Thomson and Railton: all aboard!

As promised a short while ago, this week’s post returns to our friends the book illustrators Hugh Thomson and Herbert Railton who combined in the 1880s at the early stages of both their careers (Thomson was born in 1860, Railton in 1857)  to provide dozens of pictures for W. Outram Tristram’s nostalgic look at the days of stagecoach travel, “Coaching days and coaching ways”. (1888). The Victorians and the Edwardians were just as nostalgic for the colourful past as we are today. Have a look here at some period drama, or at any of the posts on the Chelsea Pageant.

The author and his “able illustrators” make a good combination. Thomson was good at people, creating light-hearted scenes of rural and small town life, but his work was often combined with some fairly pedestrian views of town and country, as in some of the volumes in the Highways and Byways series about British counties to which he contributed. (We’ve seen his London volume,where his are the only pictures worth looking at. ) In this book he had a partner who was his equal. Railton’s strength was atmospheric views of places, whether parks and rural views or dark inns and alleys.

A typical Thomson scene, in which a young woman gathers her wits and her headgear after a coaching mishap:

(“A snapped pole” from the Brighton Road chapter.)

And a typically spooky view by Railton of a narrow cobbled street with shady corners, quiet for the moment as two cats have an encounter.

 

I was a bit mean to Mr Tristram when I wrote about his later book Moated Houses (entirely illustrated by Railton), calling his writing style pompous, rambling and obscure. Which it is, but I have to admit that Coaching days is a rather easier read. It’s anecdotal, and still verbose but that kind of works with this subject. The book is a set of essays originally published in the English Illustrated Magazine between October 1887- and July 1888, making it into book form late in 1888. This is a time of looking back from a new industrial, high speed society to a semi-rural past, before the railways covered the country, when the only means of long distance transport was the coach. A network of routes criss crossed the country served by coaches large and small, speedy and slow. Coaching inns were the nodes of this network, linking the cities with the small towns and villages, taking people on business and pleasure.

Mr Tristram says: “I shall show our ancestors…busy at those nothings which make travelled life – eating, drinking, flirting, quarelling, delivering up their purses, grumbling over their bills…I shall picture these worthies in all sorts of positions – on the road and off of it, snowed up, in peril from the great waters, waiting for the stage coaches etc, alighting at the inns – those inns for which England was once famous, with their broad corridors, their snug bars, their four-poster beds hung with silk, their sheets smelling of lavender, their choice cookery, their claret equal to the best that could be drunk in London.”

And that’s what he does, wandering through time and space like a modern travel writer, or even a psycho-geographer. (I use that term too much, I know.) His two collaborators go with him. (The three were acquainted from other assignments for the EIM.)

Mr Railton did people as well as cats, but they were often depicted engaged in lonely pursuits, adding some scale or proportion to views like this one.

 


 

Here we’re in Chester (as I was a couple of weeks ago) from the chapter called the Holyhead Road. Then as now the Rows  (early multi level shopping) were the characteristic feature of the city, enjoyed by travellers and guide books.

By contrast, this view of the high street in Bath is teeming with people by Railton’s standards. In the chapter on the Bath Road Tristram follows various literary figures on their journeys, including Miss Fanny Burney and Mrs Thrale who went there in 1780. Miss Burney found the “houses elegant, the streets beautiful, the prospects enchanting..” She and Mrs Thrale found lodgings on the South Parade “It was deliciously situated. We have meadows, hills, Prior Park, the soft-flowing Avon, whatever Nature has to offer, I think, always in our view.” Something for the 18th century trip adviser.

 

 

Thomson sticks with the action, whether mundane, as below where four men make a meal of packing while a woman does the fetching and carrying,

 

 

clandestine, as a young lady has a private word with a gentleman, (Some long distance relationships must have been created in this communication network.)

 

 

or frantic, as in this case, simply titled “Eloped”, which tells you all you need to know.

 

Some of the coaches were noted for the tremendous speed with which they travelled. (Some of them were called “rockets” because of their great pace.) Thomson’ horses were much liked by readers and critics. One said: “he showed perhaps more mastery of the horse in action than of the feminine charm that was later to be so conspicuous a feature of his work”

And his sense of drama was well developed already. Sometimes speed and conditions combined to create minor (and major) disasters along the way.

 

 

“In a snow drift”. Horse and man in a tricky situation.

Along the way, Tristram takes in some local colour. Below, that old standby the haunted room, encountered on the Bath road but the exact nature of the haunting is not specified. It is though made for Railton’s atmospheric skills.

 

 

As is this view of the Mote (Moat) House at Ightham, on the Dover road.

 

 

Mr Tristram had some supernatural fantasies about Ightham recorded in Moated Houses which I transcribed in my first post about Railton (link above).

He had plenty of examples of the dark corners of small cities.

 

College Hall, Exeter. Below, architecture is combined with water as it so often is in his work.

 

The Old Hospital, Canterbury. Is the street totally waterlogged or are we seeing the play of light on puddles of water observed by Railton?

As well as the action, Thomson was good on the longeurs of coach travel. There must have been quiet times at the inns between arrivals and departures.

Here a mixed group is waiting for the coach.

 

Railton too looked at quiet moments in the courtyards of  inns

 

 

(The George, St Albans. A girl pulls a toy vehicle along.)

Thomson, always good at depicting lounging, slouching and hanging around shows some useful inactivity during the down time at an inn.

 

 

And some people hoping to get some down time. At many times of the day travellers come to their journey’s end.

 

 

 

While some others are waiting, patiently or otherwise, like we wait for a bus.

 

 

When the coach does come it’s time for someone to cry out: “all aboard!”.

 

 

 

Squeeze in the carriage, or next to the driver, savour the restlessness of the horses, as eager to be off as the passengers and let’s go!

 

Postscript

As I hinted last time I thought I would take a couple of weeks off blogging. Time off is always good preparation for more time off so forgive me if this post is going out later than usual. My colleague Isabel pointed out that I’ve been doing weekly posts for nearly six years. Who would have guessed when I started? At some point late in this year we will reach a million page views. Not bad, I think.

By way of compensation for the hiatus there are more pictures than usual. If you’re yet to take time off, have a good one when you do. I’ll try and get back in the saddle.

 


Chelsea stories – your Granny, your Junk, your Cave

This week we continue looking at the western end of the King’s Road, using the photos of our new friend JW “Blll” Figg. and a couple of others. And we’re going to take a look at a few buildings over time. To start with, just to get you orientated:

 

 

The World’s End Tavern, a permanent fixture on this stretch of road, often changing hands, but hanging on, even when the surrounding buildings change.

 

 

This looks like the 1950s judging by the vehicle and the people. Keep your eye on that innocuous shop on the left with the awning. It would see some changes in the years to come. There always seem to be a couple of shops there on the corner of Langton Street, part of a terrace of houses  leading to Shalcomb Street.

 

 

One of the shops changes over time. Here, in the 1960s it’s called “Granny takes a trip”, one of the sights of the slightly cooler World’s End. And here it is with added car.

 

 

I’m not completely sure of the time sequence. This one could have come first.

 

 

[A John Rogers photo]

The reliable Sunlight Laundry kept the wacky shop front company throughout Granny’s time. I’m just guessing that Granny gave way to the fruiterer’s first.

 

 

Or were they before Granny? Anyway,  in the 8os or 90s a more staid establishment occupied the spot.

 

 

Between you and me, I think this property is destined for change. (It’s currently given over to interior design, as is the former cleaners).

Now back across the road before you get sick of the sight of the same place.

 

 

A rare colour picture of the shops leading up to the junction with Edith Grove: Quick Nicker ( I don’t know…cheap clothes, but one picture shows a guitar in the window). Field’s newsagents, the World’s End Pharmacy and another laundrette, Speed Queen). These were the shops next to Sophisticat, which we saw last week, and round the corner from another counter-culture establishment, Gandalf’s Garden. There are some black and white views in a previous post. The first three images in that post show the whole corner.

We’re going to cross the road again.

 

 

Another rare picture, of Watney’s Brewery, a characteristically 20th century industrial building with a touch of art deco about it. It was later occupied by a business with a distinctly 1960s/70s name.

 

 

Junk City, an SF sort of name like a location in a post-apocalyptic novel/film. The site was up for sale when this picture was taken in the early 1970s. It was replaced by a building a few people will remember, a redbrick office building which was the headquarters of Penguin Books. I don’t have a picture of that. It was there into the 21st century,in fact it was still there when I wrote that previous post about the King’s Road in 2011 (Where did six years go? Is the blog itself now part of history?) but has now been replaced with a residential block distinguished by a set of solar  panels on the front which resemble crumpled sweet wrappers (something from Quality Street maybe). A step in the right direction perhaps, and one of those odd phenomena of modern life – a building is built when you’re around, and knocked down while you’re still here. You outlived an office block. I suppose it happens more often than we think.

[Added 19th August. A little Google maps research found this, to complete the story:

Possibly even more nondescript than I remembered it.]

One more jump back across the road.

 

To another retail landmark. This is another John Rogers photograph from 1972, which I used before, showing the now painted bright green building mostly occupied by the Furniture Cave. Here it is from another angle.

 

 

Mr Figg captions this “after the fire, 1974”. No mistaking what happened there, or that part of the building has just disappeared.

 

 

This version is a more modern view, 90s perhaps. The corner of Lots Road has been occupied by a relatively new building, and although the picture is monochrome you can guess the Furniture Cave was probably not green at the time.

 

 

I’m including this rather blurred view of the new building not to fill in the gap in a post I did on on Lots Road, but for the just legible sign on the corner of the Furniture Cave – Crazy Larry’s. Not an establishment I ever attended but I used to go past this spot a lot in the 1980s and I used to wonder what it was like. Does anyone have any memories? I was usually on my way to an Indian restaurant called the Kabana just over the hill. These were the days when takeaway deliveries were less common, but I actually enjoyed the walk, and sitting in the restaurant with a lager waiting for the food. By the time I got back Dynasty was thankfully nearly finished. Simpler days.

So, a quick look back at some buildings you may have seen. We’re not finished with the World’s End but in the next Chelsea Stories we’ll be heading east.

In the meantime, I’ll sign off with something quirky for you, typical of Bill Figg who, like myself, was “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles” if I’m not misusing Shakespeare. In nearby Tettcott Road you could at one time see this:

Maybe the Brothers Quay were inside.

Postscript

I’ll be off for a couple of weeks from next Monday so there may or may not be a post next week. I’m thinking about another Hugh Thomson book which is a kind of holiday in itself.  If not, expect to see a new post sometime in August.


On the border 5: the Japan-British Exhibition 1910

The summer of 1910 was pretty dull apparently, nothing like the weather in London this year, or indeed the heat wave of 1906. So there was no reason why thousands of Londoners shouldn’t head towards the Great White City to see a new exhibition. This week we’re joining them, crossing the Kensington border into Hammersmith as we sometimes do, to see some of the wonders of the far east.

The exhibition followed the highly successful  Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 and the Olympic Games of the same year for both of which the White City site had been built under the auspices  of  Imre Kiralfy the man behind some of the most spectacular events at Earls Court

The exhibition presented many aspects of Japanese life, art and industry as these country based exhibitions had done before at Earls Court and the White City. This particular exhibition continued the European obsession with Japan which can be found in art and design since Japan was opened up to the western world in the 1860s. We’ve seen it before on the blog in the work of the artist Mortimer Menpes.  (And in his famous house.)

Visitors could walk among traditional houses and gardens.

 

Climb up landscaped paths, as these two women are doing.

 

 

And enjoy exotic vistas. You can barely spot where the painted backdrop begins in some of these pictures.

 

 

They hardly seem to be located in the crowded exhibition site with its other rides and attractions.

 

 

This picture shows the site with the the stadium . Note in the distance a gasometer and the tower of St Charles Hospital in north Kensington.

Actual Japanese performers enacted tableaux of traditional scenes.

 

Including warriors, as seen below. Londoners were already used to re-enactments of battles and historical events in shows like the wild west performances at Earls Court and elsewhere.

 

 

Sumo wrestling offered something new.

 

And for some there were martial arts skills to learn. Here a woman demonstrates how to see off some attackers even in modern Edwardian dress.

 

The Japanese government was also showing off the sights of the modern industrial Japan.

 

 

Which had already embarked on its own military / imperial actions. During the exhibition a Japanese warship was visiting the country to emphasise  Japan’s role as an ally of the UK.

For most visitors of course, it was the art and culture of Japan which mattered the most, whether the gardens…

 

Or the gods.

 

 

It was after all, just a pleasant day out. For some visitors it was perhaps almost too much.

 

A trio of distinctly European geishas have some pseudo Japanese fun with a tired young man.  We’re still obsessed with Japanese culture today and you can see it everywhere. I wonder if our old friend Yoshio Markino made it to the exhibition?

Postscript

This week’s images came from the Local Studies and Archives department of Hammersmith and Fulham, courtesy of their manager and mine Adrian Autton so thanks to him.

 

[Montage of postcards featuring the four seasons.]


Chelsea Stories – on the corner of a street

Before we start I have a little story. Sometime before 2004,  the author and journalist Tom Pocock introduced me to a man called J W Figg,  (known as Bill) whom I knew as the author of an interesting book called Hidden Chelsea published by the local bookshop Chesea Rare Books. Mr Figg, it seemed, was an amateur scholar and photographer whose main interest (he had many more) was the history of Chelsea.  He had worked with the Library many years back in the 50s and 60s and we had some of his photographs in our collection. Tom’s idea was that I should be as charming as possible in the hope that Bill would bequeath his personal collection of Chelsea photographs to the library. That wasn’t really a difficult thing to ask. Bill and I got on immediately. I showed him round the archives and we began an email exchange, sending each other obscure pictures of Chelsea for identification. (I never caught him out.) This was sadly curtailed quite early on when Bill died suddenly. I thought no more about the lost photographs, and never bothered his family. Tom Pocock died a little while after that in 2007, another loss to people who love the history of Chelsea.

Then, a few weeks ago, quite out of the blue a lady phoned me up and asked me if I was interested in a collection of Chelsea books and photographs which she and her husband were now looking after. I said yes, we would be happy to have the collection and when she brought the first installment to the Library I noticed a box full of copies of Hidden Chelsea. “Bill Figg!” I exclaimed. The collection of books and photographs which I had heard about so many years before had finally made their way to the Local Studies collection.

As I started looking through the material I kept finding photographs of places and buildings I had never seen pictures of, which is unusual for me as I’ve been looking at pictures of Chelsea since the 1980s. There is plenty for me and my team to work through, conserving and preserving this collection for posterity and making it available for future research. You saw some of his electricity related pictures  in previous weeks – Bill worked in the industry, which often gave him access to locations and vantage points closed to the average person. (Like the surveyor Bernard Selwyn, whose areas of interest included Kensington, North KensingtonEarls Court and Hammersmith even occasionally Chelsea)

I guess this story would normally go in the postscript. But it acts as a kind of introduction to any number of posts to come so this time it goes at the front. Now, on with the pictures.

[Moravian Tower, a former Council block, about 1990, when it started to be known as 355 King’s Road ]

If you know a street very well and walk along it regularly, you take the way it looks for granted even though you know that it looked different in the past. If like me you’re familiar with old photographs there are some vanished scenes which are as familiar as the present. And some which take you by surprise. Chelsea residents will know the corner where the King’s Road makes a curve by the former Moravian Tower , opposite the former Man in the Moon pub. At the base of the tower is Rymans, a paint and DIY shop, the post office, a second hand bookshop and a phone shop (I’ve used all of them at some point), before passing the entrance to the Moravian burial ground  (where those who rest in peace are not standing upright) a restaurant (another former pub with various names – the Water Rat and the Globe to name a couple of them), and heading down Milmans Street. There’s a car showroom and opposite that the Vivian Westwood shop. But what if on that corner there was no wide curved pavement but just another block of houses and shops?

This is that block where the  tower was built. You can see the pub (The Globe then) and the view towards Milmans Street, a little  more  than thirty years  earlier, in the  late 1950s.

Here’s the view looking in the opposite direction towards Park Walk with the Man in the Moon pub in the centre, and St Andrew’s Church in the distance.

 

 

Round the corner is the view up the King’s Road. the essential structure is very similar to day, with a few modifications.

 

The shop on the extreme left is Paramount Cleaners (dyers and cleaners), next door to which is a branch of Mac Fisheries, (a national chain of fishmongers). The corner shop could be a branch of Cullen’s. But we’re not going down there yet. Let’s turn back.

There is the Globe again and next to the gate to Moravian Close, David Gray (dining rooms). On the right, the former police station, at this time a community centre.

We’re moving further west along the King’s Road. You can see the block which was demolished and in the right foreground you can see the absence of the Cremorne estate with its parade of shops. This makes it likely that some of these black and white pictures may be from the early 1950s  (the Cremorne Estate was completed in 1956) Possibly building work is going on behind some hoardings.

Those shopfronts on the left look familiar though.

Below you see  Limerston Street, where the old 31 bus (now the 328) used to park.

Here it is in 1990.

Just a few details changed.

Still in 1990, a view of the block with the Vivian Westwood shop World’s End.

Next to it an entrance to the basement restaurant, and beside that an Oxfam shop, which can be seen below.

As Timmis and Richards, another branch of a chain, this time of chemists. The name lingered on for many more years.

We won’t go down to the actual World’s End today, but we will go as far as the block of shops next to Dartrey Road, just past the World’s End pub. Ten years or so after the black and white pictures the King’s Road was looking much livelier.

The Moravian burial ground was once used to exercise the famous lion of Chelsea, Christian, before he went back to Africa and became a star on YouTube. Here he is in one of his early homes, where he lived with the two young Australian men who bought him at Harrods. Bill Figg says in his notes that he knew the man who sold the young lion. I have heard that children used to go down to Sopistocat, a shop in that black,  to see him in the window and here is one of them to prove that.

Fur coats were quite fashionable back then, even for kids, but never as appropriate as on this occasion. Now, does anyone know who the little girl is?

 

Postscript

Tom Pocock  was himself a remarkable man, the author of many books (including “Chelsea Reach” the definitive book about the Chelsea artist Walter Greaves), a journalist and reviewer for the Evening Standard, and one of the first war correspondents to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. (He encountered the artist and novelist Mervyn Peake there and once told me how much of that experience had entered Peake’s work). Tom was a friendly, unassuming man with a love of Chelsea. I didn’t know him well but I’m grateful to have been able to talk to him about our shared interests. I’m glad to have finally seen the end of one of Tom’s projects. Lovers of Chelsea can look forward to many future posts based on Bill’s photographs.


Lots Road Power Station: a look inside – 1977

A new tower is rising close to the remaining chimneys of Lots Road Power Station with a sign on it saying Chelsea Waterfront. The station building itself is more or less intact but empty inside. It stopped being used to provide electricity for the tube network in 1985 but was kept as a back up until finally closed in 2002. Since then various schemes have been proposed for its future use.

The pictures in this week’s post which come from a collection recently acquired by the library take us back to what it looked when it was still a working power station.

Chelsea residents and visitors are used to the view from Lots Road .

 

 

In the late 1970s steam still rose from the chimneys as in this view from the southern bank of the river.

 

 

I’ve written a couple of posts about the station before, concerned with the matter of its chimneys, and its days as an industrial icon. Those posts were quite popular so I’m quite confident about today’s views. Regular readers will know that I like industrial pictures. After a string quartet of Edwardian/Victorian  ladies in postcard and book illustrations so many times it’s a refreshing change to savour some (literally) heavy metal, whether at the gas works or the water works although the appropriate music for this era and setting is of course Kraftwerk.

There is something awesome about large complex pieces of machinery, especially when they are used to generate power.

 

The photographer had the chance to roam high and low in the enormous space, above massive pipes and turbines.

 

 

All controlled by huge, complex but somehow retro control panel.

 

 

Gantries and platforms.

 

 

Light streaming in from the huge windows at the end of the hall. Even though it’s a cliché, I can’t leave out the words cathedral of power.

The designers came from an age when industrial shock and awe was something a building could aspire to have.

 

 

And this white coated man in the control room could be described as an acolyte, if we’re in that sort of mood.

 

 

This picture shows the sheer size of the space and the lighting needed to illuminate the rows of generators.

 

 

This view looking down shows the tangled layers of plant and machinery with manual controls visible on one of the platforms.

 

Below a favourite kind of view for me, the network of stanchions – compare it with something similar at the much smaller Alpha Place  generating station.

 

Below, part of a wall-mounted diagram explaining the whole thing for engineers and other interested parties

 

 

This picture taken near the roof of the station shows the interior section of one of the chimneys

 

 

Back again to ground level it’s 10.45.  AM or PM? I can’t say.

 

 

Lastly, one of the controllers takes a break, relaxing at the heart of this giant piece of machinery, some kind of hum, loud or small, around him, but probably not the sounds of electronic music. You can imagine that

 

Postscript

See more on the area around the station in this post. Watch out in the future for a few pictures of the construction of Chelsea Harbour

 


Mr Railton returns

After a lengthy gap, we’re back with the artist and book illustrator Herbert Railton. I recently bought a copy of a book which combines three interesting characters: Railton, and blog favourite Hugh Thomson who both created illustrations for “Coaching days and coaching ways” (1893) by the entertainingly named W. Outram Tristram. It was he who wrote the final book Railton worked on, the fascinating, “Moated houses”, which was featured in the first post about him. I’m sure I’ll come back to the Railton/Thomson team-up in a future post but first I want to look at Railton’s Kensington connection.

One of his other projects was an illustrated edition of Leigh Hunt’s “The Old Court Suburb” (1855 / 1902) a rambling historical account of Kensington. Railton did most of the topographical pictures in the book. The Library possesses many of his original sketches for this project.

I have to say at this stage that Railton’s delicate and almost impressionistic pictures can be hard to scan. It is often easier to use the published versions, which have firmer lines. In this post I’ll use some of each. I’m concentrating on one location, Holland Park and Holland House.

If you’ve never encountered Railton’s work before this is a quite characteristic piece. The house is solid and rendered in some detail but at the same time it’s a little vague, glimpsed through some kind of summer haze, the foliage blending into the architecture. The one below is actually called “A peep at Holland House”

The house is even more indistinct. The focus of the picture is the sculpture of an urn, like a funery urn at the edge of the hedge frame.

If you know the park you’ll recognize the summer ball room turret, but perhaps not the wild trees and hedges which threaten to overwhelm it.

In the context of Hunt’s book, Railton’s illustrations work well in contrast to those of the other two artists, Claude Shepperson and Edmund J Sullivan, who were given the task of doing pictures of people from Kensington’s past.

 

Chloe and Delia admiring the flowers.

A bit of courtly behaviour.

After which the ladies and gentlemen could go on to some picturesque spots in the grounds, such as the famous sundial.


(Some of the originals are on this coloured paper. I don’t think it’s any kind of age-related deterioration but it does add a pleasingly antique feel to the pictures).

Lord Camelford, memorialised with a Roman altar, perished in a duel conducted in the grounds. There is a view of the wild looking site of his death in the first post.

We can head back to the house via the Dutch Garden.

And see some more details

The Oriel front, and the Terrace.

Even when Holland House was a private house, the grounds had visitors who might not be guests of the family. After their tour they might stroll to a nearby tavern, like this conveniently located hostelry.

See how once again Railton brings the picture to a point with some birds, in this case some fairly free range chickens.

When he wrote the Old Court Suburb, Hunt was also not far away ftom the house.


Edwardes Square (The name is from the family name of the first Baron Kensington. The square was laid out in 1811.) is just down the road . Here is another view.

Two girls stroll along next to the garden railings. Railton could manage figures well enough but he was sparing in his use of them.

When the illustrated edition of Hunt’s book was published, tourists were an established part of London life.

Note the editor, our old friend Austin Dobson, the go-to guy for scholarly introductions in those days.

Railton’s fellow illustrator Mr Edmund J Sullivan put a lady visitor (dressed in the fashions of the 1850s) in a couple of his pictures  who doesn’t seem too happy.

Here she looks like she’d like to sit down if the sign permitted.

(Is she bracing her back with her right hand, completely ignoring the guide book in her left, and waiting for her companion to get on with it so they can get to the gift shop?)

And here she (or a similar lady) looks a little melancholy, perhaps remembering those she mourns herself.

These two pictures have intrigued me since I first looked at the book, so forgive me for letting Mr Sullivan squeeze a few pictures into Mr Railton’s post. I wish he’d been able to develop the theme as an interesting contrast with the  topographical pictures but Railton was the headline act on this bill.

Postscript

Posthumous apologies to Claude Shepperson I suppose for not including any of his pictures in the post. Unfortunately, they’re a bit dull. By contrast, I’d like to see more of Edmund Sullivan’s’ work.


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.

 


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