Bateman’s: Reading a House

ALEXANDER BUBB

Kipling's study in Bateman's. (Photo courtesy tedesco 57 on Flickr)

Kipling’s study in Bateman’s. (Photo courtesy tedesco 57 on Flickr)

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.

Advertisements

How a Giraffe made its way to Ming China, via Bengal

CRAIG CLUNAS

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

It’s in lots of the books about early Ming China, the picture of a giraffe presented to the Yongle emperor on 20 September 1414 by Saif al-Din Hamzah Shah, Sultan of Bengal. One or other of the surviving versions of the image of this marvel (and there were surely once lots more of them) was always a dead cert for inclusion in the exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China, shown at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015, exactly six hundred years later. My co-curator (Jessica Harrison-Hall and I) discussed and argued our original enormous want-list down to something more feasible in terms of space and budget over several years, but the inclusion of the giraffe painting was never in doubt. We even fantasized at one point about installing a full-scale stuffed giraffe in the BM forecourt; there was after all just such a zoological rarity in the nineteenth-century British Museum, before the naturalia and artificialia were split between two different institutions, as the category of Natural History claimed its own “scientific” space in South Kensington.  This didn’t happen, but you were able to buy a cuddly giraffe toy in the exhibition shop.  I didn’t look at the label, but it’s pretty much a certainty that, along with most of the Ming tea towels, Ming USB sticks, Ming phone covers, Ming fridge magnets, Ming T-shirts, Ming umbrellas, Ming coffee mugs and Ming tin plates (if not the Ming stem ginger biscuits), the cuddly giraffes were made in China.  Today so much stuff moves around the world in giant ships that the idea of a marvel, a thing not seen before, becomes hard to capture.

The giraffe painting was a big hit with the exhibition audience, and I often stopped in front of it when doing tours and introductions. Someone said to me that they knew about giraffes and that the artist had definitely seen one, that the animal’s physiology was right (not like Albrecht Dürer’s rhino), but its markings were obviously wrong, substituting regular chevrons for the lion-confusing blotches a real giraffe would have.  I said I thought the attempt was being made to give it scales, to match the description in the Confucian classics of the marvellous beast called the qilin, token of the rule of a paragon emperor. It must have been a brief marvel.  No record survives of this, but my guess is the poor creature would in reality have suffered mightily in Beijing’s frigid winter climate, which probably was enough to carry it off exactly six hundred years before the exhibition’s closure. The arrival of a qilin is worthy of note, but its passing goes unremarked.

The painting commemorates an act of gift giving, and I was suddenly moved to check out the name “John T. Dorrance”, who himself gave this work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It turns out he was the son of the man who invented condensed soup, and was himself chairman of the Campbell Soup Co, as well as a generous patron of the Museum and Chairman of its board for many years, dying at the age of 70 in 1989. My mind could not but fly at once to Andy Warhol, whose relationship with the Campbell Soup Company and its products was not a simple one. The giraffe was painted in multiples because it was a wonder, a thing never seen before; Warhol’s soup cans were painted in multiples precisely to underscore their ordinariness. The beast was famous for a little over (not much over) the canonical fifteen minutes; I like to think it was occasionally thought about after it was gone.

Craig Clunas is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. He was the co-curator of the recent exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China held at the British Museum. Details regarding the exhibition can be found here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2014/ming.aspx?fromShortUrl