Londonist Meets The Barnes White Rabbit

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago
Londonist Meets The Barnes White Rabbit
A cyclist in bright yellow cycles past a huge white rabbit doing s star fish on a wall
That's one way to get in your morning workout. Image: Londonist

I am sitting on the wall with a giant white rabbit in a waistcoat, and we're waving at the rush hour traffic flowing by. "Holly Willoughby lives over there," says the rabbit, before a white van full of construction workers slows down, tooting its horn, and my alarm clock wakes me up.

Except I don't wake up, because this isn't a dream.

On 1 November 2016, the cricketing commentator Elizabeth Ammon tweeted about a bloke who was dressing up as a white rabbit and standing at the side of the A3003 in Barnes on the first day of every month. Seven years on and that White Rabbit is still out there, and his name is Spike Mclarrity.

On the stroke of 8am — having done his one-hour shift, with me as his honorary companion — Spike hops off the wall, and we make the short walk back to his Barnes cottage. He insists on keeping the rabbit head on (we do a spontaneous photoshoot on the way), until finally it gets too stuffy — and a sweaty mo-hawked head pops out from beneath the fur, a friendly face glistening in sweat. It's almost like a magic trick has been performed. I feel like a kid again. Where did the rabbit go?

A big white rabbit waves at a passing bus
Image: Londonist

"I spent five hours wandering about Paris. That's kind of how it began"

Mclarrity's cottage is everything you might expect; a darling burrow of a thing with low ceilings, purple alliums blossoming in a kitchen garden out the front, shelves laden with rabbit figurines. There's a still from the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film, Harvey, about a loveable dipsomaniac who is pals with a six foot-three-and-a-half-inches-tall rabbit, who also happens to be invisible. The walls are plastered in glossy maps of London, and Mclarrity's Scottish homelands. Every time he says the word 'local' (which turns out to be a lot) his full Edinburgh brogue sneaks out.

The obvious question really is how and when did this all start? France, oddly. And back in 2011, too — a whole five years before Elizabeth Ammon's sighting. Mclarrity — a conceptual based performance artist — would often work in Le Pecq, a small suburb of Paris that's twinned with Barnes. One day, fate came knocking: "They were having a mad hatter's tea party," says Mclarrity as he pours me a tea, "so I got an email saying 'can you come over and be a rabbit?'"

Finding a rabbit costume proved to be tricker than he thought, but Mclarrity eventually ended up in Angels fancy dress shop when it was still in Charing Cross — and there was the white rabbit looking back at him. He slipped into the suit, and turned to his friend and fellow artist Yoshiko Shimida, who nodded: "Yeah this is it."

The outfit was a hit at the tea party, and Mclarrity found himself loathe to shed it afterwards. "I had an A-Z of Paris so I went on the underground as the rabbit.. I spent five hours wandering about Paris. That's kind of how it began."

Immediately, he was the centre of attention: "By the Eiffel Tower I put the costume on. This young Japanese women came up and said 'Mr Rabbit, Mr Rabbit!' and she had a camera and I thought 'oh right she wants a photo...'.  She gave me her camera and wanted me as the white rabbit, to take a photo of her in front of the Eiffel Tower!"

Soon, though, Mclarrity was being mobbed by Italian teenagers, Parisian police officers, Buddhist monks. The White Rabbit was beginning to work its magic — and though perhaps Mclarrity didn't realise it at the time — he and that suit (or, rather, suits; he's been through five of them, and currently has one for the wall, and one for 'smart' occasions) had irrevocably fused.

The white rabbit leaning against a red postbox
Image: Londonist

"I'd go into pubs as the rabbit, completely off my head"

Even when he returned home, he couldn't shake the outfit. "I just thought 'I'm bored today, I'll go and put the rabbit costume on.' And I'd do it anytime of the day — so I'd walk around the city at night. I'd go up to Camden, go into pubs as the rabbit, completely off my head. And go and see bands."

Although he still makes special appearances throughout the year (on Mother's Day, he's seen wheeling a pram around with a huge 'baby rabbit' inside), Mclarrity found that the rabbit's niche was perching on a section of wall just west of Barnes station, from 7am to 8am on every first of every month — waving to the steady stream of traffic along the river.

I'd seen videos before, but never managed to go and see him in the flesh fur until now. It's a sight. During his hour-long stint, cars slow, beep their horns. There are double takes. Lots of smiles. A few perplexed frowns. Those who try to play it cool, in that 'seen it before' way Londoners do. Adults in cars nudge their children, glued to phones on the back seat. Sometime people shout "Hi Spike!", says Mclarrity. Others come back to Barnes, to double check what they thought they saw a few years ago was actually real. While it seems everyone is looking at the rabbit, Mclarrity is fascinated by watching people's reactions towards him. "It's very interesting people watching, observation of human behaviour.

"And something happens. I don't know what it is."

At one moment, the curtains in one of the apartment flats directly opposite the wall, slide open. A elderly woman appears, does a little dance, a thumbs up, and then disappears again. She does the same every month — her own little performance. Mclarrity sends letters to the residents here, telling them what 'the rabbit' is up to. He is currently doing a PhD at Kingston:' 'Embodying the rabbit: Art, Myth and Folklores'. His profile picture, of course, features the rabbit.

Though he has more female followers on social, Mclarrity finds the rabbit gets more attention from men on his morning wave-offs. "That time of the morning you've got all the labourers, the road workers, the builders... and they all have their own thing: the V-sign, the thumbs up. Sometimes the guys are like 'wahheeey!', stick their heads out.

"I'm always surprised how blokey it is, and that pleases me. I think they just get it. They get the craziness of it. They get the surreal, conceptual 'oh there's a rabbit on the wall — wait until I tell my mates in the pub!'"

Close up of the back of a waistcoat embroidered with the back of a white rabbit
Mclarrity's sister made his smart waistcoat for him. Image: Londonist

I wonder whether the rabbit costume gives Mclarrity a sense of gutsiness  — the same kind that once had him shove himself in between Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith, (which later led to the chilling moment in which Carrie Johnson told Mclarrity she knew 'everything about him')? But Mclarrity shakes his head: "As a conceptual performance artist I've always been fearless." So when he puts on that costume, does he not become the Barnes White Rabbit? "I've never claimed that I'm a rabbit," he says, "I've always said I'm a man in a rabbit costume." But does the rabbit at least have a name or any particular character traits? "It's up to you to decide that," he says firmly. He does, however, admit that he occasionally catches his reflection in a bus, and startles himself.

"Three police cars and an ambulance pulled up. I took the mask off and said 'what's going on?'"

A white ribbit leant up against a wall with an ad for pet services stuck to it
Image: Londonist

Indeed, not everyone is enamoured by a huge white leporidae lolloping about. When you mention the Barnes White Rabbit to some people, their minds jump to Frank — the nightmarish spectre from Donnie Darko. As someone's who's also performed as a clown, Mclarrity respects people's boundaries. He remembers sitting on a tube one day dressed as a clown, and a guy about 10 seats away shouting "don't you dare come near me!"

One winter morning a few years ago, Mclarrity was up to his usual antics, when three police cars and an ambulance pulled up. "I took the mask off and said 'what's going on? What's the ambulance for?'" says Mclarrity, "and they said 'don't worry about that.' I said 'what do you mean don't worry?!' And then they just barged all these questions: 'Why do you do this?' 'Who are you?' 'Do you get paid for this?' 'Where's your partner?'"

On that same morning, a woman's body had been found nearby on the Thames. "What I think happened... the river police had seen the silhouette of me walking along the Thames. They've obviously rang and said 'there's some guy in a rabbit costume'".

The white rabbit waves as a stream of cars from the side of the road
Image: Londonist

Security guards can be fazed by the rabbit too; Mclarrity recalls during a reenactment event in Durham, he was ordered to leave by security guard who told him 'It's not that kind of festival.' The media can also be suspicious. They always want Mclarrity to take his mask off, the irony being, they never report the artist's actual name. During the recent Gary Lineker furore, Mclarrity made a rabbit-shaped placard that said 'Gary the people's voice', and paraded it in front of Lineker's Barnes home. The press didn't really know what to do, so just filmed him, later releasing it as b-roll footage.

We go out into the garden to take pictures. It's slightly surprising that he's fine being photographed with the head off, but as he's repeatedly told me, he is Spike Mclarrity, not the Barnes White Rabbit. His true identity is not a secret — not officially anyway. Going back to Gary Lineker, Mclarrity, says: "I've known him for years, and he would know me as me. But he doesn't know me as the rabbit."

As I snap away, Mclarrity poses in a 'White Rabbit' UK tour t shirt — but his creation is even better travelled than that; he's been to Japan, Spain, Pakistan. Every 1 September, Mclarrity visits the town of Odžaci in Serbia (this is the only month you won't see him in Barnes), where he curates an annual 'Day of the Rabbit' as part of the IMAF festival. Because, the rabbit doesn't strictly speak, the language barrier isn't an issue. "Wherever White Rabbit goes, he becomes part of that culture. A Serbian rabbit, Japanese Rabbit, Spanish Rabbit.

"They don't know it's a performer from another country."

While Mclarrity insists he doesn't become the rabbit when he dresses up as it, whatever the rabbit is, has come to consume a large part of the performer's life. Aside from the sundry appearances and the PhD, he has written a book 'by' the rabbit. Part scrapbook diary, part poetry anthology, part children's book, part other things, it is packed with photos of the rabbit with people grinning from ear to ear, and is striking how such a benign presence has brought about so much childlike joy. "Long may you continue to enrich our community," say the owners of a local pub. "Thank you for the joy and laughter," says a vicar. "White Rabbit's not just for Easter — he's for life!" exclaims one fan's poem.

Spike poses in the garden, pointing at the rabbit head, which he's holding
Unmasked! Except Mclarrity's identity has never actually been a secret. Image: Londonist

But as Bowie killed off Ziggy when he got too big for his platform boots, is Mclarrity tempted to boil the bunny? It doesn't appear so. As a performer and artist, Mclarrity's creative cogs are constantly whirring; the rabbit is just one of multifarious projects he has on the go, and as if to prove it, he shows me a small display cabinet in his kitchen, made up of hybrid creatures he's created, inspired by mythology. But Mclarrity also seems happily resigned to his role as the Barnes White Rabbit (which, by the way, alongside Longplayer at Trinity Buoy Wharf, is surely one of the longest pieces of conceptual art ever to grace London).

"You know when everybody has a number one hit, they do loads of other things but you just know them for that song?" Mclarrity smiles to me, "In some ways the white rabbit is my song."

The Barnes White Rabbit appears on the wall between Barnes Bridge station and the White Hart pub on the first of every month (except September) from 7am to 8am. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram. Find out more about Spike Mclarrity on his website.

Last Updated 24 June 2023