I was commissioned to do a painting of Covent Garden in central London. The client asked for a picture of the present market hall built in 1830, also including a few local characters. A delight to do.
When I arrived on site sketchbook in hand I began pulling in the shapes and counting the chimneys and such, and as I go through this process I can often drift off a bit and sift through my ever extending memory of my experiences of a place.
When I first moved to London in 1988 to sample the legendary golden paved streets for myself, Covent Garden was where I and my other wide eyed ‘soon to be millionaire’ friends used to gather on a Friday night to get a taste of the real London.
It was the place to be. We knew this because that was what we were told when we still lived in the provinces. “GO to Covent Garden when you visit London” people would say, and go to Covent Garden we did.
We would have a quick pint in the Nags Head outside the station then pile into the ‘Punch and Judy’ pub in the piazza, so named as it was the first documented location of Punch and Judy show, documented by Samuel Pepys of course. We would spend the rest of the night there getting our London fix, and it has to be said, pretty plastered too.
It never occurred to me then that the architecture was essentially classical Italian; the columns just reminded me of the Guildhall in Portsmouth, which is where I came from. The word ‘Piazza’ still never dropped any pennies for me either. And in the pubs and clubs I did not meet one Londoner. Plenty of Americans, Japanese, French and so on though no Londoners. Over time Covent Garden felt a mite distant, still enjoyable but distant. I came to live in London but where was this place? Then finally the penny clanged to the concrete pavement.
To me at least Covent Garden is not ‘London’, it is an international gathering spot, a place where visitors go and look out at London though they are unlikely to experience it there, Covent Garden is a sort of safe ‘Tourist-ville’ mini state.
Tourist-ville is not just in London either; it has embassies across the world. You will find it in St Mark’s Square in Venice, around the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Las Ramblas in Barcelona too.
They have the same population wearing the same clothes, the same ‘standing still for hours painted gold’ street entertainment and you will experience the same prices as well. Yes folks, Tourist-ville has its own international bank and the exchange rate is murder. I feel Covent Garden has far more in common with these places that it has with London.
I concluded that any place that is quintessentially anywhere at all can often have little to do with the architecture or even it’s so called ‘central location’, it is more about the people you meet there and their day to day lives. It will be those that will deliver the spirit of the place.
I am not saying don’t go there, of course any adventurer needs a base camp, a familiar place to re-charge before the next expedition and Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and such are ideal for this, fine places. Though London is so much more and I would say that once you have had your Skinny Latte and your Genuine Scottish Shortbread, pick up your Oyster Card and sally-forth to London’s outlands that are not on every tourist map and discover something for yourself.
While I was just finishing off the main parts of the drawing I was prodded out of my musings by a man in a ‘sort of’ uniform. He told me to stop as I needed a licence to draw in Covent Garden, I told him that I would stop and take photos instead, he then told me I could not take photos either, finishing with an Orwellian ‘because we have spotted you now’ he continued ‘if you want to draw here it’s £50 per day’. I then remembered those exchange rates!