Eleanor Farjeon’s poetry celebrated at Burgh House exhibition

Eleanor Farjeon

Eleanor Farjeon - Credit: Archant

ANNE HARVEY tells how the writer Eleanor Farjeon used London landmarks in her nursery rhymes

Eleanor Farjeon

Eleanor Farjeon - Credit: Archant

In 1981 the centenary of the well-known Hampstead writer, Eleanor Farjeon was celebrated at Burgh House with an exhibition, and a performance of some of her work.

The much loved actor, Cyril Luckham who had played a leading part in one of her popular plays,

The Silver Curlew read some favourite poems, and Her Majesty, the Queen Mother , sent a congratulatory message to recall the writer who had always been popular in the Royal nurseries.

More recently as her executor, I have read her work to children at Burgh House, and with actors Isla Blair, Julian Glover and Stefan Bednarczyk presented a programme based on her popular book “Kings and Queens”, introduced by Piers Plowright who had known Eleanor Farjeon from his childhood.

Nursery Rhymes of London Town

Nursery Rhymes of London Town - Credit: Archant

She died in 1965 and is buried in Hampstead Cemetery. To mark the 50th anniversary of her death she was remembered at a Mass at St Mary’s Holly Hill, and the hymn “Morning Has Broken” , for which she wrote the words, was sung.

This year is also centenary of her first book Nursery Rhymes of London Town. Originally the rhymes had appeared during the early years of WW1 in the magazine Punch.

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They were much enjoyed by readers at home and those serving in the War, and a great delight to Punch’s editor, Joseph Thorp.

While many of her books remain in print, this book and its sequel More Nursery Rhymes, can only be bought second-hand, or read as an e-book.

Poet Anne Harvey celebrating writer Eleanor Farjeon, pictured with a dress worn by Eleanor Farjeon,

Poet Anne Harvey celebrating writer Eleanor Farjeon, pictured with a dress worn by Eleanor Farjeon, at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The rhymes are full of double-meanings, puns and twists and turns of language

Hammersmith has a Smith busily shoeing a Pony, a small boy has to eat up the Batter Sea, there’s a Circus at Oxford Circus, and a girl called Kensal won’t get out of bed until she hears: “Get up, Kensal! Kensal, Rise!”

The illustrations are as quirky and off-beat as the verses, and were the work of Macdonald Gill. one of the brothers of Eric Gill, and now through his great niece, Caroline Walker, brought to the fore again by some excellently designed exhibitions talks and a fine website.

Macdonald, known as Max, proved the right choice for the rhymes. As well as having studied painting, he had experience in all aspects of art, and was gifted in architectural drawing, lettering and church decoration.

Eleanor Farjeon's London nursery rhymes

Eleanor Farjeon's London nursery rhymes - Credit: Archant

In 1917 he began designing lettering and regimental badges on headstones of the war graves.

In 1913 Frank Pick, publicity manager for the Underground asked the printer, Gerard Meynell, for a pictorial map of London, and Max was commissioned to create one to catch the public’s eye as well as to entertain.

The result, in 1914, was The Wonderground Map of London Town a unique work showing a London inhabited by quirky characters and witty comments which was displayed in London Underground stations and could also be bought folded.

It was pure coincidence that Caroline and I live near each other in West London, and have been able to share our enthusiasm for the Nursery Rhymes, the author and the artist.

Anne Harvey

Anne Harvey - Credit: Archant

We have many bookings in libraries across London, and hope that people of all ages, children in schools, adults in U3A groups and literary societies will enjoy the rhymes, and maybe invent some more of their own.

Perhaps the most popular is King’s Cross like several, this was set to music by Eleanor Farjeon and I remember singing it, with actions, when I was in Infant School, little knowing how much I would be involved with her life and work.

King’s Cross

What shall we do?

His purple robe

Is rent in two

Out of his crown

He’s torn the gems!

He’s thrown his Sceptre

Into the Thames!

The Court is shaking.

In its shoe.

King’s Cross.

What Shall we do?

Leave him alone

For a minute or two.

Nursery Rhymes of London Town exhibition and illustrated talk October 5 6.30-9pm at Burgh House New End Hampstead