A Christmas Book – Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

By Yvette Campbell, Special Collections & Archives

SP 22767 Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie; Illustrated by Arthur Rackham –  SP 2767.

Here in Special Collections we have a beautiful copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (UK Hodder and Stoughton 1907) bound in russet cloth with gilt illustration and lettering to the front cover and spine. This wonderful book contains 50 hand mounted Rackham colour plates consisting of one frontispiece illustration and 49 others grouped together at the rear of the book, all with tissue guards. Besides the date and minor differences in title-page layout, this edition is similar to the 1906 first edition.

In 1906 Barrie sanctioned the publication of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, in which Peter is a seven-day-old infant. The 1906 limited first edition is illustrated with about 50 colour plates by illustrator Arthur Rackham Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was originally part of an earlier work, The Little White Bird by J.M.Barrie. The Peter Pan chapters were extracted and published as a separate work in 1906. The colour plates to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by Arthur Rackham made the book immediately popular, and drew attention to Rackham, who was not well-known before then.

photo 7
“They all tickled him on the shoulder.”

In 1905 J. M. Barrie visited the Rip Van Winkle exhibition and was so taken with Rackham’s artwork that a meeting was arranged to discuss collaboration on a Peter Pan book. The “boy who never grew up” had first appeared as one of many stories in The Little White Bird (1902), and became a successful theatrical production the following year. But it was the partnership between Rackham and Barrie that made Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the “outstanding Christmas gift-book of 1906″ and one of the most beloved of all 20th-century children’s books. It was also one of Rackham’s biggest financial successes, reprinted numerous times and leading to the production of the Peter Pan Portfolio, a selection of twelve of the artist’s favourite illustrations reproduced in their original sizes.Barrie was so pleased by this gift, and by Rackhams’ work, that he replied in a letter,

My dear Rackham, It was immensely good of you to put that delicious little picture in my copy of ‘Peter’. I have been a wreck with colds and coughs for six weeks which is why I have not written you sooner, especially about the exhibition. It entranced. I think I like best of all the Serpentine with the fairies, and the Peter in his night-gown sitting in the tree… I am always your debtor, and I wish the happiest Christmas, and please, I hope you will shed glory on more of my things.”

photo 12
“Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw.”

It tells the story of how Peter left his family as an infant, became a friend of fairies, and (re)learned to fly. The text of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was originally published in 1902 as chapters 13-18 of Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, a semi-autobiographical fantasy about an unnamed gentleman and David, a little boy he befriends; the Peter Pan story is something he tells to the boy (or the boy to him) in that story.  The Little White Bird was published as a novel for adult readers; Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published with 50 colour illustrations by Arthur Rackham, ostensibly as a children’s book, but in a fancy hardcover edition that was more likely to end up in the library than the nursery.

The story is set in Kensington Gardens, a famous park in London, mostly after “Lock-Out Time”, when the park gates are closed to the public, and the fairies and other magical inhabitants of the park can move about more freely than during the daylight, when they must hide from ordinary people. Fairy inhabitants of the gardens are first described in Thomas Tickell’s 1722 poem Kensington Gardens.

The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up - Kensington Gardens London. Picture courtesy of Yvette Campbell
The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up – Kensington Gardens London. Image courtesy of Yvette Campbell

The turning point for Rackham came in 1900, when he met his future wife, Edith Starkie, who was living in the house next door to his Hampstead studio. Starkie was also an artist and was developing a considerable reputation as a portrait painter. “His alliance with this gay artistic Irishwoman brought out the best in Rackham; for she was always his most stimulating, severest critic, and he had the greatest respect for her opinion” (Hudson, p. 56).

Most critics agree that it was during Rackham’s courtship and early marriage that he matured fully as an artist. Previously he had focused on line drawings, but from his wife he learned to use colour, particularly watercolour, much more effectively. This talent was developed at a propitious time, as technological advances dramatically improved the quality of book illustrations, allowing his art to achieve its fullest expression.

photo 14
“He passed under the bridge and came within full sight of the delectable Gardens.”

Unlike previous illustrators, who relied on an engraver to cut clean lines on a wood or metal plate used for printing, Rackham could have his pictures photographed and mechanically reproduced. This change removed the middleman between Rackham and his finished product. In particular, it allowed Rackham to display his particular gift for line, which an engraver, lacking Rackham’s talent, likely could not render onto a printing plate.  (Central Michigan University Library)

photo 13
“Peter Pan is the fairies’ orchestra.”

This type of printing required glazed paper that had to be pasted in (“tipped-in”) after the text was printed. Although this made publications more expensive, “the result enhanced the appearance of books and helped create the early-twentieth-century market for gift-books” (Central Michigan University Library).

A contemporary review of this book published in “The World” reads “Mr. Barrie has done what no one else has done since the inventor of “Alice”, he has invented a new legend, a modern folk story which comprehends all the innermost secrets of the modern child, be he four or forty. Mr. Rackham, for his part, has been bewitched in his cradle: he does not dream of fairies or hobgoblins, he knows them.”

If you would like to see more of Rackham’s artwork in our collections, check out our 1920 copy of Irish Fairytales by James Stephens.

photo 4
“The Serpentine is a lovely lake, and there is a drowned forest at the bottom of it. If you peer over the edge you can see the trees all growing upside down, and they say that at night there are also drowned stars in it.”

One thought on “A Christmas Book – Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

  1. Seeershy December 18, 2015 / 1:55 pm

    Wonderful blog Yvette, really enjoyed it! Pictures are beautiful.


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