ex Friends Chairman Philip Wright OBE writes, in Issue 81..
Osbert Lancaster the cartoonist, designer and writer was born in 1908. His centenary last year was celebrated with a major exhibition sponsored by the John Murray Trust (a most generous donor to the Winter Garden) at the Wallace Collection. The exhibition was accompanied by a splendid book by James Knox, Cartoons and Coronets: The Genius of Osbert Lancaster. A few short paragraphs describe how Osbert Lancaster teamed up with John Piper to design the Grand Vista, which was the centrepiece of the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park in 1951. The purpose of the Gardens was to make a dazzling break from the bleak rationed world of post-war Britain and to evoke the spirit of eighteenth century pleasure grounds such as Vauxhall. The chosen architectural style for the Grand Vista was Chinese Gothic combining a sense of theatricality with all sorts of quirks to entertain the onlooker. In the foreground were two great flights of shallow steps which led to two rectangular lakes each containing a pair of pyramidal fountains bubbling luminously on either side of a central walk. Young girls dressed in seventeenth century frocks wandered up and down the steps proffering oranges from baskets, gracefully carried at their bent elbows. To the right and left of the steps a pair of twelve-sided dark red Gothic towers were topped with dovecotes with doves cooing among the surrounding trees. Behind the white cane mouldings of the columns soft lights set the towers aglow. Painted cane work figures looked out from their blue recesses. The outer edges of the two lakes were flanked by yellow and black arcades with golden roofs lit by lanterns reflecting in the water. The arcades formed a frame beyond which the Vista continued down more steps to the Fountain Lake with interlacing arches and vertical spirals of water illuminated silver at night. In the run up to the opening, the construction of the gardens was delayed by torrential rain, strikes and financial mismanagement. Harper’s Bazaar predicted: “still sunk in primeval slime, it seems that the Pleasure Garden can never be more than a lovely mirage in the minds of Piper, Lancaster and the other artists who imagined them.” Their pessimism was over- done. The gardens opened in the summer of 1951 and attracted eight million visitors in the course of the year. The Grand Vista and Fountain Lake were included in the major restoration works to the Park which were opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 2004. The threat of vandalism forced changes. For example, the ghostly outline of Crystal Palace, sketched out by bamboo on the fireworks stage at the end of Fountain Lake in the 1951 design, is now represented by highpowered water jets. Recognition of the success of the restoration came in the form of a Civic Trust Award in 2006. There is no doubt the vibrant planting, lighting and fountains do go some way to recreate the themes and the exuberance intended in the original design of Osbert Lancaster and John Piper.