Peter Pan flew away from his nursery and landed beside the Long Water in London’s Kensington Gardens. And there, on the very spot, Scottish author J M Barrie decided to erect a statue to his creation. It has been there since 1912, the boy who wouldn’t grow up frozen forever in bronze, surrounded by adoring mice, squirrels, bunnies and – of course – fairies. Do not say you don’t believe in them; clap your hands…don’t let Tink die!
The statue of Peter Pan in London’s Kensington Gardens is one of the capital’s icons. Perhaps not quite on a par with the Houses of Parliament or the spot where I once saw in the New Year, but Peter Pan has a justifiable place in our affections. Even so, unless you’re an enthusiast, or doing research, you probably wouldn’t go far out of your way to see his statue; however, if you’re wandering across Kensington Gardens, it is definitely a thing to do.
Queue up and snap fast to avoid the almost inevitable photobomber. You barely get the chance to wind back the imagination to apparently more innocent times, when all perambulators headed for Kensington Gardens, wheeled by the nannies of the filthy rich. You try to picture the curious genius that was J M Barrie befriending the Llewelyn Davies boys who, we are told, inspired the tales of Neverland and gave their names to several of the characters – not least the Great Pan himself. ‘Wendy’, incidentally, is an entirely fabricated name – a corruption of ‘Friendly’, inspired by a youngster who had trouble with the letter ‘R’.
James Matthew Barrie (Sir James, as he became) was born in Kirriemuir in 1860 and was a successful writer long before Peter Pan made his first appearance. This was within a novel, The Little White Bird (in which he lands next to the Long Water), published in 1902. The play Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up came out in 1904, followed in 1906 by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (reproducing the relevant chapters from Little White Bird) and, in 1911, Peter Pan and Wendy, which was the novel of the play. Barrie’s relationship with the young Llewelyn Davies boys, George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas and their mother, Sylvia, has been a matter of debate. The boys’ father, Arthur, died in 1907 and Sylvia, daughter of Gerald du Maurier, died in 1910. Barrie had helped the family financially and became one of the boys’ guardians. George was killed in 1915 fighting in the Great War, Michael drowned himself in 1921 and Peter, who apparently came to resent what he called “that terrible masterpiece” jumped under a train at Sloane Square in 1960. John and Nicolas (Nico) died of natural causes in 1959 and 1980, respectively.
It seems an egotistical thing to do, to commission a statue of one of your creations. Allegedly, Barrie had it erected overnight, without telling anyone. He had influential friends, but that does seem pushing it a bit. Still, I guess Barrie had good reason to feel proud of Peter, the Lost Boys, Tinkerbell, Hook and all the rest. It is a magical tale, which still captures the imagination in this cynical, digital, age; though the plot and the characters are not without an intriguing element of darkness. The Disney cartoon, Peter Pan, produced in 1953, is a highly sanitised version of the story. Barrie said of the statue that it “doesn’t show the devil in Peter”, which must have disappointed its sculptor, Sir George Frampton, no end.
Barrie strikes me as a troubled soul. He died in 1937, but in 1929 generously gave the copyright of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. There’s another Peter Pan statue there, as well as others in Sefton Park, Liverpool, in Perth, Australia, Brussels, New Jersey, Newfoundland and Toronto.
The character – and the author- have inspired countless books, TV productions and films, not least the aforementioned cartoon, Steven Spielberg’s enjoyable romp, Hook (1991) and the slightly sugary fictional Finding Neverland (2004) starring Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia.
Should you visit the statue, Royal Parks have installed a little gismo that reacts with your smartphone. Swipe your ‘phone to get a personal call-back from Peter Pan. Creepy. I gave it a miss - it seemed like a rather odd thing to want to do.
Finally, fans of Downton Abbey will be delighted to remember that Peter Pan’s statue is where Lady Mary delivered the devastating news to Charles Blake that she was having no more of him. Visit ABit About Britain for exciting tales from history, personal rants and tawdry social gossip.