Art History with Anne

December Newsletter

A Christmas Lecture

Peter Pan: It’s Behind You!

Is Peter Pan a pantomime?  Well, if you want to adhere strictly to the Victorian rules, probably not. But as the ‘fairy play’ was first performed on 27 December 1904, Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up has inevitably been thought of as a ‘holiday entertainment for children’.

Poster for Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, Charles Buchel, 1904

Peter Pan has been performed continually as a play and musical for over a hundred years, more recently entering the panto repertoire. This year it will be played in Stoke-on-Trent, Malvern, and Manchester. The show borrows from panto’s gender-crossing convention: Peter Pan has always been played by the ‘principal boy’ the role being first taken by Nina Boucicault. The reason for this was the difficulty of using a child actor in the main role; children were not allowed to perform after 9pm. Also, a ‘breeches role’ allowed women to defy convention by showing their legs. This drew the attention of many fathers, guaranteeing a big audience! 

Peter Pan also has a great villain, Captain Hook.  He certainly needs to keep an eye over his shoulder, as he is stalked by a crocodile who has already acquired a taste for him. The dual role of Hook and the children’s father Mr. Darling was first played by Gerald du Maurier.  That name will be familiar to many, as Gerald was the son of the famous cartoonist and author of Trilby George du Maurier and in turn the father of novelist Daphne du Maurier. Gerald had already made a name for himself playing Ernest in Barrie’s comedy The Admirable Crichton.  By one of those strange coincidences Gerald was also the brother of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of the boys who inspired J M Barrie to write Peter Pan.

James Hook (The Pirate Captain) Gerald du Maurier

Barrie first encountered George (5), Jack (3) and baby Peter Llewelyn Davies with their nanny whilst walking his dog, Porthos, a St. Bernard, in Kensington Gardens. However, it was his dog Luath, a Newfoundland, who appears to have inspired ‘Nana’ the dog nursemaid.  In the first stage production Nana was played by actor Arthur Lupino dressed as a dog!    Apparently Lupino studied Luath first hand, at the writer’s home.  Many of Nana’s stage movements, such as banging a paw on the floor, were derived from the dog’s behaviour. The tradition of an actor dressed in a dog costume continues. Impersonator George Ali gave an impressive performance as Nana in the 1924 silent film adaptation. However, Christopher Walken as Mr Darling/Hook, in NBC’s 2014 live televised production, was up staged by a real dog, Bowdie a rescued poodle cross!

Arthur Lupino (1864-1908) as Nana and Sir Gerald Du Maurier 

Soon a friend of the family, which grew to five boys, Barrie, whose marriage was childless, enjoyed entertaining them with tall tales of adventure. While he claimed all five boys inspired him, Barrie was also haunted by the tragic death of his older brother, David, who died in a freak ice-skating accident before his 14th birthday. His mother thought of David as ‘forever a boy’. Today the story’s appeal rests on the hope that we remain ‘forever a child’ in spirit.

As Barrie never fully described Peter’s appearance, leaving it to the imagination of the reader, our image of Peter Pan has been shaped by later illustrators. John Hassall designed a set of six prints for Liberty & Co as nursery pictures in 1905.

Prior to the play, Peter Pan made his first appearance in the adult novel The Little White Bird (1902) featuring in chapters 13-18.  Over hearing his parents talking about what it means to be an adult, Baby Peter flies from his nursery to Kensington Gardens. Living among the fairies and elves, he is described as ‘betwixt-and-between’ a boy and a bird.

Following the stage success of Peter Pan, these chapters were reissued as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.

Barrie then adapted and expanded the storyline of his play, publishing the novel Peter and Wendy with illustrations by Francis Donkin Bedford in 1911. 

However, my own cherished volume has charming illustrations by Lucy Mabel Atwell (1921)

If you would like to discover more about Barrie and his ‘Lost Boys’, who were orphaned in 1910, go to my You Tube Channel, Anne Anderson Art and Design History Channel, where you will find an open access lecture.


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