Not oak, ash, and thorn. But balsam poplar, Turkey oak, Brazilian gunnera, lysichiton americanus. There’s a “wriggly nut” tree hanging over the footbridge, and the at end of the streamside path a sundial engraved “It Is Later Than You Think”.
The compact Jacobean mansion standing across the lily pond, Rudyard Kipling’s home and refuge for thirty-five years, feels familiar and yet confounds expectations. The “very own house” tugged its owner in contradictory directions. Modern innovations run underfoot: the water-mill, known to Domesday, powered an electric dynamo communicating with the house via a length of deep-sea cable. The pond is lined with concrete, so that the children could bathe and boat on it. But within, comforts are fastened to a time of straight backs, thick walls, cold parlours: there was no sofa until the arrival of a seventeenth-century Knole like a box pew, and the mullion windows admit scant light. The taste is immaculate, as might be expected from a man who was as fascinated by interior as he was by mechanical design. But it is severe. As a boy, Kipling had sat on William Morris’s knee, and fingered the tools and brushes in the studio of his uncle, Edward Burne-Jones. In the year before his death he praised their generation for ridding England of horse-hair chairs and red lambrequins, but somehow also despised them for helping to fatten the national complacency typified by such bloated furniture. They were “purveyors of luxuries” to a decadent class, “utterly dependent on the fabric round them being kept safe”. If the rationale at Bateman’s is Arts & Crafts, then, the objects—especially the surfaces—tend to be of surer and more ancient craftsmanship. Dark wood panel and tabletop, Mortlake tapestry, Cordoba leather, iron firebacks, the Jacobean floor tiled like a chessboard: they are burnished and resilient; dull in colour but rich in tone. Nothing could be further from the pine, cherry and Tiffany glass of Naulakha, the elegant home that a younger Kipling had built for his wife on a hilltop in Vermont. That house, famously, had been served by its own post office. The most deliberate omission at Bateman’s is a telephone.
Some of the items, carefully displayed, have come out of the stories: a Chinese pen-case and Tibetan ghost-dagger complement Lockwood Kipling’s sculpted reliefs of scenes from Kim. A map of Norman Sussex hangs prominently in the stairwell, and a faience apothecary’s bowl evokes “A Doctor of Medicine” amidst deeply-recessed panels of a Charles I court-cupboard. It is a house of recesses— the door marked “Private” leads to Carrie Kipling’s study, from where an internal window afforded her the necessary, discriminating peek at unwanted callers. But other objects, or pairs of objects, don’t tell so straightforward a story. Asian mementos are plentiful, from Benares brassware and some Kashmiri ewers, to Chinese porcelain glazed with the East India Company crest. An Indian silver rose bowl sits alongside an English cheese cradle. Some provenances hint at the darker side of the Kiplings’ colonial transactions. Supposedly the property of Wajid Ali Shah prior to the poet-king’s deposition, the stout Chinese box in the hallway might be the very one slung over the redcoat’s shoulder in Lundgren’s sketch of the plundering of Lucknow. What gives greatest pause for thought is the juxtaposition of priceless Indian heirloom with the cheap and mass-produced. Acquired shortly after his death, a metal tray etched with the sleek profile of the destroyer HMS Kipling seems to represent its namesake’s commitment to machines and manufactures, while the neighbouring firescreen—fashioned from embroidered scenes of the life of Krishna—suggests the ambivalence in that commitment. The library is another medley of the sacred and profane: shelves of Bibles abutting manuals of engineering and agriculture, a romance about Robert Emmet beside a life of Edward Carson. Strange too that it is the exotic objects which speak best to the story the National Trust wants to tell, that Bateman’s is a house robbed of its children. The bridal chest of Punjabi lacquerwork was never aired; the prayer mat, from Central Asia, was knitted for six pairs of infant knees. Those who come for Kipling’s India therefore, or Kipling’s fairies, or Kipling’s private tragedy, find all his interests and obsessions interpenetrated.
And Puck’s trees were there after all, but in the wood: “England shall bide till judgment tide in oak and ash and thorn”, is carved along a wooden box on his desk. The inscription must have come later, but the oak and ash leaves were there already: done in gesso, in 1879, by Johair Singh at the Lahore Museum.
Alexander Bubb is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at King’s College, London.