"...there wasn't any profit in it, except, perhaps, to give some pleasure and a sense of wonder to a passing child."
These words, uttered by Spike Milligan, sum up the beauty and delight engendered by this wonderful work of art. The tree, actually a hollow oak log, now stands in Kensington Gardens in London. Originally carved by illustrator Ivor Innes in the late 1920s for Lady Fortescue, it was moved from Richmond Park to the current location in 1928.
The 15 foot tall (5 metres) trunk was carved with tiny figures of fairies, gnomes and animals, and it appears as if these fantasy creatures are swarming all around the tree. The seventy painted carvings clamber around the tree in their world of toadstools, popping in and out of crevices and delighting children of all ages. Many of the characters have been named, and doubtless all were delighted when their home was recently (December 1997) given Grade II listed building status, effectively stating that it is an important part of English heritage, to be protected and preserved.
It was not always so. By the 1950s, the tree had fallen into decay and suffered vandalism, and Spike Milligan decided that something should be done. Following a series of letters to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, Spike was finally given permission to carry out the required restoration work himself. For two years he worked in his spare time to recreate the Innes magic, and was delighted when it was finally done. More work was needed however, and he spearheaded the campaign and fundraising required for further restoration work in June 1997.
"The tree depicts the world of the Little People, of Wookey the witch, with her three jars of health, wealth and happiness; of Huckleberry the gnome, carrying a bag of berries up the Gnomes' Stairway to the banquet within Bark Hall, of Grumples and Groodles the Elves being woken up by Brownie, Dinkie, Rumplelocks and Here and There stealing eggs from the crows' nest." (from a press release, December 1997)
I visited the tree in May 2003, and was instantly fascinated by it. Many of the carvings have needed rebuilding (with plaster, I am told), but the figures are indeed delightful, magical. A wonderful and curious piece of work, the Elfin tree has delighted millions of people, both Londoners and visitors. Now protected from vandals and the elements, it still stands near the Black Lion Gate in the Gardens. I have a gallery of photos at:
Pictures at: http://www.ziplink.net/~donna/england/oak.html
Alfred Draper The Story of the Goons London 1976