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Up On The Roof With Roy Emmins

July 18, 2021
by the gentle author

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Remembering Roy Emmins (1939-2021) who died last week

On a humid midsummer’s day in Whitechapel, the ideal place to be was up on the roof with Roy Emmins, in his wonderful sculpture garden at the back of the Royal London Hospital. Peering down upon everyone else, looking like ants going about their business with entirely mysterious imperatives, it was a refreshingly liberating experience, and if there was any breeze to be had, you felt its cooling influence up there, wafting the scents of Roy’s flowers over the rooftops. From this lofty roost, Roy looked back fondly to the hospital where for thirty-two years he worked as porter, surrounded by the sculptures that occupied him since he took early retirement from the hospital.

For the last forty years, Roy inhabited this tiny caretaker’s flat, added as an afterthought upon the roof of a streamlined art deco block in Turner St, and it was my pleasure to visit him there. Roy took me up in the lift to the top floor, opened his blue front door and genially ushered me inside. To my delight, I found four small rooms organised meticulously, like cabins on a boat, with all kinds of shelves and cabinets where everything had its place, and every space was embellished with the great variety of Roy’s extraordinary sculptures and paintings, bestowing a magical presence of their own – from tiny birds shaped out of tinfoil to graceful human figures hewn from alabaster.

Each narrow room had windows on either side with views across the roofs and far over the city on both sides. On the south side was a bare roof covered in pigeons who conveniently left fertilizer that Roy gratefully collected for his flourishing garden on the north side. Stocked from Columbia Rd and Watney Markets, Roy’s roof garden possessed an intriguing selection of plants. Hardy varieties that withstand wind and thrive in dry conditions suited this location best, and I admired Roy’s inspired combinations of succulents, miniature trees and colourful border planting, like heucheras, artemisias, gazzanias, ox-eye daisies and mallow, mixed in with potatoes and three kinds of tomato plants.

Yet it was the sculpture that made Roy’s garden pure poetry, his charismatic stone and concrete figures encrusted with lichen and bronze figures patinated green by the elements. At first, you did not spot all of them lurking among the plants, driftwood, shells and pots, but, as they caught your eye, you saw the individual sculptures against the backdrop of the distant cityscape, proposing extraordinary contrasts of scale that fired the imagination.

Roy’s earthly paradise was occasionally shattered when helicopters flew low overhead to land at the nearby helipad on the roof of the hospital. It gave our conversation some pauses for consideration, as we sipped our tea, waiting for the din of the whirring steel monster to pass over.

In time, the authorities at the hospital conveniently moved the helipad away from Roy’s flat, up onto the top of the new gleaming blue towers. The startling modernity of this development existed in bizarre contrast to Roy’s first experience when he began working at the hospital in 1964 as a catering porter, and he remembered delivering milk to the matron’s flat in the eighteenth century west wing, with an old parlour retaining all of its nineteenth century furnishings including an aspidistra on a stand.

To the east, directly across Turner St, sits the deconsecrated church of St Augustine with St Philip, now used as the hospital library and archive, where the Elephant Man’s hat is kept, and Roy pointed out the bronze bell at our eye level, still hanging high upon the rooftop, where once he saw a kestrel perch to pull the feathers off a small bird and devour it for its dinner. To the west, gesturing in the opposite direction, Roy pointed out the former hostel in Fieldgate St that once counted Lenin and Orwell amongst its transient occupants. In this location, rich in every kind of cultural and historical resonance, Roy was alive to all the stories, which served as a colourful background to the quiet home where he spent most of his time in his roof garden at this time of year.

At that time, Roy acquired a new companion, Max, a short-haired black tomcat with a sturdy muscular body and a forthright personality. Previously living the life of a homeless alley cat, with battle scars and mange to prove it, under Roy’s benign influence Max already looked healthier. He had quickly made himself sublimely at home on Roy’s rooftop, even jumping with reckless innocence across the chasm onto the chimney stack of The Good Samaritan pub next door and sunning himself among the chimney pots. As Roy and I enjoyed our tea and idle conversation upon the roof top beneath the sunshine and slow-moving clouds, with astute opportunism Max took advantage of the companionable shade we created, stretching out beneath our seats.

Moving between his rooftop flat and the studio down in Cable St, where he made his sculptures, it was a modest yet enviable existence Roy carved out for himself. As I said “Goodbye”, he handed me a bag with the noble paper mache lion that I bought from him, which now sits upon my desk as a constant reminder of Roy’s vision. I do not know if Roy Emmins’ placid spirit was the result of the life he has created for himself or whether his personality led him to seek out these calm spaces conducive to his sympathetic nature. So instead I must credit it all to the unique quality of his inventive imagination, creating such a prodigious range of work with constantly renewing delight.


We are seeking a permanent home for Roy’s sculptures where they can be displayed – a museum, a gallery, or a local school or city farm perhaps? If you can help please drop a line to


Max contemplates a death-defying leap onto the chimney stack  of The Good Samaritan pub next door

Roy Emmins’ paper maché lion

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Roy Emmins, Sculptor

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Leana Pooley permalink
    July 18, 2021

    I have loved reading this although I’m sad that it will all be swept away.

  2. Ann V permalink
    July 18, 2021

    Roy’s roof garden looks like a little bit of Heaven on Earth. Lets hope that his collection of sculptures can be found a good home where they can be appreciated.

  3. July 18, 2021

    RIP Roy Emmins. Whatr a wonderful rooftop garden. I hope a place will be fund for all of Roy’s sculptures. But what about Max? What is going to happen to Max?

  4. Sue permalink
    July 18, 2021

    What a lovely spot. That lion is wonderful.
    R.I.P. Roy.

  5. July 18, 2021

    A delightful story about a most interesting individual. What a lovely garden & sculptures …and Max the cat whom I hope, is re-homed to live happily ever after. RIP Roy

  6. July 18, 2021

    What a lovely gentleman. So creative and kind. The fact the hospital allowed him to stay on in residence after his retirement speaks volumes.

    And what a fantastic location for a garden.

  7. Harriette permalink
    July 18, 2021

    Lovely article about a talented man. So sorry he is gone.

  8. suzy permalink
    July 19, 2021

    Ahhh just loved this so much. Travel well dear Mr Emmins. Travel well. x

  9. John Parham permalink
    July 19, 2021

    Was a week on the ward in the Royal London last May up on the 13th floor with spectacular views from my window west over London – I could see Roy’s garden very well, and a couple of times spotted him pottering about there.

    I told him this when I met him not long after and he joked benignly ‘Ah, so that was you watching me, I thought someone was!’

    Much missed dear old man.

  10. Bernie permalink
    July 19, 2021

    Sic transit gloria mundi.

    From 1953 to 1956, 65 years ago (really!?) I worked at the London Hospital Medical College, in Turner St, and I am sorry to say that among the innocent things I did in the course of that work there was also one less-than-innocent act of pollution that pumped evil-smelling (but not very harmful) vapours out into the air. Happy that Roy and his garden were not there then!

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