Faeries in Kensington Gardens

We’re getting close to Christmas now so what about something a little seasonal?

I don’t much like Peter Pan.  The familiar story of the irritating boy and the nice crocodile who never gets to eat him (or the equally annoying pirate) is a sickly mixture of cliches and sentiment. Before you dismiss me as a grumpy old man can I point out that I have disliked the boy who wouldn’t grow up since I first came across him, well before I grew up. Winnie the Pooh on the other hand I loved and I came to appreciate the writing of A A Milne even more as I grew older. I read those stories to my son when he was young and took him to an ideal venue for Poohsticks on Putney Common.The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland – both classics. I never came across E Nesbitt or George MacDonald as a child but I read some of their work later.We didn’t have Paddington Bear when I was young but we did have another bear, Mary Plain (by Gwynedd Rae). And I didn’t read any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books until I worked in a library. So I’m no enemy of the classics of children’s literature. But I can’t stand Peter Pan, in any of his incarnations,

Peter Pan of course has Kensington connections.

Kensington Gardens Peter Pan statue PC1386

But the Peter Pan in this picture is not the one featured in the 1905 book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. In that book Peter Pan is a weird baby who ends up living in the hidden world of fairies, birds and other supernatural creatures located in Kensington Gardens unobserved by the daytime visitors and workers.

We have copies of the 1905 and 1912 editions which are probably of most interest for the illustrations by Arthur Racknam, 49 colour plates in the 1905 edition with additional black and white pictures in the 1912 edition.

If you concentrate on the pictures which don’t feature the proto-Pan you find a set of faery images which are beautiful and sometimes grotesque.

The Serpentine

This view of the Serpentine at dusk has the traditional winged fairies you can imagine sharing the same eco-system as insects and birds. These  fairies come from the same place as Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies, out of the deep Victorian imagination, via the Pre-Raphaelites and the darker works of individuals like Richard Dadd.

Rackham also depicts the ordinary world of daytime. He still prefers a gloomy scene though, with grey skies, and mysterious islands.

The island

The three girls in front are keeping their backs to the island so no one will know they are discussing Barrie’s unlikely notions about babies hatching from eggs and turning into birds (or is it vice versa?).

Kensington Gardens ducks PC1353

One of the better themes in the book is the idea of a hidden world beneath the park which children are half aware of already.

Fairies in hiding till dusk

During the day things are happening out of sight. But at night….

The fairies sit on mushrooms

A feast, featuring some non-winged faries adopting a variety of costumes, not worried about mixing with mice creatures. Some images dip into the grotesque.

An elderberry hobbled

Here Rackham is not far from Sidney Sime or Harry Clarke who both illustrated the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

I was particularly intrigued by this picture.

If the bad ones happen to be out

The bad fairies emerge from beneath the trees like crawling insects. Rackham depicts them as an infestation, like ants or termites. Something rotten.

Back in the daylight world the Elfin Oak looks merely decorative, hardly creepy at all.

Kensington Gardens Elfin Oak PC1388

Images like the one below may represent the glamour  cast by fairies to fool us into thinking them beautiful…..

looking very undancey

As beautiful as any mortal woman in the daylight world.

Kensington Gardens 712.5 KEN-JA K65-23

For the children the search goes on. Below a girl called Maimie hides from the adults, so she can stay in the gardens after dark.

She ran to St Govor's Well and hid 2

The spot she’s chosen, St Govor’s Well is a real place

St Gover's Well 712.5 Ken-Pm P1966 L-5638

With some real Edwardian children playing in it.

Touching site Walter Stephen Matthews and Phoebe Phelps

At the end of the book Barrie  tells about the gravestones erected by the proto-Pan and his acolytes to mark the passing of lost children. Rackham undercuts the notion by placing the illustration in a pastoral scene set years before, the 1840s by the look of the costumes.

For me all the imagination in the book is in Rackam’s illustrations and it is they who turn a real place – Kensington Gardens – into an outpost of Faery.

Postscript

Was I a bit hard on the infant Pan? Maybe. But Rackham’s pictures are so much better than the text, They have a weird intensity. Rackham was one of those artists who was rediscovered in the 60s and 70s in glossy paperback editions along with many other illustrators of the Victorian and Edwardian period.

This week saw the soft launch (as they say) of our World War one website: http://www.kcworldwar1.org.uk It’s full of contemporary images and text from the Local Studies collection with the additional opportunity for readers of adding their own text and/or pictures. Like a blog, it will grow over months, maybe even years to form a permanent record of Kensington and Chelsea in the Great War. Take a look, I’m sure there will be something there to surprise you.

Your Christmas surprise on this blog is that next week instead of just one long post on Thursday I’m writing short daily posts starting on Monday. I come across lots of pictures when doing research for the blog which are interesting but won’t fit the 10 or more pictures and a thousand words format I’ve adopted. So next week there will be mini-posts from Monday to Friday. Read them daily or save them up. See you Monday.


2 responses to “Faeries in Kensington Gardens

  • Denise Davis Betteridge

    These are fascinating drawings, gorgeous! Thank you for posting them. And nice commentary, as usual. Happy Christmas.🙂

  • John Shelley (@Godfox)

    I’ve a similar experience of Peter Pan, which I hated (especially the Disney version) when I was young. But then I discovered Rackham’s art as a teenager, which changed everything. My reference library had a copy of the 1906 edition (it’s not 1905), which set me on the path to be an illustrator. As soon as I could afford it I picked up my own copy of the 1912 edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and even now many years later it remains the most important book in my Rackham collection. I once took it to Kensington Gardens and followed the “tour of the gardens”, identifying all the locations of the illustrations. But it’s the art, not the text, that resounded. Barrie’s whimsical story jumps from lyrical fantasy to saccharine pathos, it’s a strange read today to say the least.

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