Peter Pan is now over 100 years old and as popular as ever. The names of Neverland, Peter Pan and Wendy are part of our everyday language, but on 27 December 1904, the audience at the Duke of York Theatre in London were amazed by the strange and exotic characters that flew above the stage. These events were chronicled in the movie Finding Neverland, which tells the tale of J M Barrie’s struggle of bringing his play Peter Pan to the stage. Now, a century later, Peter Pan’ enchanting world has left a legacy of highly-prized collectables that are loved by children and adults alike.
James Matthew Barrie was born in Kirriemur in Scotland in 1860 and was one of seven surviving children. His career as a writer began in 1885 when he produced an acclaimed series of works for the St James Gazette, drawing from his upbringing in the Scottish weaving town. It was his stage adaptation of The Little Minister that gave Barrie new direction, and other plays followed.
Barrie’s first marriage in 1894 to actress Mary Ansell was short-lived and childless. During this time a friendship with a young Margaret Henley provided the inspiration for Wendy, a name he all but invented. Margaret called him ‘my friendy’; with her child’s lisp it was heard as ‘fwendy’. This friendship made a lasting impression with his creation of Wendy Darling.
Most of us grew up with the story of Peter Pan and his adventures in Neverland; but it didn’t appear as a book until 1911, published as Peter Pan and Wendy and later just Peter Pan. Peter had appeared in an earlier story called The Little White Bird in 1902. J M Barrie’s Peter Pan developed from stories he told to the five sons of his friend Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. His hero was a combination of Sylvia’s son, Peter, and the Greek god Pan. It was the early death of Barrie’s brother David in a skating accident, that proved the inspiration for Peter’s everlasting youth. It was said that the only consolation of his premature death was that he would always be remembered as a child. This poignancy, combined with Peter Pan’s love of live and Barrie’s own love of children, helped shape his hero. Tragically, the Llewellan Davies children were orphaned and Barrie was appointed guardian, eventually adopting them.
In 1929 Barrie gave the copyright to his story to the Great Ormond Street Hospital and there is no doubt that it has brought a lot of Peter’s magic into the lives of children treated here. The hospital still receives royalties every time a production of Peter Pan is staged or a book sold and they too have an impressive archive of books and assorted memorabilia. Unlike Peter, Barrie’s gift to the hospital is not quite everlasting and it will be interesting to see what happens when the copyright runs out.
The instant success of the play and subsequent story has meant that collectors are spoilt for choice. A theatre programme from the opening night was recently sold for £4,000, which might be a bit steep for most collectors. Theatre programmes from subsequent pre-war productions can be had for between £10 and £500, depending on their condition and rarity. The story has been re-told for each new generation and some children’s books feature illustrations by artist Mabel Lucie Attwell. Examples of these books can be found starting from £20.
When collecting Peter Pan memorabilia you are not restricted to print. The 1930s were an age where fairies and fantasy could be indulged with the lavishness of the Art Deco style and Peter Pan fitted this perfectly. A decorative chrome Peter Pan table lamp on a wooden base would fetch around £150 and another sought after piece is a rare spelter match-striker, a stunning piece of sculpture that captures Peter perfectly. Both are clearly influenced by George Frampton’s bronze statue in London’s Kensington Gardens.
Disney’s cartoon film portrayal of Peter Pan in 1953 has given us an archetypal image of the boy who never grew up. Their cartoon of the impsh, slightly stubborn Peter can be found on the most diverse range of merchandise, from board games to children’s lunch boxes.
For those who don’t want to dabble in the serious collectors’ market, an easier introduction would be to purchase a special modern edition of the 1906 book Peter Pan in Kensington Garden, with Arthur Rackhams’s fantastic illustrations. It is printed by the Folio Society in a run of 7,500 and costs £34.95. The original 1912 version costs £1,500-£2,500 in good condition and is highly sought after.
Barrie’s hero was born out of his own personal and often tragic experiences. The popularity of his famous creation has possibly overshadowed the man who was described in his obituary in 1937 as ‘the best beloved writer of his day’ and his legacy is more than just about money, it’s about children, their happiness and our memories.