as the National Gallery of British Art was built on part of the site of the Millbank Penitentiary, used as the departure point for sending convicts to Australia, which was demolished in 1890.
Sidney R.J. Smith was the chosen architect and his design with its grand porticoed entranceway and central dome resembling a temple remains the core of the building today. The statue of Britannia with a lion and a unicorn on top of the pediment at the Millbank entrance bluntly emphasised its function as a gallery of British art. The gallery opened its doors to the public in 1897, displaying 245 works in eight rooms from British artists dating back to 1790.
Since its original opening, the Millbank site has had seven major building extensions, doubling in size in its first 15 years. And by 1917 it had become responsible for the national collection of British art from 1500. The Tate Gallery name was officially adopted in 1932 and in 1955 it became wholly independent from the National Gallery. A major extension in the north-east corner, designed by Richard Llewelyn-Davies opened in 1979 and in the same year, the gallery took over the adjacent disused military hospital, enabling the building of the new Clore Gallery, designed by Sir James Stirling and funded by the Clore Foundation. That opened in 1987 and went on to win a Royal Institute of British Architects award the following year.
On the right above is part of Steve McQueen‘s large-scale installation, Year 3. Every Year 3 class in London was invited to have its photograph taken by a team of specially trained Tate photographers. Participants included children from state primaries, independent schools, faith schools, special schools, pupil referral units and home-educated pupils.
Just beyond Tate Britain, heading downstream, is the Millbank Tower, which upon its construction in 1963 as the HQ for the Vickers engineering conglomerate, after which it was originally named, was the tallest building in the UK. It retained that pre-eminence only until the Post Office Tower opened the following year. It was designed by Ronald Ward and Partners and built by John Mowlem & Co. and unlike many of the high-rise buildings of that era has not only survived but attained Grade II listed status. Throughout its history, the Millbank Tower has been home to many high-profile political and other organisations. In the nineties the word Millbank became synonymous with the Labour Party which ran its 1997 General Election campaign from offices here and after the election relocated its HQ to the tower. After five years residence however, the £1 million per annum rent forced another move. The United Nations also had offices in the tower, but moved out in June 2003. Other public bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Audit Commission have continued to occupy the building. I had a brief temporary job here in the mid-1980’s with Whitehall Securities which was the holding company of Pearson plc, then the owner of Penguin Books and the FT. The floor they leased in the tower basically just comprised the boardroom and the directors’ offices and dining room. My job was to assist the guy who organised the rota for the pool of drivers who ferried those directors to and from their homes and around the city. Different times eh ?
30 Millbank which is part of the same sixties complex was used as campaign headquarters by the Conservative Party between 2006 and 2014 and more recently the Leave.EU and People’s Vote campaigns have had offices in the tower. In 2016, to the surprise of precisely no-one, a successful application was made to redevelop the complex as a luxury hotel and flats. Post-Covid I can’t but think that the developers might wish to renege on that option. Oh and that sculpture in the top right photo is “Momentum III” by Michael Spiller.
That’s enough of Millbank for now; we’ll make our escape via Thorney Street and then turn onto Page Street which takes us past the back of Burberry HQ to John Islip Street.
John Islip was Abbot of Westminster from 1500 until his death in 1532 and was buried in the chantry chapel he built at Westminster Abbey. We follow the street named after him all the way back to Vauxhall Bridge Road passing en route the rear of Tate Britain and the statue of John Everett Millais (1829 – 96).
The statue was commissioned shortly after Millais’ death by a committee chaired by Edward, Prince of Wales and was created by Thomas Brock (1847 – 1922) who also designed the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. A leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Millais is today as well-known for his personal life, rescuing his wife Euphemia “Effie” Gray from her unconsummated first marriage to the critic (and Millais’ patron) John Ruskin, as he is for his art.
Once on Vauxhall Bridge Road (VBR) we swing right past the Embassy of Lithuania and the White Swan Pub (which I visited many times in the late Eighties) and loop round Causton Street and Ponsonby Place back to John Islip Street.
We take the first left, Cureton Street, then continue heading back north-east on Herrick Street, checking out St Oswulf Street and Bulinga Street before arriving at Marsham Street. This area between Tate Britain and Vincent Square is occupied by the Grade II listed red brick buildings of the Millbank Estate built between 1897 and 1902. The bricks were recycled from the demolished prison. The 17 buildings, comprising one of London’s earliest social housing schemes, are all named after painters; below are Rossetti and Ruskin Houses and Turner and Stubbs Houses. The estate has 562 flats and these days roughly half of them are private leases.
Marsham Street takes us back to John Islip Street where we continue on to another stretch of Page Street that links up with Erasmus Street which sends us back south east again. VBR is reached again via Cureton Street, Causton Street and Regency Street. At the junction of the latter two is our sole blue plaque of this outing.
Harry Mallin (1892 -1969) was a middleweight amateur boxer and officer with the Metropolitan Police. He won gold at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and successfully defended the title four years later in Paris ( a feat unmatched by a British boxer until Nicola Adams came along). In 1937, he achieved the distinction of being the first British television sports commentator, when he gave commentary on two boxing matches broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace.
Next we work our way north from VBR courtesy of Chapter Street, Douglas Street, Esterbrooke Street and Regency Street as far as Vincent Street. In between Vincent Street and Page Street stands the similarly Grade II Listed Grosvenor Housing Estate designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944) and built between 1929 and 1935. The estate comprises seven U-shaped blocks faced with grey bricks and white render in a checkerboard pattern. I think influence of that man Mondrian might be in play here as well (Mondrian was an almost exact contemporary of Lutyens – 1872-1944).
Having circumnavigated the estate via Herrick Street, Page Street and Regency Street we wend our way back to VBR by means of Hide Place, Douglas Street and Osbert Street then criss-cross between VBR and Vincent Square along Stanford Street, Bloomburg Street and Udall Street. On the corner of the latter and Vincent Square stands what was the Infants Hospital from 1907 to 1995 but is now of course luxury apartments.
Vincent Square, all 13 acres of it, is owned and principally used as playing fields by Westminster School. The square contains a cricket pavilion, four football pitches (cricket pitches in the summer), about 10 tennis courts, and the groundsman’s house. It was developed in the 18th century on land originally known as Tothill Fields, and was named after William Vincent, a former Dean of Westminster and headmaster of Westminster School. Prior to that its uses had included acting as a burial pit for victims of the Great Plague. In the south and west corners are a couple of concrete-based basketball courts/five-a-side football pitches. The day I passed by coincided with the return to school of the majority of London pupils and so there were about seventy or so year 7s from the local comprehensive crammed into these spaces for their first games lesson. If you’re looking for a visual representation of the British class structure you couldn’t do much better than that.
More upscale accommodation is available at Vincent House on the west side of the square. This elegant 1939 building offers serviced rooms with accompanying facilities including a bar with snooker table and piano.
We detour off to complete a triangle of Fynes Street, Regency Street and Rutherford Street and a loop round Maunsel Street, Horseferry Road and Elverton Street before returning to the north(-ish) side of the square where we find, Lindley Hall, the HQ of the Royal Horticultural Society which also incorporates the Lindley Library which is based upon the book collection of English botanist John Lindley, comprising many rare books dating from 1514. The Hall was built in 1904 to host botanic art exhibitions held by the RHS and nowadays hosts events such as London Fashion Week as well as weddings.
We follow the west side of the square and Hatherley Street back to VBR for a final time. At the junction of the two is a terracotta plaque to the above-mentioned William Vincent.
Rochester Row lead us back in a north-easterly direction towards Horseferry Road with diversions en route to take in Walcott Street, Vane Street, Rochester Street and Greycoat Street.
On the way we call in at St Stephen’s Church which was built by Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), grand-daughter and heiress to the banker, Thomas Coutts. She intended it as a memorial to her father, Sir Francis Burdett, a former brilliant and radical Member of Parliament for Westminster. With the encouragement of her close friend, Charles Dickens, she chose to build it in a very poor area on the edge of the notorious Devil’s Acre on land donated by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. The chosen architect was Benjamin Ferrey, a pupil of Pugin, and the foundation stone was laid in 1847.
On the building adjacent to the church on Rochester are several signs like the one to the left. “Ancient Lights” refers to the common law right to light which means that the owner of a building with windows that have received natural daylight for 20 years or more is entitled to forbid any construction or other obstruction that would deprive him or her of that illumination.
Horseferry Road takes its name from the ferry which once used to cross the span of the Thames now occupied by Lambeth Bridge. These days it’s best known for being home to the original (and now London) headquarters of Channel 4 TV. It’s also the site of Westminster Coroner’s Court and the regimental headquarters of the London Scottish Regiment (where the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic took place). The Channel 4 building was opened on 6 July 1994 and was designed by Richard Rogers and Partners. It was the first major building they had designed since the Lloyd’s building (1978-1986). The building, which consists of two four-storey office blocks connected to a central entrance block in an L shape, is finished in grey steel cladding, which is perforated by red-ochre steel struts. The precise colour of those struts was reputedly achieved by copying a sample of the paint used for the Golden Gate Bridge and provided by the City of San Francisco.
Having followed Horseferry Road down to the river all that remains is to walk back along Millbank to our starting point. One last important stop before we finish though is Thames House which occupies the block between Millbank and Thorney Street. Originally built in 1929-30 as offices for chemical giant, ICI, Thames House has since 1994 been the home of the UK Internal Security Service, more popularly known as MI5. The building was designed by Sir Frank Baines, of the Government’s Office of Works, in an ‘Imperial Neoclassical’ style. High up on the frontage are statues of St George and Britannia sculpted by Charles Sargeant Jagger. The building has been Grade II listed since 1981. Reportedly there is an automated miniature monorail within the building which brings files up from the basement for the use of MI5 office staff.