The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens

My friend, colleague and occasional co-blogger Isabel Hernandez has been promising me a post for weeks but has been suffering from creative difficulties. To solve the problem she turned to a different topic and surprised me with this charming piece.

 

“Shall I tell you something about some of the little people who live in the Elfin Oak?”

 Something about childhood and summer days triggered my interest in the Elfin Oak recently. In looking for something the other day, I came across a little inconspicuous book by Elsie Innes called, The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens, which she wrote in 1930. The author is, of course, the wife of the artist Ivor Innes. The man who sculpted the animal and fairy figures of this well-known feature found by the Princess Diana children’s playground, near the Bayswater end of the Broad Walk. If you ever wondered about the story behind all those little figures, including their names, this is where she imaginatively gives them life. I had no idea this existed, but then I guess I always had my own inklings as a child as to who they are. I don’t say ‘were’ because thanks to two major restorations over the decades, these little figures are preserved and continue to delight children and adults alike. A little more about that later.

Before I show you some of the lovely illustrations from the book I thought I would give you a little background as to the origins of this marvelous park artifact. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the hollowed out oak log. To some it was a mystifying object, but not so out of place that it doesn’t almost compliment that other familiar feature, Peter Pan. It is said that Kensington Gardens is home to the fairy folk. And why not? London’s Parks have a history that goes way back before we inhabited them. Once upon a time this was all ancient woodland.

Below is an image taken in 1967. It is important to note that the Elfin Oak is not a native of Kensington Gardens. This ancient oak was originally brought from Richmond Park in response to an appeal to improve facilities in the Royal parks – the Lansbury Appeal. It was unveiled in 1930 by the Mayoress of Kensington, Mrs Robinson, as reported in the Kensington News.

Its age varies according to whatever source you’re reading. In researching this I came across several different estimates: from 100 years to 1000 years. Many fanciful journalists I would imagine, in some reports, just made it up. Yet perhaps nobody really has a definitive answer. If I had to bet on the age (I did always wonder), I think perhaps it is between 400-600 years of age, but I’m no expert. That’s my fanciful notion. Trees are wonderfully long-lived and oaks have been venerated throughout history as being strong and durable. Another interesting tree fact about Kensington Gardens is that few old oaks remaining in the park are pre-1850. Many of the oaks you see today were planted since.

 

 

Below, taken a little earlier (1966), the half-tree trunk looks a little worse for wear, but in actuality this was probably post restoration which was undertaken by the late comedian, Spike Milligan. He is largely responsible for the campaign to keep the Elfin Oak preserved on two occasions. In the early 1960’s he was so shocked by the deteriorating condition of the tree that he undertook the repairs and restoration of the oak stump and its little figures at his own expense. Later in the 1990’s he led a campaign to raise money to restore it again and succeeded:

“We spent two years restoring the tree. That was 30 years ago. Alas it got into a sorry state again and needed attention to ensure its permanent survival.” After thanking his various contributors, he adds, “So there is now hope for the wee folk of England.”

Note the huge slide in the background. Something of a health & safety nightmare these days, but I do recall a few bumps and bruises after playground visits occasionally.

 

 

The black and white photographs do not do the sculpted figures justice as their colour is obviously muted, but the gnarled knots and twists within the oak itself probably look more contoured in black and white.

 

 

The tree is comprised of fantastical creatures: gnomes, elves, witches and animals of the forest. They all have a story. The plaque by the tree reads:

“Originally carved in 1911 and maintained for over 40 years by sculptor Ivor Innes.” He carved out his creations by chipping and scraping the distortions of growth and grain. And yet there came a point eventually in the years afterwards when the little figures began to look a little shabby and neglected. The oak log itself was reconditioned to stave off the onslaught of insects feeding off the dead wood. It was given a coating of creosote, a kind of wood tar, its branches were covered with lead and blackened, and the base of the tree was given a concrete floor. But the sculpted figures were also in desperate need of attention. Every few years they were painted, but the ravages of time took their toll.

 

 

If you’re wondering why the Elfin Oak is in a cage it is probably partly because soon after renovations took place in 1966, it was discovered that the fairy king had gone missing. A little bell which Spike Milligan had found in the ruins of Knightsbridge barracks and included, had gone too. Either a theft had taken place or the fairy king decided he needed to go and attend to affairs elsewhere with a bell, and gone gallivanting. The cage in actuality is a protective addition.

 

 

In colour the tree stump and figures look a lot more cheerful. Also this was post renovation. A huge difference to what it looked like before it was lovingly restored.

 

 

So who are these little figures? The illustrations below are all the work of Ivor Innes. His talent was not confined to sculpture. As you will see below, he really did have a flair for illustration too. I really think they are rather charming and I will now let Elsie tell you who they are in her own quaint, inimitable way…

“High up in the tree is a little old witch. She is Wookey. She has three large jars of magic potion – one red – one yellow – and one blue. The red brings health, the yellow wealth, and the blue happiness.”

 

 

“And everyone wants some of the most precious potion of all, from the blue jar, for that brings great happiness, such as love, sunny hours, merry thoughts, and sweet memories”

 

“Down in a hollow in the old tree trunk lives a little grey woman, Mother Cinders.”

 

 

“Nearby is the Gnomes’ Stairway, going up the steep side of the old trunk. At the top under the arch is Huckleberry, a strong little fellow, carrying a heavy sack of fresh berries for the feast of the king of the gnomes. And halfway up the steps is Nimble Toes climbing over an awkward knobbly ledge. Just below him, Russet is resting his sack of acorn flour. And lower down still, just beginning to climb, is the Dew Carrier, with his little pail strapped to his back.”

 

 

“It is usually very, very difficult to see fairies and they do not often show themselves to prying eyes. A dainty wee fairy is on a ledge of the old oak tree. She is Harebell.”

 

 

“Here is Dandy-Puff, a little imp dressed in yellow; Pointed Ear, an elf in green, clinging under the ledge; Hideaway, in the shade below; and Snuggles, a pixy peeping out from the corner edge. The Little People call all this part of the tree Sunny Corner.”

 

“On an outstanding branch of the oak the Green Woodpecker has pecked at the hard wood with his strong beak.”

 

 

Sly Fox is curled up close beside a rabbit hole, fast asleep, but the fat little bunnies are afraid to venture out.”

 

 

“Up at the very top of the tree a raid on the Crow’s nest has been going on. The pixies have just succeeded in getting an egg. On Midsummer Day the fairies hold a special Revelry. You hear them in the rippling brooks; you feel them in the passing breeze; and you see them in the moonlight when night brings the full moon, and they dance and sway in fairy rings to ravishing elfin music, or they frolic and gambol and float in misty wreaths on the hillsides.”

 

 

“Hidden away in the roots of the tree, you may discover the Leprechauns’ Crock of Gold, near where two little mice are scampering about. Do not touch the fairy gold, or try to steal it, for it will only turn to dead leaves if you do, and luck will always be against you.”

“The Brown Owl looks out from his favourite nook. He is the colour of the tree itself that he is at first difficult to notice. He and the White Barn Owl above him always share in the night revelry of the Little People, swooping and flitting silently round the tree whilst the feasting is in progress.”

 

 

“Between these two wise owls there is a little man poring over a very large book. He is Quips, and he keeps the records, and writes the Fairy Lore. Every wise saying and doing of the elfin folk is recorded by Quips. So now you know how Fairy Tales come to be written.”

 

“There is one more creature who has made a home for himself in the Elfin Oak. He is the Wild Brown Rabbit, friend of all the fairy folk; his long ears are quick to hear the slightest sound, and if danger approaches the stamp, stamp of his strong hind foot is heard on the ground, the warning signal for all the little people to get into hiding.”

 

“It is at night after the playground has closed that the feasts are prepared; the fairies dance, and the pipers play, and the owls wake up, and all the little elves and brownies, gnomes and pixies, leave their hiding-holes and play and dance in the moonlight round the Old Elfin Oak.”

Should you happen to take a stroll through Kensington Gardens at any point with a little time to spare, go and take a look at the Elfin Oak. It has been a few years since I visited Ivor Innes’ whimsical creation, but I’m pleased to say that my enthusiasm for the old tree has not dissipated with age. In fact, part of me still clings to that imaginative lore of old. However you fashion myths and fairy tales, there is always a way to tell the story. The Elfin Oak is simply an interpretation of somebody’s vision of a fairy tale. It may appear a little dated now, but it remains unique, and like Peter Pan, it will never really grow old with new generations always discovering it for the first time.

 

Postscript by DW

Isabel has done me a favour by having this week’s post ready to go. The fact that the subject has no connection with the terrible events of last week is fortunate. Last week I felt it was inappropriate to post anything in the face of the massive trauma suffered by the people of North Kensington. But is it any better to carry on after a respectful silence? Remember, I work for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea so it’s also inappropriate for me to enter into any controversy. So let me just say this.

It is clear that the Grenfell Tower fire is a major event in the history of this borough which will not be forgotten by anyone who lives or works in this area or in the rest of London.

The day after the fire we were asked by a newspaper for a picture of the tower. We couldn’t find one initially. There are always things you can’t find and the Lancaster West Estate doesn’t seem to have been photographed very much by us. But I did finally think of somewhere we hadn’t looked and found a couple of images from 1983, probably taken by someone in the planning department. Here is one of them with Grenfell Tower in the centre, with (left to right) Frinstead, Markland, Dixon and Whitstable

Any image of the old tower now looks poignant.

This is usually a quiet time of year for the blog. People have other things to do in the summer. But since last Wednesday page views have shot up and North Kensington topics are the most popular. I hope readers are finding something positive in these snapshots of history. So we’re going to continue posting. As it happens I was intending to do a post on the artist Herbert Railton, followed by a series of posts based on a recent donation, a collection of photographs of Chelsea, which will fascinate those of you who are interested in the area. But that doesn’t mean I or my team are ignoring the north of the borough or trying to forget. That could never happen. I have lived and worked in the borough for more more than thirty years. Isabel lived in North Paddington for a similar period. For both of us this part of London is our home.

 


Grenfell Tower

Many of the posts on this blog are related to the history of North Kensington, and many of our readers live in the area. As a mark of respect for all those affected by the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower on Wednesday morning there will be no post this week.

Our thoughts and sympathies go out to residents, their families, friends and neighbours.

The Local Studies team


The Alpha Place: electricity

This week’s pictures come from a small scrapbook which I imagine served as an internal record of work done by the Chelsea Electric Company. Many industrial projects must have been recorded photographically by companies who wanted to celebrate their achievements in this way. We have other examples in our collection like the album dedicated to the building of Chelsea Bridge which I used on the blog (having just bought it on Ebay). No doubt many examples of these have been lost over the years, discarded when no-one could imagine why anyone would be interested in them. But some survive when someone in an organisation sees the historical value of a set of pictures and preserves them for posterity. I’ll come back to the provenance  of these pictures on another occasion. In the meantime, a bit of background.

There was a comparatively small electricity generating station in Manor Street in Chelsea, on the corner of Alpha Place, built in 1904-06 and demolished in 1928. A more modern sub-station replaced it which remained there until the site was redeveloped for housing in the early years of this century. I was already aware of the building because of a few photographs we had in our general Chelsea scrapbooks.

This shows the 175 foot chimney prior to demolition in August 1928, after which the Chelsea Electricity Supply Company got its  electricity from the London Power Company. But just over 20 years before they had to create their own power.

This is one of the first pictures in the book showing Chelsea Manor Street around the time the work began, on the 9th May 1904.

You can see the first part of the sign which reads Chelsea Electricity Company.

Soon after, demolition of the existing buildings on the site began, and someone took this excellent picture of a falling wall.

A small crowd has gathered to observe proceedings. The picture below shows the site a month or so later, from a different angle.

The small group of women on the left are in Manor Street I think, and we are looking north. In the distance the tower of St Luke’s Church is just visible.

This is the bottom of the chimney excavation:

And one of my favourites, the “timbering”:

By the following year, the chimney is rising.

Is there a figure on top?

Just next to the risen tower there is a classical style building. That would be the rear of the old Vestry / Town Hall. A rare sighting from this angle. Now let’s take a look inside.

This shows the “supporting column for the exhaust pipe” and the firebrick lining. Below, the view looking up the chimney.

This shows the site being cleared of dirt and debris before the main building is constructed.

The caption to this picture refers to “Maarveller” corbels. Not a term I’m familiar with – any thoughts, anyone?

Here a manger takes stock of progress on the boiler room roof. Satisfied?

The completed roof.

At this point the interior seems to take a firm step away from the previous century.

The flue opening in the chimney and the pump room. The interior is starting to look lik ethe set of an expressionist film. I like the precarious looking iron staircase.

The clean empty room below is the battery room.

And this is the coal corridor, before any coal was moved through it.

The scrapbook contained nearly 50 pictures so there isn’t room for them all here. I won’t try your patience with a two part post on a relatively obscure industrial building.

This picture comes from one of our Chelsea scrapbooks and shows the station in use.

It carried on generating power for some years, and part of the site was used as a munitions factory during WW1. But it’s time came and the chimney came down.

This picture, annotated by a member of staff dates from the late 1920s.

I don’t know who Eavey was, but he was a braver man than me.

Postscript

The Alpha Place scrapbook is part of a collection of material that was recently donated to the library. I’ll tell you more about the collection in a later post. I will say now that I’m pretty excited about it.

Regular readers will already have noticed that this post is being published fairly late in the day. Sorry. I only finished it about five minutes ago so further apologies for any typos. Some days you just get overtaken by events.

 


Hidden water – subterranean reservoirs

This post is a kind of addendum to one I did a few years ago about the old water works in Campden Hill Road and the demolition of its water tower. I was taken with the way our photographer John Rogers had documented the slow dismantling of the brick tower with a pair of water pipes embedded within it.  I hadn’t  seen those pictures before I wrote the post and although they sit in the same filing cabinet I hadn’t seen these pictures either until a week ago.

This picture, which I used in the first post shows the tower and the main building. More importantly for us it also shows the grass area in front of the works.

Demolition of the tower took place in 1970. After they finished with that, the demolition team turned to the water reservoir which had been under the grass since the late 1850s and was suddenly revealed.

You can see that the grass grew in a thin layer of soil supported by pillars, above a space which could be filled with water.

The structure looks remarkably flimsy for something which existed for just over a hundred years.

At any rate, it was soon cleared.

You can still see traces of water as the debris is cleared away.

A few shallow pools of water remain. In this picture you can see details of the brickwork.

Here is a wider view of the site.

As with the tower, the perimeter wall was breached so that rubble could be removed.

The original works and the reservoir were built in the later 1850s. The Company acquired more land to the west and built a second reservoir adjacent to the first in 1886-89. The land above the underground chamber became a set of tennis courts stretching as far as the grounds of Aubrey House. Unlike its brother, this reservoir was not demolished in 1970, as demonstrated by this photograph from 1994.

It looks like a slightly more solid design.

At this point in the research stage one of my volunteers went downstairs and returned with some planning photos from 1998 showing the area above ground.

Thames Water still in occupation. Behind the fence you can see Aubrey Walk and St George’s Church.

The tennis courts.

A closer look at the perimeter of the site showing some evidence of what lies beneath.

 

Along with a few loose pipes.

 

And this distinctive object.

The courts were much used in their day. (Although not much on this particular day.)

But after these pictures were taken about half the site, and the remaining works buildings were redeveloped for housing.

There are still some courts there, accessible via a narrow set of steps from Aubrey Walk. And the reservoir? Well I don’t know. It would be interesting if a brick vault covering a shallow underground pond was still there, dark and silent.

Postscript

Thanks to Isabel, and Barbara for finding most of these pictures. If anyone can add more detail to the story, I’d be very grateful for further information.


The family album

Readers who have been following the postscripts will know that my mother passed away over Christmas and I have now taken possession of a number of family photographs which have now joined my personal archive along with a small Kodak camera, a Box Brownie and a few Instamatics (remember those?). It was inevitable that a few of these pictures would end up on the blog. Although I’ve never researched my family history I’ve met many people who were in the process of genealogical research and helped some of them on their way. Family albums are often the start of such a quest. Census returns, electoral registers, street directories, parish registers and Ancestry / Find my Past (other online genealogical tools are available) tell the story but it’s often family photographs which bring the search to life.

So this post is not just about me and my collection of old photographs. It’s about how family ties connect all of us to the historical past. In this post I start by looking at the oldest photos I could find some of which feature people I never knew personally. Like this one which my mother had copied for me several years ago.

 

grandparents-wedding-copy

This is my grandparent’s wedding. Ellen Barwise has just married Charles Williamson. He has his hand on her shoulder. His two brothers stand with him. One of them married one of the Barwise sisters standing near Ellen. The guests are a mixture of Barwises and Williamsons. The diminutive lady on the right side of the picture is a Williamson. She has her arm linked with an elderly Barwise lady.

A studio portrait of the two.

033-cw-and-emw-copy

Charles did a variety of jobs

This was one of them.

fire-brigade-at-mental-hospital-liverpool-road-chester-1904-cw-middle-of-back-row-copy

The fire brigade at the lunatic asylum in Liverpool Road, Chester. Charles is dead centre, behind the man in the helmet.

In the picture below, an action shot of the brigade in action. He is eighth from the left standing in shirt sleeves.

I have been asked (and asked myself) why this establishment needed its own fire brigade. Perhaps they were ready for general emergencies in the area? In my last visit to the house I found a number of pictorial histories of Chester to one of  which my mother contributed the picture of the men in action. The author confirms that the hospital did indeed have its own fire brigade

That doesn’t seem to have been Charles’s only job. He also worked part time as a gardener. Here he is with some of the others staff. The lady in the dark outfit might be on eof the family.

I’ve left the caption. I think this is my mother’s careful printing but I’m not sure when she did it.

Other members of the family were involved in agriculture, as this badly faded pictures of Walter Barwise, one of my grandmother’s brothers shows.

Here is a studio picture of another of Ellen’s brothers, Bill. A distinctly country man.

And a later picture of Bill and his wife.

There are several other pictures of men in uniform in the album, but I’m saving them until some further research on uniforms and badges can be done.

This particular album is pretty old and was obviously started by someone in the family well before I got my hands on it. I’m lucky because at some point my mother annotated it with notes on who the people in the pictures were and their relationship to each other. But even she wasn’t sure of all of them, and was sometimes going on what she had been told when she was young. Such as this one, simply captioned “relations in America”. I never knew we had any at this point.

In every family perhaps there is someone who gathers together loose photos and puts them in an album. The explanation of the picture is not always clear like this picture of a crowd of people being addressed by some eminent man.

Others need no explanation like this picture of my mothers’ two aunts, Lizzie and Martha and her cousin, also called Martha.

I knew Aunt Lizzie (on the right I think) when she was quite old. But before we get to the end of the post I should show you another picture of Cousin Martha, who was my mother’s godmother.

She is sitting with Auntie Em (and friend)

Family albums and the pictures in them tell a story of people getting older, living their lives. In this case the album started with what to me was the historical past, gradually becoming more personal.

When someone dies they become ageless. My mother is no longer the exhausted woman who passed away in a hospital bed. She is just as  much this little girl aged 8

kw-aged-8-in-crewe-c1930-adj

Or the young woman who served in the ATS.

Or the woman who met my father after the war and became my mother.

 

Postscript

I don’t make any claims for my family being especially noteworthy. But as a lover of old photographs I believe all the pictures in all the family albums are interesting. If you like these, start looking back at your own family photographs. In my case there are several more albums and many loose photos, some of which may get used in the future.

I’ve been working on this post for ages , thinking I might add more information or thoughts. But I finally decided to leave the pictures with a fairly minimal commentary. This post is dedicated to my mother of course, but also to my father who died in 2003. More about both of them on another occasion perhaps.


18th century escapades – Lady Walpole’s curious grotto

Whenever I start to write about the paintings of Marianne Rush I have a tendency to wander off into fantasy. As I recently had a very pleasant meeting with a distant relative of the lady I feel an obligation to anchor this post in reality as far as possible. So let’s be clear. The picture below is not a painting by Rush, (we’ll get to her later) although there’s something about the trees and the foliage in the foreground which reminds me of her work. This is a black and white photograph of a water colour by another artist (possibly unknown) of “Mrs Aufrere’s house in the Stableyard, Chelsea”, about 1780. It shows the entrance to the Coal Creek, a kind of canal which ran a short distance into the grounds to the west of the Royal Hospital, and on the corner, the Octagon Summer House.

The house which may be visible in the distance used to be called Walpole House, and had been one of the residences of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (but don’t get him confused with the previous Earl of Orford, Edward Russell, who had been Walpole’s mentor and whose title died out. Walpole took the title himself as a tribute to his old friend). Walpole is regarded as the first Prime Minister and the longest serving in that role. (He is the father of Horace Walpole, author of the Castle of Otranto, the first “Gothic” novel and builder of an extraordinary house, Strawberry Hill  in Twickenham which fortunately you can read about elsewhere) Walpole and his first wife Catherine (Horace’s mother) used the house and garden for entertaining and filled both with extravagant collection of furniture, decorations and exotic trees and plants.

I have here next to me a small pamphlet entitled…. well, instead of copying all that out let’s use the medium of the digital image.

There’s that word “curious”. The final line refers to a separate sale of “exoticks”. Regretfully we don’t have a copy of that. The exoticks, were the many plants and small trees which had grown in the garden, along with exotic fruit like pineapples, which were popular and expensive items for the leisured classes of the day.

Walpole died in 1745, hence the sale. His wife had died in 1737. Without intending to malign either of them, it seems that though the marriage had begun as a happy one, the two had gone their own way in its latter years. Walpole also had children by his mistress Maria , who became his wife after Catherine’s death.

I had no trouble finding images of Sir Robert. Here he is looking as grand as possible

Although we have a print showing Lady Walpole it proved slightly harder to find. Fortunately there are other images of her online. She was famed as a great beauty, but not as notorious as a slightly later celebrity.

The sale catalogue backs up the notion that the Walpoles enjoyed an extravagant and sumptuous lifestyle.

Have a look at the contents of ” the taffetty bedroom

Fabric wall coverings were popular with those who could afford them.

The contents of the “worsted damask bed chamber”:

The senior servants’ rooms were less ornate, although they had the basics, and probably wouldn’t have complained about the “feather beds”.

 

Also listed is “the red room in the garden

That would be one for the 18th century version of World of Interiors.

When writing this post I’ve relied heavily on an article on Walpole House written by the late David Le Lay for the Chelsea Society Annual Report in 2013. David and I spent an hour or so one afternoon examining prints of the Royal Hospital looking for a glimpse of the House on the western side. This print by Maurer seems to offer a view.

You can see the summer house again, on the extreme right, and to the left a single storey building with a row of windows which might be the Orangery.  The house itself could be behind that. A close -up helps a little.

But let’s not worry too much about the elusive house. According to an early volume of the Survey of London the house couldn’t be seen from the river.

With the garden buildings in mind let’s turn at last to Marianne Rush.

She calls this the “Green House”, not a glass house as we would think of today, although some doubts creep in here. The building in the pictures looks a little like the Orangery, which still exists. But the architect, Vanburgh,  favoured round headed windows. At any rate it was a building containing many plants and fruit trees, with paintings and objects, and space for entertaining.

According to Thomas Faulkner in his History of Chelsea (1829) “Lady Walpole took great delight in improving these gardens and spared no expense in procuring natural and artificial curiosities from foreign parts. Her grotto exited much of the attention of the curious at that time.” 

“During the King’s absence in Germany one summer Queen Caroline frequently honoured Lady Walpole with a visit, and dined in the green-house, which was laid out with choice flowers and plants, and hung with some of the fine paintings which were afterwards removed by the Earl of Orford.”

In August 1729 the Walpoles entertained the Queen and several other dukes and princesses. ” A kitchen was built on purpose in the stable yards…with above 20 places for fires etc. The Fruit for the Dessert was collected for a week previous from all Quarter of the Town…there were several Barges of fine Musick playing all the Time. After which they returned to the Green House where the illustrious company were entertained with a Ball and afterwards supp’d in the same place.” According to the Monthly Chronicles, quoted by Alfred Beaver in his book Memorials of Old Chelsea. An exaggerated account? Well you wouldn’t get all that in here:

It’s not clear whether Marianne ever actually saw some of the buildings she painted but she seems to have been quite careful in her work and if she never actually saw the Ranelagh Rotunda for example she would have been familiar with it from prints and engravings. We give her the benefit of the doubt.

The grotto is a little more problematic. Here is Marianne’s painting. Look carefully.

Is that something like a Hindu deity beside the urns? Maybe not.

As David Le Lay and others who have written about it (I also looked at an article in a 2004 periodical called Follies) have said, it’s not quite clear where the grotto actually was. There are some half-buried arches on the grounds but they don’t look much like Rush’s picture and it’s hard to imagine the grotto in its heyday when it was much celebrated and compared favourably with Queen Caroline’s own grotto. There were even some verses in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1734.

[Scan from Faulkner, which was clearer and didn’t obscure the name W-lp-le.]

 

 

And rival Grotto Caroline.” Decorating your grotto with shells was a bit of a thing back then. I looked at an article in Country Life for 1944 (February, when there was still some time before D-Day to think about grottos) showing some examples, which mentions Lady Walpole’s grotto, but of course had no pictures.

There are no signs of any shell decorations in Rush’s interior.

So perhaps this view is speculative, or just imaginary, although Rush did like that trope of 18th century water-colourists, the empty room.

The summer house too looks  quite deserted, apart from that bust. She’s taken care with that glimpse of the view outside and the light entering the small room. Can I  see a hint of the windmill on the south bank?

Rush’s view of the exterior is a useful point at which to stop, as it provides the opposite point of view from our first picture, and does seem to look like other views of the summer house. There’s the windmill again. (There really was one – it appears in several prints.)

Marianne got this one right so perhaps she knew more than us. But. as I’ve found, an aura of mystery still clings to her and her paintings. And I like that, as you’ve probably realised.

Postscript

I have used the Rush pictures before in one or two of the imaginative posts I used to write when I started the blog so it’s good to get back to seeing them as views of reality. When they were first acquired by the library in the 1920s it was because they provided a valuable look at a whole series of buildings which no longer existed. I am still very taken with their visionary qualities though, and it seems quite appropriate that we’re not quite sure about Lady Walpole’s grotto. We were high on word count and low on pictures this week so I’m going to find a furnished summer house and lie down now. Oh, and I don’t think I’ve ever had to say this but as this is a complicated business I should add that any errors are mine and are not attributable to any of the sources I’ve used.

This post is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Marianne Rush herself and David Le Lay, a friend of Chelsea.


Thomson and Shakespeare: scheming wives and foolish men

I think I can be pretty certain that this is the last in the series of posts about illustrations to Shakespeare which I began last year and from my point of view at least it’s pleasing to end on another volume with pictures by my favourite illustrator of the period, Hugh Thomson. No magic in this one, although there are some bogus fairies, no fantasy woodlands or mythical islands just a town near London, and some desperate housewives. Desperate to have some fun anyway.

I’ve seen many of these pictures online in one form or another so why have I acquired my own copy of the book, scanned the pictures and created this post when I usually have some unique or rare pictures to show? Well partly because I love Hugh Thomson’s work and want to share my enthusiasm. It’s still worth pointing out as I did the very first time I wrote about him that his work is both of its period, the later 19th and early 20th century, and as modern as a graphic novel. Thomson takes care with historical accuracy in costume (as far as he was able) but in the costumes he puts modern people, as in the image above. I never imagined the merry wives as young particularly but the story makes more sense if they are relatively young and sexy rather than matronly and comedic.

(I don’t want to go far off topic here but this also applies to works like Pride and Prejudice.  In adaptations, Mrs Bennett is often played as old when in all likelihood she is meant to be about 40, and as attractive as her daughters. John Mullan points this out in his book “What matters in Jane Austen?”. Thomson himself succumbs to the temptation to portray her as a strictly comic figure in his illustrations to the book).

As we can see here, Anne Page is just a teenager, with a mother in early middle age, quite suitable for Falstaff’s misguided attentions. The letters go out.

And are received by the two wives, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford ,who don’t believe a word.

 

They go about their business, being seen about and about and looking good, among other things.

The boy Robin, supposedly Falstaff’s protégé, provides some comedy mileage.

And has some funny scenes of his own.

 

There is a bit bit of comic wooing.

And some more serious chatting up.

I love the way the dog echoes the posture of the young would-be lover, slouching just like the lanky youth.

Below Mistress Page looks after Robin in the street.

 

Everyone knows the story of Falstaff hiding in the laundry basket and ending up in the river. I used the pictures of that in a previous post so I won’t repeat them here but there’s a second trick on the portly knight.

A fruitless search of the basket.

And Falstaff in a poor  disguise as an female relative is beaten from the house by Mr Ford.

There is a final trick on Falstaff where Anne lures him into the woods with some of the town children pretending to be fairies.

 

This is part of her own scheme to avoid an unwanted suitor and hook up with the young fellow she really likes. Falstaff falls for the bogus fairy trick but is finally let in on the jape.

He sees the joke and there is an amicable ending. They’re all friends again. The no-hope suitor has to walk away without his intended, but he was only a sub-plot anyway, and Anne Page had her own ideas about the ending.

Postscript

Falstaff of course had returned by public demand. I will be back next week. Hugh Thomson will also be back at some point. I haven’t finished with him yet.

This was my backup post, in case the ones we were working on didn’t come together, and one of them didn’t. Hence the slightly sketchy commentary. Fortunately Thomson does most of the work. A few ideas are bubbling up and with any luck one of them will emerge next week.


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