London SW7 is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of Elves and Pixies, but while researching a piece on the area I found that I was mistaken.
The main link with this mystical world of the little people is the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens. The stump of this 900-year-old oak tree is carved and painted to look as though elves, gnomes, fairies and small animals are living in its bark. The stump originally stood in Richmond Park, but was moved to it’s present site in 1928. For two years the illustrator Ivor Innes laboured away carving various Elfin creatures into the old oak.
The elements and neglect saw the oak in a very sorry state by the 1960s. One man who who took up the cause for it’s preservation was comedian Spike Milligan, who began to document the tree and catalogue the various creatures. He lived and worked from a building directly opposite the park and used to visit the oak on a regular basis. During the late 1960s and early 70s he undertook his own conservation work, but it became clear he was fighting a losing battle and the tree began to deteriorate. It wasn’t until 1996 that Spike led a successful campaign to have it restored. Milligan’s contribution as advisor and his photographic records of his own restoration in the 1960s proved to be of great value to students from Byam Shaw School of Art, who restored the tree in 1996. They were led by the artist and conservator Marcus Richards. Richards has continued to be responsible for restoration and maintaining the Elfin Oak to the present day. A year after its restoration was finished the Governments Heritage department declared it a Grade II listed structure.
However the link with other worldly creatures and Kensington Gardens goes back earlier that the Elfin Oak. In the early 18th century Poet Thomas Tickell wrote “Kensington Garden” a work of epic length. The premise is that The Flower Fairies inhabit the ancient woodland that the gardens later stood on. King Oberon’s daughter Kenna falls in love with a mortal boy called Albion which sets both races to a brutal war with the humans vanquishing the fairy kingdom and scattering them far and wide across the country, but at a cost. Albion is killed during the battle and Kenna mourns at his grave site for all eternity. Using her magical powers, she instills the vision into royalty and architects which is the inspiration for Kensington Palace’s garden. Thus, the garden is based directly on the fairy kingdom that once stood there, and the name “Kensington” is derived from the fairy princess Kenna.
Towards the end of the 18th century playwright Thomas Hull wrote “The Fairy Favour” in 1766. It played as entertainment for the Prince of Wales’ first visit to Covent Garden. This short play is set in a realm called Kenna and scenery was modelled on Kensington Gardens. The fairy folk go quiet for about a hundred and fifty years until the around 1900, there were a couple of resurgences of Kensington Gardens’ fairy connections.
First was The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie, published in 1902. This was the first story featuring Peter Pan. In this first encounter with the boy who never grew up, he was a week-old infant who escaped from his pram and went to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens where he was taught to fly. In 1903, as thanks for The Little White Bird‘s publicity, Barrie received a private key to Kensington Gardens, and in 1907, several chapters of the book were published on their own under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
In 1912 Barrie commissioned a statue of Peter Pan made by Sir George Frampton. The original statue is displayed in Kensington Gardens just to the west of The Long Water. Around the same time there was a short run of a comic opera called “The Princess of Kensington”, again based in the gardens with the main role taken by the fairy Kenna, although in this version she spurns Albion’s advances and goes off with some other bloke.
I’ll leave the last word on the fairy folk to Edmund, Lord Blackadder. “See the Little Goblin, see his little feet. And his little nosey-wose, isn’t the Goblin sweet?“