Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi @ Somerset House

Without fungi all ecosystems would fail.

If you enter Somerset House from the terrace facing the River Thames, then immediately on your right is a set of three long consecutive rooms which Somerset House uses to house left-field and intriguing exhibitions. In the past I’ve come to see exhibitions about Tintin, Beards, and Mary Sibald here.

Continuing this tradition is the current exhibition, three long rooms packed with Victorian, 20th century, and contemporary art works all on the theme of mushrooms and fungi.

The show brings together the work of over 40 leading artists, designers and musicians to present an overview of fungi’s colourful cultural legacy, as well as some optimistic ideas about our fungus future.

Mindful Mushroom by Seana Gavin

Fungus facts

Printed around the walls are some of the fungus facts which we all need to know:

  • It was fungi that allowed plants to colonise the earth by mining rocks for mineral nourishment, slowly turning them into what would become soil
  • 90% of living plant species depend on fungi to provide basic nutrients through their roots
  • the largest organism on earth is Armillaria ostoyae which covers 2,385 acres and is at least 2,400 years old
  • mushrooms have hundreds of ‘sexes’ and reproduce by fusing together

Victorians and fungus

Lewis Carroll was partly reflecting the Victorian growth in interest in the natural world, with decades of collectors having amassed mountains of information about the natural world, here in the British Isles and all around the Empire. In Alice In Wonderland Carroll has Alice encounter a caterpillar sitting smoking an elaborate waterpipe on a fly agaric mushroom. He tells her that eating one side of it will make her grow, while eating the other side will make her shrink. And so the exhibition contains a display case showing volumes of Alice open at this scene and illustrated by different illustrators including the original by Sir John Tenniel and a slender Edwardian Alice by Arthur Rackham.

Alice and the caterpillar by Arthur Rackham (1907)

When his intrepid explorers landed in the moon, H.G. Wells had them discover that it was covered in fast-growing fungi. A whole wall is devoted to a dozen or so watercolours of fungi made by children’s author Beatrix Potter, who painted more than 300 watercolours of fungi between 1888 and 1897.

Hygrophorus puniceus by Beatrix Potter (1894)

Twentieth century fungus

The twentieth century is represented by a wall of collages by American artist Cy Twombly – to be precise, No.I – No.X 91974), combining images from the human world with mushroom images, random crayon marks, bits of print and so on. I’ve never liked Cy Twombly.

In a display case is a record of John Cage’s mushroom music and a rare copy of the limited edition Mushroom Book made by the avant-garde composer, John Cage, who was also a dedicated and serious mycologist. The label tells us that Cage helped found the New York Mycological Society with artist Lois Long, and made a living partly by selling luxury mushrooms which he foraged in upstate New York to the city’s top restaurants.

Cochlea Brick Tuft by Hamish Pearch

A dominant theme of this, the second room, is DRUGS, namely the hallucinogenic effects of the chemical psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms.

There’s a display case of various literary and counter-culture books and magazines which register the growing interest in mind-altering drugs through the 1950s and into the psychedelic 60s, sparked off by Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, through Timothy Leary, and on into other pop culture references.

As well as these pop culture references, the exhibition tells us that:

  • psilocybin evolved in mushrooms 10 to 20 million years ago, apparently as a way to dampen insect appetites – it is a defence mechanism

Contemporary mushroom art

This is the core of the exhibition, a large number of artworks by over 20 contemporary artists on the subject of fungi, which include paintings, collage, assemblies, installations, video, films, clothes and household ornaments about, with or made from fungi.

Take the jokey film, Fly Amanita by David Fenster, in which he dresses up as a mushroom and shares the thoughts of an Amanita muscaria (also known as Fly Agaric or Fly Amanita) mushroom on his species’ relationship with humans.

British artist Simon Popper has been collecting postage stamps from around the world which depict mushrooms. The result is a large collection of sheets of paper to which the stamps are pinned and titled Mycology Philately.

There’s a video by Egyptian video artist Adham Faramawy showing him and two others doing contemporary dance in a room coloured green with superimposed graphic mushrooms appearing in various corners symbolising, apparently, a break through cultural boundaries’.

There’s a Mushroom Suitcase by Carsten Höller, who trained as a scientist before becoming an artist and plays with the intersection of games, mind tricks, scientific experiments, and scientific research.

Pilzkoffer (Mushroom Suitcase) 2008 by Carsten Holler. Photo by Mark Blower

There are some wall cases containing amazingly realistic, life-sized sculptures of various fungi, done with utter scientific accuracy even down to the trailing roots at the bottom, actually made of silk but designed to look as if each one has been freshly pulled from the soil.

Mushroom sculptures by Amanda Cobbett

Artist Alex Morrison combines arts and crafts patterning with colours and layouts inspired by graffiti found in his native Vancouver.  The result is a mildly subversive trippy wallpaper.

Mushroom motif, black and ochre by Alex Morrison (2017)

I liked the work of Laurence Owen who:

draws parallels between humanly-constructed grid systems and modes of connectivity within fungal network systems… [exploring] the innate need within both human and fungal organisms to co-exist and thrive.

In practice this amounted to three large-ish (two foot across) ceramic works hung on the wall which looked like fungus-inspired futuristic cities.

Network by Laurence Owen. Photo © Laurence Owen

And they are hung to quite a few other exhibits by many more contemporary artists, including:

  • Hannah Collins
  • Cody Hudson
  • Jae Rhim Lee
  • Graham Little
  • Mae-ling Lokko
  • Perks and Mini
  • Haroon Mirza
  • Takashi Murakami
  • Hamish Pearch
  • Annie Ratti

Fungi futures

As to the fungi futures, it is estimated that there may be as many as five million fungi species in the world of which we have identified as little as 1%. Considering that penicillin was an accidental discovery made from fungi and has gone on to save more human lives than any other discovery in history, it’s reasonable to wonder how many other wonder-drugs and super-substances may be out there in the Mycological Kingdom.

Some fungi are already used to combat pollution and waste, in rehabilitating oil spills and recolonising the sites of radioactive accidents. And so the third and final room of the exhibition displays examples of the ways fungus material may be turned into more sustainable products that metal and oil-based artefacts. Thus:

  • Sebastian Cox and Ninela Ivanova have produced a series of lamp shades made of mycelium (“Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.”)
  • Mae-Ling Lokko works on the upcycling of agro-waste and biopolymer materials into building materials, including blocks built from mycelium
  • there’s a life size ‘burial suit’ by Korean-American artist Jae Rhim Lee, made of biomaterials including mushroom, and designed to prevent the more toxic chemicals from human bodies leeching into the soil
  • another film, this one by Australian director Jason Evans, documenting foragers of the Pacific North-West collecting matsutake mushrooms which only grow in human-disturbed forest.

And clothes. There’s a display case containing a t-shirt, a handbag and what looks like a bra made out of fungus material, the obvious idea being these are more sustainable and less polluting materials than most traditional fabrics let alone plastics.

And some works by Belgian footwear designer Kristel Peters who now focuses on sustainable shoe design. Her focus is on the use of mycelium as a material with little or no environmental impact, so that the samples of her ‘mycoshoes’ on display here demonstrate experiments at the intersection of bio-technology and fashion.

Mycoshoen by Kristel Peters

Curator

The exhibition was curated by writer and curator of contemporary art Francesca Gavin.

This may explain why, after Alice and Beatrix displays, the show cruises briskly through the twentieth century (Cage and Twombly) before arriving very firmly in the absolute present: most of the artworks on display here are bang up to date, with a number of the pieces dating from as recently as 2019.

With the result that, by the end, you realise that this isn’t an exhibition about mushrooms or fungi: an exhibition like that would have to include vastly more botany and science in it, explaining how fungi have evolved, grow, spore, reproduce, exactly how they break down organic waste, and are vital in helping almost all plants and trees to survive.

As an example, there were several references in the wall labels to fungi’s ability to create vast fibrous underground networks and to communicate along them somehow, along with speculation that these networks could be developed in the future to a) transmit electricity b) to form some kind of artificial intelligence network. But then there was no further explanation of any of these mind-blowing notions. I wanted more.

No, this is an exhibition of contemporary art – an impressive selection of videos, installations, clothes and household goods, ceramics, collages and paintings – which happens to be on the subject of fungi. You learn a few factoids about fungi (some of which the average interested person might well already have known), but what is undeniably new and distinctive is the cross-section of little-known contemporary artists which Gavin has assembled.

Taken as an exhibition about fungi, this show is disappointing.

Taken as a wide-ranging exhibition of contemporary art which just happens to have chosen fungi as a subject, this show is a fascinating insight into the contemporary art scene.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Fairies in Vision @ the Heath Robinson Museum

It always amazes me how much factual information and how many beautiful pictures the Heath Robinson Museum manages to pack into such a relatively small space.

This exhibition manages to cover how the depiction of fairies, elves, sprites and goblins has changed and evolved over the past 200 years through some fifty drawings and illustrations hung on the walls and 17 or so antique illustrated books open in display cases. Over twenty illustrators are represented, from Sir Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821-1902) to the contemporary illustrator and designed Brian Froud (b.1947).

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

Here were some of my highlights.

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)

The great man is represented by seven drawings. In the first, Edwardian, part of his career, HR produced beautiful illustrations for luxury editions of classics. The most obvious source of fairies is his illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which has of course provided a pretext for artists down the ages to depict sprites and fairies) and five or so of the pictures here are from it.

I love Heath Robinson but I felt these black and white illustrations were just that – you needed to know what was going on in the story to really ‘get’ or understand them. Unlike the obvious highlight of his pictures here, and of the whole show, the wonderful Fairy’s Birthday, which just happens to be one of the most popular pictures in the permanent collection.

The Fairy’s Birthday (detail) by William Heath Robinson (1925)

The Fairy’s Birthday was one of a series of large, coloured ‘goblin’ pictures that Heath Robinson made for the Christmas editions of upmarket magazines such as The Graphic between 1919 and 1925. As the wall label suggests, the goblins and fairies have been given a ‘homely, bumbling’ appearance – look at the French pâtissier carrying the heavy cake, at the top.

Helen Jacobs (1888-1970)

Jacobs grew up in East London and studied at the West Ham School of Art. The four fairy pictures by her here are absolutely wonderful. What characterises them is the combination of extremely detailed depictions of the subject – with a very firm use of line and shade to create volume and drama – against wonderfully bright washes of background colour.

Look at the definition of the right arm and armpit of this fairy, but also revel in the midnight blue background. And note also the sprays of pearl-like baubles radiating out from the fairy’s diaphanous clothes. I like strong, defined outlines, so I loved all four of her pieces here for their clarity and dynamism.

A fairy on a bat by Helen Jacobs

Charles Robinson (1870-1937)

Robinson trained in lithography but began illustrating books from the mid-1890s and illustrated a trio of books with the collective title of The Annals of Fairyland (1900-1902). In 1911 Heinemann published an edition of Shelley’s poem The Sensitive Plant with 18 coloured plates and numerous vignettes.

Just one of these is included in the exhibition, and I found it one of the most haunting. In the centre is a baby with wings, more of a chubby Renaissance putto maybe, than a slender sprite. What I kept returning to enjoy was the way the delicate wash which created a fog, a mist, through which you can see the ghostly outlines of the autumn trees in the background. And the craggy, Gormenghast quality of the black branches, especially the one at the bottom. And then the wonderful spray of autumn leaves falling in a spray around the centre, behind the putto. I’m not sure how strictly fairylike this picture is, but I found it wonderfully wistful and evocative.

Illustration for The Sensitive Plant by Charles Robinson (1911)

Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)

The exhibition closes with a set of eight of the original watercolours for the Flower Fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. Barker was born in Croydon and although she later attended the Croydon School of Art, she was largely self-taught. In 1922 she sent some of her flower fairy illustrations to Blackie and Son the publishers who published them as Flower Fairies of the Spring. She received just £25 for the 24 pictures in the book, but it sold well and she was able to secure a royalty for all its sequels.

The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (1926) © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker

Eventually there were eight flower fairy books, containing 170 illustrations. The striking thing about them is their hyper-realism grounded in Barker’s immensely careful depictions of the flora each fairy is linked to. Her sketchbooks have survived and show what immense trouble she took to draw extremely accurate depictions of yew, sloe berries, horse chestnuts, elderberries and many, many more.

As someone who takes photos of English wild flowers, I was riveted by the accuracy of her botanical drawings. But she also used real children to model for each of the fairies. Hence the sense of super-reality.

And yet… There is something rather… cloying about her fairy paintings. Many of the previous fairy drawings and illustrations were notable for their whimsy and fantasy and lightness. There’s something in the very solidity and botanical accuracy of Cicely Mary Barker’s pictures which is a little… overwhelming, stifling almost. What do you think?

Brian Froud (b.1947)

In a display case there’s a copy of modern fantasy artist Brian Froud’s brilliantly inventive and funny book Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, with a couple of framed original drawings hanging on the wall above it.

This is a very modern, disenchanted, cynical but hilarious view of fairies and, indeed, of human nature, purporting to be the book in which the fictional Lady Cottington has heartlessly captured and pressed to death a wide variety of fairies. The fairies are slender naked females with long dragonfly wings, each caught in a posture of terror and horror as the pages of the collecting book bang shut on them.

A pressed fairy from Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Brian Froud (1994)

A frolic of fairies

Those are just five of my personal highlights, but there are lots of other images, by lots of other artists.

Some of them are well known (Rackham, Richard Doyle), many of them far less well-known – and it is fascinating to see just what a variety of imagery and mood can be sparked by ostensibly the same subject, some enchanting, some – frankly – grotesque:

  • from the stately Romantic paintings of Sir Joseph Paton (see above)
  • to the disturbing images of Charles Altamont Doyle who was hospitalised for alcoholism and depression
  • from the very Aubrey Beardsley-influenced, Decadent style of Harry Clarke
  • through to the big baby surrounded by little sprites and goblins painted by Mabel Lucie Attwell (Olive’s Night Time Vigil with the Fairies).

Get in touch with your inner child. Be transported back to all the fairy stories and fairy books of your earliest memories. Go and see this lovely exhibition.

Full list of illustrators and artists

  • Florence Mary Anderson
  • Mabel Lucy Attwell
  • Cicely Mary Barker
  • Harry Clarke
  • Walter Crane
  • Charles Altamont Doyle
  • Richard Doyle
  • Brian Froud
  • Florence Susan Harrison
  • Lawrence Housman
  • Reginald Knowles
  • Celia Levitus
  • Hilda T. Miller
  • William Heath Robinson
  • Helen Jacobs
  • Jessie King
  • Barrington MacGregor
  • Carton Moore Park
  • Sir Joseph Noel Paton
  • Arthur Rackham
  • Charles Robinson
  • Reginald Savage
  • Margaret Tarrant
  • Alice B. Woodward

Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Peter Pan and Other Lost Children @ The Heath Robinson Museum

The exhibition title is a little misleading. It led me to believe the show would be about a range of old-style illustrators who’d all tried their hands at illustrating Peter Pan. In fact it is a small but beautifully formed exhibition devoted to the work of just two notable but very different Edwardian women book illustrators.

Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951)

Alice Woodward was one of the seven children of Dr Henry Woodward, a geologist at the British Museum. From an early age she (and her three sisters) wanted to be artists and her parents were affluent enough to fund her training at the Westminster School of Art and at the South Kensington School of Art, before she went to spend three months at art school in Paris.

In other words, Alice received a lot of training and study, especially in life drawing. In 1895 she began her career as a commercial illustrator, and in 1897, was established enough to replace Aubrey Beardsley as illustrator of a magazine series titled Bons Mots of the Eighteenth Century. Between 1896 and 1900 she illustrated a series of children’s books.

In 1904 J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan debuted in London and was wildly popular. A publisher, G. Bell and Sons, had the idea of recycling the characters from the play into a large format, illustrated Peter Pan Picture Book (text by Daniel O’Connor) and asked Woodward to do the illustrations.

Woodward was thus the first illustrator to illustrate the Peter Pan stories, creating 28 coloured plates for the Picture Book which went on to become an international bestseller.

Illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book (1907) by Alice B. Woodward

Illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book (1907) by Alice B. Woodward

For the next thirty years Woodward worked for Bell, illustrating a wide variety of children’s stories, including a new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The half of the exhibition devoted to Woodward presents 19 of the original watercolour drawings from her Peter Pan as well as seven watercolours from Alice, with two display cases showing ten or so original editions of other books for which she drew covers, end-papers and illustrations.

Alice in Wonderland by Alice B. Woodward (1913)

Illustration from Alice in Wonderland by Alice B. Woodward (1913)

To be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced. There’s a certain weakness about her faces. This is more obvious in the Alice illustrations than the Pan ones. The Alice pictures suffer by comparison with either the original illustrations by John Tenniel, or the version done a little earlier by Arthur Rackham in 1907.

On the evidence here Woodward is at her best with Peter Pan – such as in the beautiful image of Mrs Darling bending over one of her small children in his bed, or in more active scenes like the big crocodile waddling after Captain Hook or of Peter Pan fighting the captain (see below).

Illustration for the Peter Pan Picture Book (1907)

Illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book (1907) by Alice B. Woodward

Edith Farmiloe (1870-1921)

Edith was born Edith Parnell, the second of ten children (ten!). In stark contrast to the opportunities given Alice Woodward, Edith had little or no formal art training.

In 1891 she married Thomas Farmiloe who was vicar of St Peter’s church in Great Windmill Street, Soho. It was a very deprived area in the 1890s and Edith started writing stories about the children of the poor who thronged the streets. It was only a small step to start illustrating them herself. Lacking Woodward’s training in life drawing, shading and depth, Edith developed a style based on clear black outlines.

Edith’s earliest pictures were picked up by children’s magazines and then, in 1897, she was asked by the publisher Grant Richards to illustrate a large picture book titled All The World Over, with each page devoted to (rather stereotypical) depictions of children around the world, from Eskimos to Australians, alongside verses about them written by the freelance writer E.V. Lucas.

Greenland - Waiting for the sledge, illustration for All The World Over by Edith Farmiloe (1898)

Greenland – Waiting for the sledge, illustration for All The World Over by Edith Farmiloe (1898)

In 1898 Grant Richards requested a follow-up book and suggested the subject be the children of London. It was titled Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1898). Although aimed at children, the pictures are notable for some occasionally unflinching depictions of the real poverty of of London’s most deprived children. The exhibition brings this out by displaying next to the Farmiloe pictures, contemporary photos of children’s street activities.

Photos from Some London Amusements published in Living London by George R. Sims, Cassel and Co (1901)

Photos from Some London Amusements published in Living London by George R. Sims, Cassel and Co (1901)

This was followed by another picture book, Picallilli, in 1900, the same landscape format but this time Edith wrote the text as well. The first 15 of the 30 colour plates depict the Italian immigrant community in London, hence the title.

Out from School, illustration for Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1899) by Edith Farmiloe

Out from School, illustration for Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1899) by Edith Farmiloe

In 1902 Edith illustrated a picture book, Young George – His Life, for a new publisher, William Heinemann. Unlike the previous three, this picturebook was in portrait format and explicitly depicted the lives of London’s street children. The family in question has no father, so George is in charge of all his younger siblings. The children have to fend for themselves, and feed themselves from the street, since their mother locks them out of the house every morning when she goes off to work.

London (East) the Diamond Jubilee by Edith Farmiloe

London (East) the Diamond Jubilee by Edith Farmiloe

Compare and contrast

It is really interesting not only to a) learn about two illustrators I’d never heard of but b) to be able to compare and contrast two such very different styles of illustration.

Woodward is interested in depth of perspective and richness of colour. The polish and ambition of her technique is exemplified in the visual complexity of an illustration like this.

Mermaid Combing Her Hair by Alice B. Woodward, illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book

Mermaid Combing Her Hair by Alice B. Woodward, illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book

Some of her illustrations I would like to own, but many are marred by a kind of infelicity of composition, especially in her inability to draw faces really accurately. I think she aims ambitiously high, and sometimes gets there with sumptuously luxurious pictures… but not all the time.

By contrast, Farmiloe was from the start a far more stylised illustrator, making the most of her lack of formal training by concentrating on strong outlines and simplified figures.

I found Edith’s pictures easier to assimilate and more entertaining to look at. They are winning. Her children may be cartoon-like (the friend I went with said some reminded him of the Peanuts cartoon by Charles M. Schulz) but they immediately evoke a strong visual response, in a way the Woodward pictures don’t – for me, anyway.

And also the stories, texts, ideas and inspiration for Farmiloe’s illustrations are new and inventive. Woodward is illustrating stories we already know and love; there’s a strong sense of familiarity, even of déjà vu in some of her pictures, and she suffers a bit in the inevitable comparison with the famous illustrators who had gone before her (in the case of Alice, at any rate) or with other illustrators of these classic works who came afterwards.

In contrast to the crowded field Woodward was working in, Farmiloe creates a new visual language for entirely new stories, situations and poems, and so has the benefit of freshness.

This explains why there are more wall labels about Farmiloe than about Woodward in the exhibition – because each of her book projects needs to be explained in a way that Peter Pan or Alice don’t. And these explanations – especially concerning London street children and poverty – are often as interesting and absorbing as the pictures themselves.

For example, one of the picture books on display is open at the wonderful children’s poem A Make-Believe Margate. This is based on the bitter-sweet idea that even in the poorest slums, inner city children play a game of pretending they’re by the seaside.

The Jinks ‘ave gone to Margit.
Oh! They spends their money free!
From Saturday to Monday
They’ll eat their s’rimps for supper
An’ they’ll sniff the salt-sea spray,
As they swagger down the Jetty
When the band begins to play.

The Jinks ‘ave gone to Margit.
But we doesn’t care – oh no!
Though we felt a little chokey
As we stud and watched ’em go.
And Ameliar started cryin’,
But young ‘Enery, sez ‘e
‘I tell you what, you kiddies,
Let’s purtend we’re by the sea.’

So we all began purtendin’.
Oh it was a bit o’ fun!
An’our court looked jest like Margit
When the sport was well begun.
There was paddling for the babies
(For we emptied lots o’ pails)
And they looked for shells and lobsters,
Round the dustbin and the rails.

And the Jackson boys were donkeys,
Runnin’ races on the shore,
While our washin’-tub, the Skylark,
Made excursions past the door;
Then the Muggins blacked their faces,
(They was never werry clean)
And you should ‘ave ‘eard ’em bangin’
On their (tea-tray) tambourine!

Yus’, the Jinks ‘ave gone to Margit,
But they needn’t think we mind,
Though they larfed as they were startin’,
When they saw us left be’ind.
If we’re cooped up ‘ere in Hoxton,
Yet we’ll never sigh or groan,
For we’ve got a little sea-side
Of our werry, werry, own!

And here’s Farmiloe’s illustration of the poem.

A Make believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

A Make-Believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

So it’s not only the illustrations, but the novelty and interest of the ideas behind them – the novelty and cleverness of this poem, for example – and the very idea of depicting slum children with sympathy and humour – all these factors go to make Farmiloe, for me, a more interesting, entertaining and emotionally engaging artist. I admired many of the Woodwards; but I wanted to own many of the Farmiloes.

Go along and decide for yourself!


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath —
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

(A Charm)

Introduction

The book This is the sequel to the classic children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Both consist of short stories in which Shakespeare’s Puck, last of ‘the People of the Hills’, introduces two nice young children, Dan and Una, to figures from English history, personages who tend to gossip and witter on before eventually getting round to telling a, by and large rather hard-to-follow, ‘story’. There are ten such tales in Rewards – which Kipling worked on from 1906 to 1910 – as well as 24 poems which are, frankly, much more accessible and, as a result, much more enjoyable.

The era The Edwardian era (1901-1910) saw a flourishing of children’s literature – Beatrix Potter published the first of her tales, about Peter Rabbit, in 1902; Peter Pan first appeared in a 1904 play; The Wind In the Willows 1908; E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906. After the heady Imperialist rhetoric surrounding the Boer War, the post-war years saw a retreat into fantasy, children’s and rural writing, all trends epitomised in the Puck books.

The title is taken from a poem by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), which laments the passage of the fairy people out of England, scared by the religious strife under Queen Elizabeth I and especially James I (1603 – 1625), namely the rise of the disruptive Puritans.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

(Kipling had described this flight of the fairies out of England in the penultimate story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, ‘Dymchurch Flit’ – where it was wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.)

The stories

1. Cold Iron – Dan and Una are older than in the previous book – symbolised by the fact that they are now boots!, boots which have iron nails in them. Puck explains that the fairy folk can’t abide ‘cold iron’ and tells the story of how he stole a human child and gave it to the fairy people – Sir Huon and his wife Lady Esclairmonde – to raise. As he grew, Puck took the growing lad roistering until they got into so much trouble that Sir Huon and his wife forbade him the boy’s company, soon after which the boy picks up a slave’s collar made and left in his path deliberately to snare him by old Thor, the blacksmith. By touching it the boy becomes doomed to becoming a servant to the humans. Eerie and strange. I enjoy Kipling’s evocations of the pagan/Saxon/Norse gods.

2. Gloriana – Dan and Una go up to their secret base in the woods and bump into Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, who tells them a story about being hosted at a nearby country house where a fight breaks out between two brothers who she forces to make peace and then offers a mission to Virginia, in America, to forestall what she thinks might be an attack by forces of King Philip of Spain. The boys and their fleet are never heard of again: did she do right? The characterisation of Elizabth is beguiling and strange, an uncertain but decisive woman trapped by her duties.

She took off her cloak slowly, and stood forth in dove-coloured satin, worked over with pearls that trembled like running water in the running shadows of the trees. Still talking — more to herself than to the children — she swam into a majestical dance of the stateliest balancings, the naughtiest wheelings and turnings aside, the most dignified sinkings, the gravest risings, all joined together by the elaboratest interlacing steps and circles. They leaned forward breathlessly to watch the splendid acting.

3. The Wrong Thing – Dan is carving a model boat in the workshop of the village handyman, Mr Springett, when both are surprised by the arrival of Hal o’ the Draft, the draughtsman and artist we met in the story of the same name in the first volume. As in most Kipling stories the two old blokes fall to yarning and shaking their heads about the modern world – in this instance lamenting the rise of ‘unions’ with their damn-fool insistence that a man be a specialist and not a Jack-of-all-trades.

Only after a lot of this yarning do we get to Hal’s story, in which he is apprenticed to a demanding Italian master of Works in Oxford, Torrigiano. He is commissioned by an employee of the king’s to design a relief for the bow of a new ship, all Neptunes and dolphins – a warship which his foreign girlfriend, Catherine of Castile, wants the king to give her as a pleasure boat.

But Hal is not very happy with his design and Torrigiano mocks it to pieces. So when he’s called along to a local tavern to meet a more senior king’s official to discuss it, Hal says it would cost a good £30 to create and gild, and criticises his own design, adding that in any case it won’t stand up to hard wear at sea. The official is persuaded to scrap it, laughs in relief that Hal has saved him some thirty pound in expense, picks up a nearby rusty sword and, to Hal’s amazement, knights him. For it is the king, Henry VII, himself! Who then exits, leaving Hal stunned.

And moprtified that the king knighted him – not for the excellent chapel and carvings and statues he’s building for him – but for saving him £30 and (also) helping him get one over on a woman he obviously doesn’t like. For the wrong thing!

Meanwhile, Hal had an enemy among the other architects and designers, a vengeful man named Benedetto whose work Hal had criticised once or twice and who had taken it very personally. This Benedetto has crept up behind Hal in the king’s chamber, and now seizes him and puts his knife to his throat, insisting that Hal tell his story before he kills him. So Hal tells him the story of the bad Neptune design for the ship and how he talked the official out of using it and how the official turned out to be the king – and Benedetto bursts out laughing and is so overcome with mirth that he puts his knife away, puts his arm round Hal’s shoulders, and the two become best friends ever since.

Back in ‘the present’, in the frame story, Hal and Mr Springett laugh long and hard at this, and then old Mr Springett tells his own story of how he built an elaborate blue-brick stables for a local lord of the manor. When the rich man’s hoity-toity wife – fresh down from ‘Lunnon’ – asked Springett if he could create a ha-ha (i.e. a ditch) across the main lawn Springett said, ‘Aw no, me lady, there be so any springs around here you’d end up flooding the park.’ Which wasn’t true but he didn’t want to go to the bother of digging it. So the wife dropped the idea and, later, the Lord of the Manor came round and paid Springett a tenner in gratitude – he didn’t want a ha-ha and is delighted that Springett put the kibosh on it. But no mention of the beautiful tiled stables which Springett has laboured so long over.

Thus both Hal and old Springett were rewarded for ‘the wrong thing’, not the thing they thought was important – chapel, stables – but what their masters thought was important – saving £30 and abandoning the ha-ha idea. Both, as it happens, also involved helping the lords get one over on their womenfolk…

‘Stories’ like this seem to come from a sense of human nature and shared values that is so alien to our 21st century sensibilities that they are difficult to relate to.

4. Marklake Witches – Una is learning how to milk cows with Mrs Vincey, the farmer’s wife at Little Lindens, when out of nowhere appears an imperious young lady in historical outfit who calls herself Miss Philadelphia and starts prattling on at length about everything and nothing like so many Kipling characters. Eventually her prattle about her mother and her father and her nurse, Old Cissie, settles down into the time Cissie stole three silver spoons and gave them to Jerry Gamm, the Witchmaster on the Green, and Miss Philly went to get them back. Jerry Gamm returned them readily enough, but gave her a stick of maple wood and told her to prop her window open with it and say prayers five times a day to get rid of her spitting cough, which the ‘proper’ doctor, Dr Break, can’t seem to do anything about.

There’s also a French prisoner of war, René staying locally, who is himself training to be a doctor and after curing the Lord of the manor, is given more freedom than most of the prisoners. Miss Philly climbs into an oak tree overlooking Jerry’s garden and is surprised to find Jerry and René chatting away like old friends and trying out a kind of trumpet which René has whittled, putting it against each others’ chests and listening. (It is in fact an early version of the stethoscope.) In the middle of this scene, fat Dr Break and a deputation of drunk villagers arrive, claiming Jerry has been bewitching them, putting the trumpet against their chests and leaving a ‘bewitched’ red mark.

René leaps to his feet and exchanges hard words with Dr Break, who replies in kind, which prompts the hot-blooded Frenchman to challenge him to a duel. The villagers run off in a fright, and just as René is wrestling Dr Break to the ground up ride Philly’s father and Arthur Wellesly, head of the garrison at nearby Hastings (and, we the readers know, the future Duke of Wellington). Startled by their appearance Philly falls out of the tree at the adults’ feet and they all burst into laughter.

The Duke is invited by Philly’s father to dinner that evening at the Hall, along with René and Dr Break, and here Miss Philly sings them a sad song about a man who falls in love with a fading flower although he knows that it will die and leave him pining. To her surprise all four men present are reduced to sobs and tears. What she doesn’t realise, but the alert reader has come to understand from her persistent coughing and from some remarks of René and Jerry which she overheard but didn’t understand – is that all the adults know she is dying of incurable tuberculosis. Hence these four strong men breaking down as she sings such a soulful song about death.

This simple technique – the fallible narrator not realising what the adults are talking about – is a rare touch of ‘literary effect’ among Kipling’s stories.

5. The Knife and the Naked Chalk – Una and Dan go on holiday to a cottage on the South Downs. They get to know an old shepherd, called Mr Dudeney, and his dogs Old Jim and Young Jim. There is a bit of banter with him singing the praises of the Sussex Downland, with the children preferring the woods and streams of the Weald. In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington often refers to the pre-Raphaelite brilliance of his framing, i.e. the initial descriptions which set the scene in which his various characters then yarn away. And so it is here, with a lovely description of the Sussex Downs on a hot summer’s day.

The air trembled a little as though it could not make up its mind whether to slide into the Pit or move across the open. But it seemed easiest to go downhill, and the children felt one soft puff after another slip and sidle down the slope in fragrant breaths that baffed on their eyelids. The little whisper of the sea by the cliffs joined with the whisper of the wind over the grass, the hum of insects in the thyme, the ruffle and rustle of the flock below, and a thickish mutter deep in the very chalk beneath them. Mr Dudeney stopped explaining, and went on with his knitting. They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept halfway down the steep side of Norton Pit, and on the edge of it, his back to them, Puck sat beside a half-naked man who seemed busy at some work. The wind had dropped, and in that funnel of ground every least noise and movement reached them like whispers up a water-Pipe.

The half-naked man is carving flints. He is a Stone Age man. He sings his titles to Puck:

‘I am of the People of the Worked Flint. I am the one son of the Priestess who sells the Winds to the Men of the Sea. I am the Buyer of the Knife — the Keeper of the People.’

Then he tells Puck how he lost his eye; how as a man of the sheep people who used sharpened flints as cutting tools, he saw one of the wood people use a ‘knife’ to kill one of the ever-threatening Beasts (the wolves who were widespread and dangerous back in those days). So he went on a pilgrimage into the Forest and there met the Knife People and their Holy Woman, who said the Gods demanded that he must lose an eye to gain a knife. And so he let her put out his eye and was given a ‘knife’, and his people given many knives, and the Beasts knew it and kept away.

And so his people came to think he was a God, the god Tyr, and asked him judgements and a young man asked permission to marry his woman, and so he gave his people everything and freed them from the Beasts, but lost his eye and his woman and his peace of mind.

6. Brother Square-Toes – Puck appears with a local, nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’, who lived during the 1790s. He was a smuggler and Kipling lays on a lot of information and slang about Sussex smuggling families, techniques and so on. One night he’s out on a smuggling run, when his ship is run over by a French ship bound for the States, which he manages to scramble aboard before  his own vessel sinks.

And so he’s taken all the way to Philadelphia where he finds crowds protesting in the streets and follows a Red Indian – Red Jacket – into a house where he falls in with a white trader named Toby (Apothecary Tobias Hirte). All three go up into the hills to meet another Indian, Cornplanter, and Pharaoh spends enough time with them that he becomes adopted as a fellow Red Indian. More facts and info about Native Americans.

The main scene in this convoluted ‘story’ comes when the Indians and Pharaoh go back to Philadelphia to hear George Washington give his decision about the Big Issue of the Day: should or shouldn’t America join the French in war against the British? Washington, or ‘Big Hand’, as he’s known to the Indians, says No.

Washington is depicted as a special friend of the Indians, and shares with the Indians the knowledge that being a leader is tough, when you’re surrounded by ambassadors (the French ambassador in this instance) and other special interests (businessmen, jingo politicians) all trying to jockey you into their point of view.

And it’s in this context – Washington being a firm, clear-sighted leader – that Kipling ends the story with by far his most famous poem, If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

7. ‘A Priest in spite of himself’ – Follows on from the previous story. Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a battered French émigré begging in the street. Pharaoh rescues him from an angry mob and takes him back to Toby’s place where, over a few drinks, the battered man unwinds and gives indications of being more educated, grand and noble than he seems. Pharaoh sees him on subsequent occasions – comes across him gambling with loaded dice – and learns that he is Count Talleyrand, former Ambassador from the French King to Britain, who managed the feat of becoming Ambassador to the new, revolutionary French regime to Britain, until the disgusted Brits chucked him out.

Talleyrand hears that Pharaoh heard what George Washington told the Red Indians in the previous story and is desperate to find out what Washington told the French ambassador, Genêt, about the possibility of the Americans coming in on the French side in the war. This information would be gold dust; if he could take it back to the revolutionary regime it would restore his position. But Pharaoh refuses to disclose what he has heard despite the offer of a massive 500 dollars. As so often, what counts for Kipling is fidelity, loyalty, honour.

After returning from a sojourn with his Indian friends up country, Pharaoh learns that Talleyrand left him the 500 dollars anyway. He invests in horses, then buys a cargo of tobacco and a sailing ship to take it to Britain – starved of baccy by a French blockade. But Pharaoh’s ship is seized by a French ship. It is confiscated in a french harbour and the cargo of baccy shipped to Paris for the authorities to dispose of. Pharaoh, with all his worldly goods invested in the cargo of baccy, follows it to Paris where – by an extraordinary coincidence – he once again encounters Talleyrand, now restored to favour and riding in a carriage with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!

This allows Kipling to give us a pen portrait of the little Corsican general, as he is invited into their palace, observes the relationship between the little emperor and the canny diplomat, and the story ends with the surprising twist that Talleyrand makes Napoleon give Pharaoh back his ship and double the price of his confiscated cargo.

In case it wasn’t obvious before, by this stage it is clear that there is little or no magic and no fairies whatsoever in this ‘fairy’ book. Instead it is a fairly thorough rummage through Great Figures from History.

8. The Conversion of St Wilfrid The children are in the village church while local craftsmen fix the bells, particularly ‘Old Mr Kidbrooke’ (it’s noticeable how many of the locals are ‘old’ so-and-so, giving a kind of insistent sense of their antiquity and venerableness). An old lady is practicing the organ giving a thread which underpins the ‘frame’. A shadowy figure at the altar stands and reveals himself to be Wilfrid, Saint of Sussex, and Archbishop of York (633-709), chaperoned – as all these historical personages are – by Puck. There is a great deal of detail – as usual – about different hymn tunes, how they sound to the children, about old memorials in the church and so on – before we get anywhere near a ‘story’.

This is: Wilfred, his chaplain Eddi, and a well-educated pagan named Meon, go out in Meon’s boat a-fishing. A storm comes up and wrecks them on a rock off the coast. After surviving a day and a night on the rock, Meon’s tame seal, Padda, finds them, brings them fish to eat, then swims to the mainland and attracts some of Meon’s people out to the rock to rescue them. While they were out on the rock shivering, Meon asked Wilfred whether he should abandon his pagan gods and call on the Christian god for help. Wilfred said, ‘No, cleave to the faith of your ancestors’. And, after they’re rescued, Meon is so impressed by this example of Wilfred’s integrity under duress, that he – Meon – chooses, of his own free will, to convert to Christianity.

I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules.

And then – Wilfred is gone in a flash! – like all the personages Puck presents, and the children – having, as usual, been administered the leaves which make them forget the ‘magic’ incident – forget the whole ting, and end the ‘story’ enjoying the thrilling sound of the organ playing a grand tune in the dark and atmospheric church.

Convoluted and overstuffed with detail as most of the stories are, Kipling excels at the gentle introduction and then gentle postlude to each tale. He himself referred to them as the ‘frames’ for the yarns, and they’re often the most accessible and therefore enjoyable bits.

9. A Doctor of Medicine The children are playing hide-and-seek with bicycle lamps after dark when Puck arrives with the Jacobean herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654). Culpeper is portrayed as a comic figure, proud of his ‘exquisite knowledge’ but in reality full of outrageously tendentious twaddle about ailments being caused by elements loyal to Mars and combated by plants loyal to Venus, and so on. As usual the description in the ‘framing’, the setting of the story, is much the best thing.

Their shadows jumped and slid on the fruit-tree walls. They filed out of the garden by the snoring pig-pound and the crooning hen-house, to the shed where Middenboro the old lawn-mower pony lives. His friendly eyes showed green in the light as they set their lamps down on the chickens’ drinking-trough outside, and pushed past to the hay-mow. Mr Culpeper stooped at the door.

We learn that Culpeper was a strong Puritan, very much against the King during the Civil War. There is a lot of confusing detail about who has loaned the King what, which Culpeper discovers, or overhears, when he’s shot and taken prisoner at the King’s stronghold of Oxford. Once healed, Culpeper is released and goes with a friend to his village nearby which they discover to be in the grip of the plague. Here, through a series of preposterous and deluded calculations based on ancient lore about Mars and Venus, Culpeper suggests a policy of killing all the rats (creatures of the Moon) which is, in fact, the key to quelling the plague. Thus through completely bogus medieval superstitious reasoning, he stumbles on the true remedy, the villager kill the rats and cleanse and block up all their hidey-holes, and the plague abates.

10. Simple Simon The children go to watch half-a-dozen men and a team of horses extracting a forty-foot oak log from a muddy hollow. Suddenly Puck is among them and introducing a stranger, Simon Cheyneys, shipbuilder of Rye Port. Through a blizzard of circumstantial detail, local dialect and references back to a story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, a story of sorts emerges.

It transpires that Simon knew young Francis Drake when he was learning sailing in Kent and round the coast to Sussex; that they were both in a boat which came under half-hearted attack from a Spanish ship which they met in the channel, that ‘Frankie’ carried the wounded Simon ashore and to his aunt’s house to be treated for a wound received.

Then their paths diverge and Drake circumnavigates the world and goes on to become a famous man. Then the story jumps twenty years to the year of the Armada (1588) when Simon and his aunt hear that Drake is commanding the English fleet opposing the Spanish. He realises that, by the time the English ships get to the Sussex coast, chances are they’ll be low on ammunition. So Simon and his Aunt load up his ship –

We was ballasted on cannon-shot of all three sizes; and iron rods and straps for his carpenters; and a nice passel of clean three-inch oak planking and hide breech-ropes for his cannon, and gubs of good oakum, and bolts o’ canvas, and all the sound rope in the yard.

… and sail out into the English fleet. Simon and his Aunt ignore – and I think this is the point of the story – they ignore requests and then threats from all the other ships and senior admirals they sail past to give them these supplies, and hold out until they find Drake’s ship and hand over all the goods in person to him. Drake swings down into Simon’s schooner and kisses him in front of all his men.

“Here’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother!” he says.

These provisions, it is implied, will give the impetus Drake needs to drive the Spanish fleet into harbour in the Low Country and then send in fireships to devastate it. Loyalty is not only a moral virtue in itself – it saves the day. It is Simon’s loyalty to a comrade which saves England and freedom.

11. The Tree of Justice This is quite an intense and moving story, told in Kipling’s usual convoluted manner. The children are introduced again to Sir Richard Dalyngridge who tells a story involving Hugh the Saxon – both familiar from a set of three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It is the reign of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and he is in the woods hunting, with local Saxon villagers acting as beaters. One among the beaters is a lot older and, apparently, deranged and calls out threats against the king. The story focuses on the way the King’s jester, Rahere, establishes his ascendancy over the king and then explains to a cowed assembly of nobles that the white-haired, one-eyed old man is none other than Harold Godwinson, the former King Harold, supposed killed at the Battle of Hastings, but who survived and has been wandering his lost kingdom for nigh on forty years, berating himself for all his failures.

In the final pages Rahere is able to show to the old man that the current king and his nobles do not mock him nor blame him.

‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King — his bishops — the knights — all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”

And Harold is able to die a happy man, supported by the loyal Hugh the Saxon, one of the first historical personages we met back in the first story of Puck, who now rounds the whole series off as an exemplar of the virtue which all these stories promote with growing emphasis – loyalty unto death.


Where are the fairies?

The cover of the Penguin Children’s Classic edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill features a detail from a late Victorian painting of fairies. After all, Rewards and Fairies has the word ‘fairies’ in the title. And yet there are no fairies at all in either book. What there is is lots of people – people from historical times, it’s true, but very flesh-and-blood people whose stories contain barely a shred of magic, focusing instead on all-too-human incidents and concerns.

In fact, the average reader might tend to associate fairies with lightness and deftness, whereas the stories come over as incredibly heavy in at least four respects:

  1. Jargon They are packed to overflowing with Kipling’s delight in the slang, historic speech, technical terms and specialist knowledge of whichever period the character is from.
  2. Gossip The first half of all of them is generally chat and banter and gossip and yarning with Puck about this and that incident from the past – before they get anywhere near an actual ‘story’.
  3. Convoluted The stories themselves are often so convoluted as to be hard to follow – the story of Pharaoh’s smuggling activities, wreck aboard a French warship, arrival in America, adoption by a Red Indian tribe and climactic scene with George Washington, is enough material for a novel and feels very compressed.
  4. Moralising Last and most important – all the stories point a moral. The Puck books are extremely moralising – they preach the virtues of comradeship and loyalty, whether to one’s fellow centurions, to the friends one makes in dangerous times, or to the old gods. Over and again Kipling rams home the message that it is vital, it is the only thing in life, to stay loyal and to stay true.

Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design, and to the comprehensive notes on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

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