In Praise of the Park

With lockdown measures easing in the UK, join me In Praise of the Park where many of us are now enjoying the sunshine, via works in public collections.

Anna Zinkeisen (1901-76), Valley Gardens with the Sun Pavilion in the Background, c.1935, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate (c) The Artist’s Estate

Urban parks are having something of a renaissance thanks to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Where once precious Daily Walks could be taken, now unlimited exercise is permitted, along with meeting one other household a day, in groups of up to eight people and whilst maintaining social distancing.  Anna Zinkeisen (1901-76) captures many of the pleasures possible in a park in her Valley Gardens with the Sun Pavilion in the Background of c.1935. Born in Kilcreggan in Argyll and Bute, Zinkeisen trained at Harrow School of Art before winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in London. After graduating she shared a studio in the English capital with her older sister Doris and both achieved considerable success between the wars.

Zinkeisen’s painting depicts the renowned Valley Gardens park in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. The newly constructed Sun Pavilion provides the background, itself a symbol of the health-giving benefits of spending time outside. The foreground is crowded with people from those walking a dog, to a nanny with her charges, an elderly lady in a wheelchair and tennis players striding forth; all are watched over by a classical sculpture and an alert Park Warden. Well-tended lawns and flower beds abound in a sun-drenched, happy scene. The work was probably a commission from the Harrogate Publicity Department, promoting the town’s spa, from whom it was acquired by the local Mercer Art Gallery in 1939.

Georges van Houten (1890-1964), Lady in a Blue Suit on a Park Bench, 1954,
Examination Schools, University of Oxford (c) The Artist’s Estate

In contrast, Lady in a Blue Suit on a Park Bench of 1954 by Georges van Houten (1890-1964) focuses on a single person and a common feature of park facilities. Van Houten was born in Antwerp and trained in Paris, where he became a member of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. From park benches being a place where police would chastise people for resting during the earliest days of lockdown, they have become the obvious meeting place for friends separated for ten weeks and now allowed to see each other outside.

In this gentle image, the woman sits calmly with hands folded in her lap. Behind her a woman gardens whilst a church steeple can be seen in the distance. The solidity of the woman’s form and that of the titular bench give way to a lighter touch in the handling of the surrounding trees and other vegetation. Brushstrokes are visible, space and depth come and go and the palette is based on greens, blues and greys. The peace which can be found in parks at certain times of day is conveyed in a work which was ‘found in store’ of the Examination Schools, University of Oxford. This discovery is possibly linked to the memorial exhibition of Van Houten’s work held at the nearby Ashmolean Museum in 1965.

Myrtle Farquharson (1931-2006), Children on Swings, c.1954
Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen (c) The Artist’s Estate

No park is complete without a play area, most commonly containing items such as a slide, seesaw and swings. Children’s sheer delight in such equipment is clear in Children on Swings of about 1954 by Myrtle Farquharson (1931-2006). Farquharson trained at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, before a long career as an art teacher in the city. On retirement, she was a regular presence at Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen’s print and digital studio.

Painted whilst a student, four children are viewed from behind, partly obscured by traditional park railings. All four are at difference stages of the swing arc, from tipping up at the back to almost tipping off at the front. The splayed striped skirt of the girl on the far right gives a sense of speed and freedom, her toes pointed to encourage movement and giving a sense of potential flight over the nearby flower bed. The frame of the swings extends beyond the board on which the work is painted, suggesting the rest of the park which can be barely glimpsed. Instead, the artist concentrates on the visual spectacle of the children’s energetic fun.

Ernest Borough Johnson (1866-1949), The Round Pond, 1934, Wolverhampton Art Gallery

A far more genteel park past-time is depicted in The Round Pond of 1934 by Ernest Borough Johnson (1866-1949). Born in Shifnal, Shropshire, Johnson trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and Hubert von Herkomer’s art school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. He held various teaching posts including at London University, Chelsea Polytechnic and Byam Shaw School of Art.

The Round Pond of the painting’s title is a celebrated feature of Kensington Gardens, London, near Kensington Palace. It has long been popular with model yacht enthusiasts, seen here clustered at its edge in the middle distance. However, the focal point is the two young women and their dog in the foreground, enjoying tea and cakes in the sunshine. One is turned to face the viewer, wearing a pretty summer dress and holding a closed parasol.  Her reclining friend plays with the dog, performing a ‘begging’ trick, perhaps hopeful of a titbit of one of the colourful macaroons on the nearby plate. Friendship, relaxation and sunshine are the order of the day. They are three of the most important things provided by parks, which are now being particularly enjoyed after months in lockdown.

3 Comments

  1. Nicholas Sack
    31 May 2020 / 5:04 pm

    A fascinating article, Alice, and I think your choice of paintings is inspired. Pictures of parks might be merely decorative, yet each of these four has a deeper subtext. Zinkeisen uses clean lines and sharp angles to convey modernity and healthy action: pointed shoes, stilettos, golly’s feet, stooping nanny, striding tennis players. Van Houten offers an enigma in cool blues and greens: Is the seated lady watching the woman gardening, or are her eyes unfocused in reverie? The railings at Farquharson’s playground imply an element of voyeurism from our vantage, and with the chains on the swings and rectangular flower-bed cohere in a strong, linear design. And in Johnson’s airy and light view, the arrangement of her skirts around the lady on the left gives the gentle illusion that she is levitating.

  2. Nicholas Sack
    1 June 2020 / 4:59 am

    Thank you, Alice. I have had no formal art education, but have enjoyed visiting galleries and collecting art books for many years. I’m new to Twitter, and have only recently discovered your articles, blog and books. It’s a pleasure to look at your choice of pictures and to read your words – always eloquent and insightful.

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