Before Picasso

The environs of Pimlico Tube Station can confuse the visitor. Roads splay off in an arbitrary arrangement. A sign indicates your exit to get to Tate Britain. It is eerily quiet.You move forward cautiously and weave round the curve of Bessborough Street. Wham bam; you are back in noisy London, with the thundering traffic of Vauxhall Bridge Road.

Time to cross and hurry on down towards the Bridge, turning left on to Millbank. You are now within a brushstroke of the Tate, so stride on towards the much praised Picasso & Modern British Art Exhibition? That is definitely the goal, but is there anything worth noting before you get there?

Leaving the Thames aside for a moment, there is the name of the road. It comes from the former Mill for Westminster Abbey, the Abbey a 15 minute walk north along the Thames (yes, this is an area where the bend in the river causes the traditional North/South London divide to be turned 90 degrees).

In the 1700s, before Thomas Cubitt set to work on his 1820s onwards scheme for the development of Pimlico, the road, as described by the London Encyclopaedia, was “a lonely riverside road leading from Westminster to Chelsea through marshy ground and market gardens”. Strangely the breadth of the dual carriageway today imbues a sense of agoraphobic loneliness for the pedestrian.

In 1821 was completed nearby the Millbank Penitentiary, the prison that became known for housing prisoners awaiting transportation to the colonies for crimes against the State.

The Tate Gallery, today’s Tate Britain, opened on part of the prison site in 1897 after the prison finally closed in 1890, but moving on in this journey towards the Tate you first encounter the Morpeth Arms. This is a pleasant Young’s pub, whose claim to attraction includes an invitation to “Come and ask about the Pubs’ (sic) interesting past and what lurks beneath”.

The Morpeth Arms - what lurks beneath?

 If you respond, and do so at a less busy time of the day, the enthusiastic staff will take you down to the cellars to tell you tales from when these were prison cells. Unfortunately, the sceptical map-aware historian folk pour cold water on these claims – nevertheless the stories are good and cost no more than the price of what you buy in the pub.

It seems a shame to press on without crossing the road and succumbing to the magnetic attraction of a look over the river.  Before that there is the Riverside Walk Garden and two impressive pieces of public art.

The first is the well-established “Locking Piece” by Henry Moore, from 1963/64 and owned by Tate Britain, depicting two forms (based on pebbles found by Moore) that lock together but can be separated by lifting and twisting. Abstract piece, or image of how a relationship can come apart? The beholder decides.

Locking Piece
The golf bag is from a chap resourcefully using the patch of grass for pitch and putt practice

Nearby, and much newer, is Simon Gudgeon’s Search for Enlightenment, installed as part of the Westminster City of Sculpture Festival 2010-2012. The space within each head, male and female, is hollow, to allow views from a number of perspectives.

The Halcyon Gallery’s website note describes the figures as being in contemplation, absorbing great knowledge, at a point of realisation about their place in the universe.

Search for Enlightenment
An irreverential alternative perspective is that the figures are staring at planes on the flight path to Heathrow.

Near to Locking Piece is an incontrovertible relic from Millbank Prison, a buttress marking the head of the steps down to the river and the beginning of the convicts’ long journey.

The buttress  - This way, ladies and gentlemen please

And for the river itself, perhaps the most notable sight, to the left of the bridge, is the headquarters of MI6 (the UK counter intelligence agency) - the agency is presently in the UK news due to the mysterious demise of one of its staff,  Gareth Williams.

The panoramic view
A closer view

The design of the building is by Sir Terry Farrell, whose concept was a “palace” structure, similar to his Embankment Place that overlays Charing Cross Station.

And what do we spot on the slipway just by the side of MI6? Here process on to and off of the river the amphibious survivors of World War II action, run by the London Duck Tours company, whose service I confess (and without any commission) I recommend all the time as a fun tour in London.

The transition moment - in the distance, the next craft waits
And all on the river, having a jolly time

If the sight of the craft makes the visitor want to get on the water, then a convenient ferry plies a route between the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern on the edge of the City. As well as being an enjoyable experience, it is a massively more convenient way of doing the journey than by any other means.

Off to Tate Modern for another slice of culture

Now for Picasso. Another blogpost, I think.