A Walk in Central London: Public Gardens and Public Art (Good and Bad)

In my summer trip to London I spent a day walking around just looking at the sights. A great way to do this is to walk the parks – so we spent a day walking along the Embankment park, through to Trafalgar Square to St James Park, then Green Park and then Hyde Park. Along the way could see so many of the sights – the Thames, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Pall Mall, Hyde Park Corner for example.  We stopped regularly for a cup of tea bought at the kiosks in the park and enjoyed the gardens and public art as well as the more famous buildings.

I am convinced that gardens are the height of man’s interaction of with creation in which its beauty is raised up to something beyond the wilderness. The importance of public gardens in cities cannot be overemphasized, in my opinion, for it is through them that those living in cities can have direct contact with the cultivated land, which is I believe a fundamental need of man. I do not think that this need necessarily means that man ought to be able to cultivate his own food, so do not subscribe to the lan-reformers’ slogan of ‘three acres and a cow’. I personally have little interest in animal husbandry, aviculture, apiculture or agriculture and am very happy for others who are specialists to do this and supply supermarkets where I can buy their produce. I do believe in as much access to land as is possible, whether gardens or fields and so like the common European model of right to roam in which people have access to private property provided they respect it.

City parks and gardens derive their beauty as much from the public art as they do from the plants grown. Public art, of course has a greater impact also in those areas where there is no cultivation and Trafalgar Square in London is made by the Lions and Nelson’s column as well as the beauty of the buildings on it. There is a plinth on in the corner of Trafalgar Square and that is always given to a piece of contemporary art which changes regularly. The latest fiasco to occupy this spot is time a giant purple cockerel that looks as though its made out of resin. What an absurdity! The scale of a piece of art speaks of its importance – the huge size of this, and its garish unnatural colour make it dominate the whole square, clashing with the otherwise harmonious arrangement of the other works in the square and working contrary to the natural hierarchy, in which cockerels come below man.

The one positive is the new memorial to the members of the RAF who died during the war which was dedicated withing the last 12 months at Hyde Park corner. In contrast to the previous piece, this was set in a columned arcade and was something worthy of public attention. the style of the sculpture was traditional and accessible, and was aiming to make a statement about those who died and not the artist. I think that public art should be making a statement that has relevance at a public level. This does, the giant cockerel…well if it is, it isn’t communicating it to me.

So we’ll start with the new war memorial and then show pictures of the gardens.

The Greek columns support the roof over the sculpture of the bombers

 And here’s another modern piece next to it…who knows what this is about. It might be important, but nothing about it makes you want to care.

And now the gardens: the park on the Embankment is a thin slither of land that lines the river, with high buildings on the other side. It is barely any wider than what you can see here.

Avatar photo


David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage