Mention the name ‘Kipling’ and it’s the poet and writer Rudyard who springs to mind. The Kipling that the V&A’s latest exhibition is concerned with, however, is not the famous son, but – for Lahoris at least – his rather more famous father, Lockwood Kipling.
John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911) was a British civil servant, as well as an artist, interior designer, journalist and curator – who spent much of his life in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Lahore, and made a historic contribution to the preservation of arts and crafts across what are now India and Pakistan.
The exhibition tells the story of his life and work, as both unfolded across Britain and the subcontinent. The venue is not insignificant – Kipling worked as a decorator – his first job – at the V&A in 1863, and maintained strong ties with the Museum throughout his life and career. The terracotta tiles that can still be seen on the building’s exterior were made by him during that time. Many of the three hundred objects that feature in the exhibition were donated by Rudyard Kipling to the Museum in 1917, and formed the bedrock of the its South Asian collection.
Kipling first came across the splendour of Indian art, aged 13, when he attended the Great Exhibition of 1851, organized by the East India Company. A painting by Joseph Nash – of the Indian display which was complete with life-sized elephant – evokes the scene that so bewitched him.
Displayed also, are items from the Great Exhibition itself, such as this diamond encrusted, enamelled bracelet made in Rajasthan.
In 1865, Kipling left London for Bombay to teach at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (Sir Jee Jee) School of Art. Here he was commissioned to work on architectural projects, and to instruct Indian art students in Western artistic techniques.
I floated into the Bombay section to the sound of sitar music, and was drawn to a series of sketches by Kipling of the officials and elders of an Indian village. Whilst sketched with care and sensitivity, they were unsettling to my modern eyes, as they unquestioningly depict India’s caste hierarchies.
In 1875, Kipling moved to Lahore and became principal of the new Mayo School of Art (today’s prestigious National College of Arts, Pakistan’s leading arts school) and curator of the Lahore Museum (the old museum appears as the Wonder House or Ajaib Ghar in Rudyard’s Kim).
The Lahore section features some fascinating films – made by NCA students and staff – which bring to vivid life Kipling’s work and legacy. The first depicts the infinitely romantic, jewel-like architecture of Lahore’s old walled city that so inspired him. The second focusses on former NCA student and award-winning artist Noor Ali Chagani, who fuses traditional miniature painting with sculpture, in response to contemporary socio-political issues.
Further on, there are embroidered silks and Kashmiri shawls, alongside black and white photographs of Lahore taken by the man himself, and watercolour paintings of the stunning Wazir Khan Mosque.
Kipling also salvaged some stunning remnants of architectural decoration from buildings set for demolition. One example on display is an intricately wood-carved 18th century bay window, probably from one of Lahore’s magnificent havelis.
During his time in Lahore, he also encouraged his students to explore, study and gain inspiration from the city’s Sikh and Mughal architectural heritage. There, he also devised new decorative techniques based on traditional local practice, and began some of his early conservation work.
The final room focuses on Kipling’s furniture and interior designs, and the Indian-themed rooms he created for the British Royal family. Have a look at the stunning Billiards Room at Bagshot Park – which was crafted in India and took two years to assemble – here. There is also a display of book illustrations that he created for the younger Kipling’s books Kim and The Jungle Book.
This was clearly a challenging exhibition to curate. Lockwood Kipling’s life and work was so intertwined with empire, that to tell its story against modern understandings of Britain’s colonial past, as well as the context of the 70th anniversary of independence and partition, demanded sensitivity and deftness. It doesn’t entirely succeed in that respect, and the lack of engagement with the politics of Kipling’s presence in India, particularly given that his career directly succeeded the 1857 mutiny, is its great flaw.
Still, walking away from the exhibition, I certainly felt that it’s an important opportunity to experience the richness and stunning beauty of the V&A’s South Asian collection – and the many treasures that exist right here on our doorstep in London.
When: 14 January – 2 April 2017
Where: Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL
More Info: The Victoria & Albert Museum
By Farida Mohamedali.
Farida holds an MA in History of Islamic Art from the School of African and Oriental Studies. She is an independent researcher and consultant in the artistic traditions of the Indo-Persian Islamic world.
Posted on 17 February 2017