The Elfin Oak | A whimsical visit to fairyland in Kensington Gardens
The story of how an ancient oak was given an artistic makeover to delight imaginative children.
Like most of the Royal Parks, Kensington Gardens is home to several unique attractions and artworks. One of these is the Elfin Oak, in the north-west corner of the Gardens. Located near the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is an ancient oak tree with dozens of whimsical decorations.
Now protected by a cage, the Elfin Oak was made from the trunk of an ancient oak tree which originally grew in Richmond Park. Politician George Lansbury (1859-1940) conceived the idea, with Lady Winifred Fortescue (1888-1951) funding the project in a bid of improve facilities in Royal Parks.
Scottish-born artist Ivor Innes carved and painted 74 miniatures of fairies, elves, goblins, witches and animals into the oak, said to be around 800 years old. Among the characters are Wookey the Witch, Hucklebery the Gnome, Mother Cinders, Harebell the fairy, and elves named Grumples and Groodle.
The Elfin Oak was unveiled in August 1930 by the Mayoress of Kensington, Mrs Robinson – wife of then-Mayor Henry Robinson (1877-1960). Located near the children’s playground, it was the perfect place to inspire young minds’ about far off fairylands. The same year, Ivor’s wife Elise published a short story called ‘The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens’.
Over the years, the Elfin Oak was exposed to the elements, with a lot of the figurines losing their colour, being damaged and some pieces even going missing. Late comedian and local, Spike Milligan (1918-2002) helped restore the oak in both 1964-1966 and 1996. The nineties restoration was unveiled by Prince Charles in June 1997 with Historic England declaring it Grade II listed the same year. It is now surrounded by a cage in a bid to preserve the oak for future generations.
- The Elfin Oak can be found near the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in the north-west corner of Kensington Gardens, W2 4RU. Nearest stations: Queensway or Bayswater. For more information, visit the Royal Parks website.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Read Metro Girl’s art posts, click here.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams review: Go crazy for couture at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Exploring eight decades of Dior and the man himself at this stylish exhibition.
Without a doubt, Christian Dior is one of the most important designers in women’s fashion. Launching his label in 1947, he transformed ladieswear with the ‘New Look’, among many more stunning designs. I’ve visited several fashion exhibitions in the past, but my ultimate design house to see was Christian Dior. As you may have read, the tickets were a huge hit and sold out immediately, prompting the V&A to extend opening hours. A friend and I managed to get tickets recently to a late Sunday evening opening and ending up spending about three and a half hours in fashion heaven.
The exhibition not only explores the story of the man himself and his path to establishing the worldwide brand, but also follows his successors, including Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and the current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri. While there is something very ‘Dior’ throughout the company’s fashions, each designer has their own signature look they bring to their label.
Designer of Dreams starts with the French designer’s early life, growing up in a wealthy family and residing in Paris and Normandy. A display shows artefacts from the young Dior’s youth and creative beginnings, from running an art gallery to becoming an apprentice to fashion designer Robert Piguet. With Europe recovering from World War II, women were tired and weary of wartime fashion so were ripe for Dior’s ‘New Look’. Establishing his eponoymous fashion label in 1946, he stood out for giving women shape and silhouettes – a contrast to the boxy, plain designs which were synonymous at the time. One of the first designs you see in the exhibition is the iconic ‘New Look’: the Bar Suit and Hat, a silk, wool and taffeta ensemble of a structured jacket and full skirt. Being a fan of Netflix’s The Crown and its fashions, it was great to see the silk, couture gown designed for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday portrait in 1951.
The initial rooms of Designer of Dreams were focused on Dior’s realm at his label, with gorgeous dress upon gorgeous dress. The lighting and layout was very effective at highlighting the detail and complementing the aesthetic of the fashions. Following the designer’s death at just 52 in 1957, his young protégée Yves Saint Laurent was appointed artistic director at the tender age of 21. While trying to keep that signature Dior look, YSL embraced a more softer and wearable style. However, YSL didn’t stay long at Dior and moved on in 1960 after just six collections. As a result, there is an understandably small amount of YSL creations in the exhibition. Read the rest of this entry
Artist James Gemmill brings Contemplative Spaces to the Old Brompton Gallery
Coming to the Old Brompton Gallery this May for a short run is a new exhibition from acclaimed American artist James Gemmill. It’s likely you’ve already seen his work in some of Hollywood’s most stunning films, including recent releases Dumbo and Mary Poppins Returns. Throughout his career, Gemmill has worked as a scenic artist on The Da Vinci Code, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!, Beauty And The Beast, Skyfall, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and many more.
Gemmill started training in his native US, receiving a Master’s in Fine Art at Boston University. Landing a scholarship at the Royal College of Art took him to the UK, with the artist and sculptor now based in Oxfordshire. As well as painting and film work, he has also utilised his artist’s eye in interior design, as well as with calligraphy and metalworks.
His new exhibition, ‘Contemplative Spaces’, features a collection of 14 images, which are all available for sale. Opening on 1 May, the display runs for six days at the Kensington space. Explaining his artistic approach to his paintings in the exhibition, Gemmill said: “I do not start with a canvas or stretcher size, this would put a constraint on the creative process. A large piece of canvas is fixed to my studio wall, I then walk up to it, start painting. The image and the process determine the boundaries not the other way around. The pieces either grow or shrink and sometimes I get it wrong and the piece needs to expand again with extra canvas. These canvases represent a process of creativity as much as a view of the world.”
- James Gemmill’s Contemplative Spaces exhibition runs from 1 – 6 May 2019. At Old Brompton Gallery, 238 Old Brompton Road, Kensington, SW5 0DE. Nearest station: Earl’s Court or West Brompton. Open 11am-7pm or by appointment. For more information, visit James Gemmill’s website.
For the latest what’s on guide in London, click here.
There’s an egg-cellent art installation at Gloucester Road tube station!
When commuting in the capital, it’s easy to ignore our surroundings and focus on the task at hand – getting from A to B with your sanity intact. However, next time you find yourself waiting a few minutes for your next tube, why not look around you. Art on the Underground, funded by Transport for London, has been bringing art to the tube for over 15 years. As 2018 is the centenary of women’s suffrage, this year’s programme will feature exclusively female artists.
In June 2018, a new art installation was unveiled at Gloucester Road station. Situated on the disused platform by the Circle and District lines is ‘My Name is Lettie Eggysrub’ by London artist Heather Phillipson. One of her pieces, entitled ‘The End‘, has been chosen for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which will be unveiled in 2020.
The 80-metre long platform features two 4-metre high 3D fried egg sculptures, a giant automated whisk, a dozen 65-inch screens and oversized prints. The surreal piece explores the dual role of the egg as food and part of the biological process. Among the imagery includes custard tarts, tomato ketchup, egg sandwiches and diagrams of chicken foetuses.
- ‘My name is lettie eggysrub’ by Heather Phillipson is on at Gloucester Road tube station until June 2019. Nearest station: Gloucester Road. For more information, visit the Art on the Underground website.
For a guide to what’s on in London in March, click here.
Go west! Exploring Kensington’s hidden gems and local hangouts
There’s more to this expansive west London district than just the palace…
The London district of Kensington is world renowned for its palace, famous museums and having some of the most expensive property in the UK. From the grand museums of South Kensington to the greenery of Kensington Gardens, each district has its own different character. With its location and tube stations providing easy access to the capital’s attractions, Kensington is a popular base for many visitors.
With the borough boasting an array of museums, it’s no surprise that three of its attractions appear in the top 10 list of most visited free attractions in London. The Natural History Museum had over 4 million visitors in 2017, while its neighbours the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum had over 3 million. Meanwhile, Kensington Palace is No.11 on the list of paid London attractions, with over 645,000 visitors in 2017.
While all three of the big museums are brilliant places to go, there’s a lot more to visit in Kensington. I’ve worked a large chunk of my career in Kensington and have stumbled upon the lesser-known attractions of the area when I’ve not been working. For this blog post, I spent the day exploring some of Kensington’s hidden gems. One particular destination off the beaten path is the stunning Leighton House Museum. Located near Holland Park and Kensington High Street, it was built in stages from 1866 to 1895 as a home and studio for painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). From the outside, it looks like a classical, red Victorian home. However, upon stepping inside, it’s like entering a Moorish palace. The main attraction is the beautiful Arab Hall, with its mosaics, Islamic tiles and golden dome. As well as its stunning interiors and expansive garden (by London standards at least!), there is also an extensive art collection, featuring paintings and sculptures by Leighton and his Victorian contemporaries. If you’re a fan of architecture and/or art – particularly pre-Raphaelite paintings – I recommend checking it out. You’re not allowed photos inside, although you can get some good shots in the lovely garden.
A short walk away is the Design Museum on Kensington High Street. It was previously located in Bermondsey, but moved to the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington in 2016. The spacious 1960s building is worth a visit in itself for architecture fans. It is home to a permanent free exhibition; ‘Designer, Maker, User’, as well as various changing exhibitions and events throughout the year. On my particular visit, I bought tickets for the Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier exhibition, which is on until 7 October 2018. Curated with the designer shortly before his death last year, the exhibition features a collection of his fashions from the early 1980s to his last collection in 2017. The museum is an interesting space and the way the team have presented Alaia’s creations on transparent models on mirrored platforms was brilliant and really showcased the layers and angles of each design.
When you’re in this end of High Street Kensington, there’s a great little café down a quiet side street if you’re feeling peckish. Located on Phillimore Gardens with a small outdoor terrace is Café Phillies. It’s an independent café and wine bar, popular with locals and serves an all-day breakfast. It’s a cosy venue with contemporary art on the walls and friendly staff. I took advantage of the unlimited brunch hours and ordered an Eggs Benedict Royale for a late lunch. Served on toasted English muffins, there was a very generous serving of smoked salmon and the poached eggs were perfectly runny. A great spot for lunch or breakfast.
If you’re looking for some fresh air, consider walking down to Kensington Gardens. The large park covers 207 acres, with Kensington Palace located in the western end of the Gardens. Known for being the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, parts of the palace are open to the public, including the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments. On this particular visit, I remained outside the palace walls and enjoyed the many free attractions of the gardens. As the palace was the last home to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, there are several memorials to the royal, including a children’s playground and a memorial walk. Throughout the Gardens are many buildings and sculptures to check out, including the 18th century Queen Caroline’s Temple, Henry Moore’s arch, the Elfin Oak, and the ornate Albert Memorial. The north side of the park features the 150-year-old Italian ornamental garden, built as a gift to Queen Victoria from her husband Prince Albert. Nearby is Queen Anne’s Alcove, a small structure built in 1705 and designed Sir Christopher Wren. Meanwhile, deeper in the Gardens is Queen Caroline’s Temple, a quaint 18th century summer house with views towards the Long Water. Read the rest of this entry
Is this London’s thinnest house? The story behind 5 Thurloe Square
The history of the ‘Thin House’ in South Kensington.
Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.
Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.
Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area.
Just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube‘. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined its amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.
Who built the ‘Thin House’?
By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years.
Eventually, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest. The building proved popular with artists. The 1911 census showed a landscape painter named Arthur Johnson Ryle (1857-1915) was living in studio 3 until his death. By the 1970s, a fashion designer named Mandy Garrett was living in the studios.
In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2021, a two-bedroom studio apartment covering just 580 square foot at 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £795,000.
- ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.
Follow Metro Girl on Instagram for more photos of hidden London.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Four Winters review: A magical new way to taste ice cream
It’s at this time of year that we tend to consume more ice cream than usual. With an increasing amount of ice cream and frozen yoghurt parlours opening up in the capital, it’s become easier to get your frozen dessert fix than usual.
However, turning the sweet treat on its head is a new type of ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. Four Winters, which originated in Jordan two years ago, opened their first UK parlour in London this spring. When I heard about it, I was intrigued. I’ve tried savoury food made with liquid nitrogen before and it certainly brings an element of theatre and excitement to eating.
Located on Gloucester Road, Four Winters is in a good location to cater for both locals and the tourists who flock to the area’s many hotels. There is plenty of seating inside and out should you wish to eat in. The chirpy staff are really friendly and explain the whole process before setting to work creating your magical dessert. Rather than peruse ice creams in their tubs at the counter, you are given the choice of a simple flavour or fusion flavour which will be flash frozen using liquid nitrogen to order in the open kitchen counter. The mist rising off the ice cream certainly brings a touch of magic to proceedings.
In addition to the science behind the creation, Four Winters is also unique because it offers seasonal flavours. They change their menu four times a year with flavours influenced by the four seasons. I opted for the Peanut Butter Cup – peanut butter ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and chocolate crisps served in a cup (cones are available). Upon the first spoonful, I could taste the difference from regular ice cream. It was smooth, creamy and the flavour was so much richer than usual.
Overall, I highly recommend Four Winters for ice cream fans. Children especially will love watching the liquid nitrogen freezing process. I’m looking forward to returning next season to check out the new flavours.
- Four Winters, 103 Gloucester Road, SW7 4SZ. Nearest station: Gloucester Road. For more information, visit the Four Winters website.
For more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, click here.
Dirty Bones review: A treat for carnivore and cocktail lovers in this cool basement joint
London is loving the ‘dirty burger’ at the moment – gourmet, juicy meat patties served with flash fries, such as Cajan or rosemary salted. However, many of these American-style burger joints are lacking in style and feel like one of those ‘eat and leave’ places (my nickname for certain venues where you don’t feel encouraged to linger long).
This is where Dirty Bones offers something a bit more sophisticated and cool. Located in Kensington Church Street, DB is a basement bar and restaurant decked out in a retro style with a mix of booths and chairs. Low lighting gives the venue a suitable evening vibe, so it’s a great locale for groups of friends looking for cocktails and grub. I visited with two friends for a post-work catch-up so were keen to take advantage of the ‘Dirty Hour’, with 2-4-1 cocktails on Tuesdays-Fridays between 6-8pm. I was particularly drawn to the Top Dog (Finlandia Vodka, fresh strawberry, Chambord, lemon and Jeio Prosecco), which was fruity and refreshing.
When it comes to eating, the main choices are either hot dogs, bones (chicken, ribs or steak) and burgers. Although carnivores will be salivating over the carnivore choices, vegetarians are catered for with the Veggie Hot Dogs. The choice of dogs (pork, beef or veggie) are served four ways, ‘Classic Yankee’, ‘Brit Dog’, ‘Mexican’ or ‘Asian’. I opted for a veggie dog served in Classic Yankee style, which meant in a brioche bun with caramelised spring onions, French’s mustard and tomato ketchup. The veggie dog was really tasty and the packed-to-the-gills bun made the dish a lot more substantial and filling than a typical hot dog would be. The side orders looked particularly attractive to our empty stomachs and we ended up ordering way too much. We ended up sharing triple cooked fries, mac & cheese and dirty fries, which were gluttonous, but delicious.
Overall, we really enjoyed our visit. The venue feels more of a night out kinda of social spot for drinks and food, rather than a place for just a meal out. I would recommend for groups of friends looking for an informal, relaxed night out.
- Dirty Bones, 20 Kensington Church Street, Kensington, W8 4EP. Nearest station: High Street Kensington. Open 6pm to midnight from Tues-Sun. For more information, visit the Dirty Bones website.
For more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, click here.
A bit of bling amongst the green | The glistening Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens
The history of this glittering gold monument opposite the Royal Albert Hall.
Of all our monarchs over the past 1,000 years, Queen Victoria is one of Britain’s most famous and iconic. During her reign of 63 years, the country was in the middle of a great change due to the Industrial Revolution. Although she was only 18 when she became Queen following the death of her uncle William IV, many of us picture her as an elderly widow dressed in black. Of course, the reason for her black clothes was her decades of deep mourning for her late consort, Prince Albert, who died at the age of 42.
Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, his grieving wife ordered his legacy to be enshrined both in Britain and across the Empire. The novelist Charles Dickens actually commented to his friend John Leech in a letter: ‘If you should meet an accessible cave anywhere in the neighbourhood, to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know it.’ This is where we come to the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall – a Taj Mahal of sorts from the Queen. Us Brits aren’t known for flashy, gold monuments, so tourists may well find it a surprise to see the glimmering Albert Memorial standing in Kensington Gardens.
Ahead of the Royal Albert Hall’s existence, Albert had proposed an entertainment venue on the site following the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, he died before work began, with the Queen deciding the venue should be titled the Royal Albert Hall, instead of the earlier, rather boring title Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, after laying the foundation stone.
However, the Albert Memorial was always part of the plan following the Prince’s death. In 1862, the Lord Mayor at the time headed a committee to find a suitable design for a public lasting memorial, which had to include a statue of the Prince, under the Queen’s orders. Eventually, noted Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott submitted the winning design – which demonstrated the Prince’s passions for the arts and sciences.
After much delays – some due to the rising public costs – the 176 foot tall Albert Memorial was officially opened by the Queen in 1872, although Albert’s statue wasn’t ‘seated’ until three years later. Construction cost around £120,000, equivalent to £10million in today’s money.
Rather unusually for the period, the statue of Prince Albert – made of gilt bronze – was seated, rather than standing. In one of his hands is a catalogue of the Great Exhibition, which had been organised by the Prince. Above the statue, is a Gothic canopy featuring mosaics depicting allegorical figures of the arts – painting, poetry, sculpture and architecture. Also adorned on the sides are eight statues representing Christian virtues, including faith, hope and charity.
At the base of the canopy are four white sculptures depicting Victorian industries and sciences, including agriculture, commerce, engineering and manufacturing. Situated further from the statue are four more sculpture sets depicting four continents Europe, Asia, Americas and Africa. A group of people and products associated with the continent sit on four different animals – a cow, camel, bison and bull.
Over the years, the memorial saw some decline, and spent many decades black instead of gold. Prior to its restoration and re-gilding in the early 2000s, English Heritage discovered the black coating on Albert’s statue pre-dated the war and believe it may have been painted as such following pollution damage to the gold, not in an attempt to hide the landmark from the enemy during the two World Wars as had been previously thought.
- The Albert Memorial is located in Kensington Gardens, directly across Kensington Road from the Royal Albert Hall. It is open and free to visit during park hours. Nearest stations: High Street Kensington, Hyde Park Corner, South Kensington or Gloucester Road.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.