As a child and into my teens I would rub the belly of a small gold statuette of Ganesh – the Hindu elephant god – for luck. This idol was my grandfathers’, found while he was deployed in the Burma Campaign during World War II, and retained by him and now my mother. As a result, or perhaps with no bearing at all, our family has an affinity with elephants and I was intrigued to come across the ‘Herd of Hope’ in Spitalfields Market. Twenty-one bronze life size sculptures currently grace the east London market, having migrated from their former dwellings in Marble Arch. The largest sculpture represents the matriarch and is flanked by twenty smaller orphan sculptures, all by Australian artist duo Gillie and Marc in an effort to raise awareness of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The elephants sit in juxtaposition to their urban surroundings; one in front of a coffee shop, another outside a takeaway food outlet, and others outside office blocks. Though perhaps the intention is to encourage us to question our relationship with our habitats, and the impact human tourism, poaching and conflict has had on wildlife. Each orphan has a name and personal plight, from Ambo who was found stuck in a waterhole abandoned by the herd, to Musiara who was discovered collapsed having lagged behind his herd, and Sattao who was orphaned as a result of poaching and found wandering by tourists with injuries from a predator attack. Using bronze as a medium allows for the cracks, creases and idiosyncratic textures of their skin to be highlighted. Several of the elephants are depicted standing, some are seated or lying down, some have their trunks held high and a scannable QR code enables you to learn more about each orphans rescue and rehabilitation. Deprived of museums, galleries and exhibitions until lockdown restrictions ease and arts venues can re-open, this troop provided a dose of outdoor culture.
The Fourth Plinth: Heather Phillipson
The Forth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, however insufficient funds led to it remaining bare for over 150 years until the late 1990’s. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce conceived an initial project for the plinth in 1999 which lasted until 2001 featuring works by Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread. Following this projects’ instant success, The Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group was established and subsequent works have included Nelson’s ship (HMS Victory) in a bottle with sails made from printed African fabric by Yinka Shonibare, a bronze boy on a rocking horse by Elmgreen & Dragset, a 4.72 metre high blue cockerel by Katharina Fritsch, a bronze human thumbs-up gesture by David Shrigley, and a recreation of a winged deity from 700BC Ninevah destroyed by Isis by Michael Rakowitz amongst others. Preamble over, and onto the current installation by Heather Phillipson entitled ‘The End’. It is the tallest work to grace the plinth at 9.4 metres high, and is an oversized dollop of whipped cream with various toppings; some traditional (a cherry and a fly) and some less typical (a drone, which transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square and the works’ audience). As well as it’s obvious questioning of state and surveillance, the work was originally intended to comment on global uncertainly post-Brexit and in the wake of the 2016 Unites States elections, as the whipped cream suggests instability as well as being something excessive but nutritionally poor. However, coronavirus meant that its’ installation was postponed by four months, and the public’s perceptions will have inevitably changed during 2020, and the work will now be viewed in a different sociological context. As uncertainty prevails and we live in time of increasing political, social, and economic upheaval where Trafalgar Square will undoubtedly be host to numerous protests, celebrations, and activity – what an interesting time to capture this all via an innocent looking dollop of cream!
Abney Park: Stoke Newington
Abney Park is a 13 hectare park dating from circa 1700, named after Lady Mary Abney. Dubbed one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ garden cemeteries of London it combines heritage, biodiversity, education and crafts in a refreshingly untamed woodland in Stoke Newington.
The park has a centuries old history; in 1832 Parliament passed a bill to encourage the establishment of new private cemeteries in response to London’s population expansion in the early 1800’s which resulted in inner city burial grounds overflowing. Within a decade seven had been established, and Abney Park was one of them. Its’ links with non-conformist Issac Watts quickly gave it a reputation as the foremost burial ground for Dissenters, and having a non-denominational chapel marked it out as unique. Sadly by the 1970’s the cemetery company went into administration and the site was abandoned and fell into wild disrepair. In the 80’s the London Borough of Hackney took ownership of the site and began to manage it in partnership with the Abney Park Trust, who made the wise decision to maintain this unique urban wilderness and balance the park as a place of memorial whilst being sympathetic to its varied wildlife and historic structures.
Over 200,000 people are buried at Abney Park, and as so many of the grave stones are hidden behind rows of others, down a side path, or at jaunty angles, there are always new names and stories to uncover. These range from William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, to Joanna Vassa, daughter of one of Britain’s first black activists Olaudah Equiano (alias Gustavus Vassa) who was shipped to England as a slave and served in the navy until obtaining his freedom in 1766. It is also home to Betsi Cadwaladr who aged over 60 trained as a nurse and joined Florence Nightingale in the Crimea War helping soldiers on the frontline, 19th century big cat tamer Frank Bostock who survived numerous attacks from wild animals but died from flu and is aptly laid to rest under a marble lion, and Samuel Robinson who founded Retreat Almshouses for the widows of dissenting ministers in Hackney.
As well as its famous residents the park was also the first designated local nature reserve in the borough. Biodiversity was important to the site from the start, as Issac Watts laid out an arboretum with 2,500 trees and plants organised alphabetically. Today there are over 200 ‘old’ trees, vital for providing homes for bats, owls and other animals as well as insects and fungi which can only exist where trees are at just the right stage of decay. Sparrowhawks, Tawny Owls, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Gold Tits, Stock Doves and other birds as well as less common Mallards and Canada Geese despite the lack of water can also be found here. Hundreds of wild flowers flourish in what may appear to be neglected grounds, including wild garlic, nettles and grasses which provide food for bees, butterflies, caterpillars and numerous other insects. Whether your interest lies in local history or nature, or you simply fancy a good walk head over to this beautifully untamed space.
For more information about opening hours and access visit their website
Spotlight on… The Line
Spotlight on… The Line, an outdoor sculpture trail that follows the Greenwich Meridian and runs from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to The 02. It creates an opportunity to explore London’s often ignored waterways and allows the public to enjoy art, nature and heritage for free. It recently celebrated it’s 5th birthday, and following Covid-19 and the lockdown measures, has also adapted quickly by launching The Line Online, enabling access via an interactive virtual map. The new website also showcases collaborations with The British Museum, Getty Images, the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Museums Greenwich and Museum of London, who have all provided fascinating historic images of life along these waterways and the different areas The Line passes through. These include black and white photographs of elephants returning to London’s docks following a touring circus, the construction of the Thames Barrier, and female workers at Bromley by Bow Gas Works having tea. Although the trail route is set, the artworks are regularly refreshed with certain sculptures removed and new pieces added. Current monolithic works include Richard Wilson’s ‘A Slice of Reality’, a vertical section of an ocean sand dredger now situated on the foreshore of the Thames exposing the living quarters and engine room, Joanna Rajkowska’s ‘The Hatchling’, a large scale replica of a blackbird egg complete with the sound of hatching chicks recorded by ornithologists emitting from the egg which acts as a speaker, Abigail Fallis’ ‘DNA DL90’ made from 22 shopping trolleys in the shape of a double-helix, and Antony Gormley’s ‘Quantum Cloud’ comprising 29 x 16 x 10 metres of galvanised steel. Past participating artists include Martin Creed, Damien Hirst, Sterling Ruby, James Balmforth, Eduardo Palozzi and Bill Viola amongst others – and future works are set to come from Rana Begum, Thomas J Price, Anne Hardy, Larry Achiampong and Yinka Ilori. As The Line is outdoors, the public can now safely walk, run or cycle its length responsibly. Moving forwards it will continue to add interest to these often overlooked parts of the city, connect people and place, and support mental and physical wellbeing for those venturing out again after months of lockdown.