REPORT

Looking for Lockwood Kipling

London

24 January 2017

Nowhere is the founding mission of London's Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) more apparent than in the pediment of its North Facade, which features a mosaic designed by Godfrey Sykes. Queen Victoria stands golden in the centre, proffered gifts like a Biblical king. Around her are written the names of every European power of the day, along with Britain's largest colonies; below, the tiles announce "the first exhibition of the works of industry of all nations." The V&A, then named the South Kensington Museum, was to bring the world – or at least what it deemed to be the world – to London, and do it through the lens of one of the the Empire's richest treasuries, industry.

This was a cause familiar to John Lockwood Kipling, an artist and illustrator, architect and designer, museum director, conservator, pedagogue and early writer on animal rights. Look to the side of Sykes' glittering showpiece, and you see a series of more humble mosaics in terracotta. One shows a procession of suited Victorian men, the museum's architects and designers; amongst them, recognisable by his short hair and flowing beard, is Lockwood Kipling.

More than a century and a half after the museum's genesis, the institution that Kipling helped build has mounted an exhibition of his work. Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London tracks Kipling from youth to retirement, along the way taking in contemporary objects and those created by his students. Gathering work in a diverse array of mediums, it seems in the spirit of its subject’s encyclopaedic mind, described by his wife Alice as a “rag-bag.” The first fruit of a long-term research project in Lockwood Kipling's world and work, it is accompanied by an enormous Yale University Press volume and aims to open up further avenues in research.

Alice, who was sister-in-law to the artist Edward Burne-Jones, provides a familial link to the Pre-Raphaelites. But it is his son, rather than his contemporaries, who has come to occlude his fame. Rudyard Kipling's conflicted legacy – a literary genius in the eyes of Henry James, T. S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges; to George Orwell a “jingo imperialist” whose work is “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting" – often eclipses that of his father.

To posterity, Lockwood Kipling has sometimes found himself tarred with the same brush as his son, himself a more contrary figure than Orwell's accusations will allow. A series of satirical drawings grotesquely stereotyping Indian servants suggests that this might not be entirely unjust, although these stand counter to his sensitive documentary depictions shown elsewhere in the exhibition. The picture that emerges from Lockwood Kipling is complex. Curiosity, respect and affection are mingled with a sometime queasy paternalism: a combination that, when compared with the outright racial hatred of contemporaries such as Charles Kingsley and the Darwinian theories of scientific racism popular by the 19th century's close, one can at least cast as a symptom of its time.

Although Lockwood Kipling dallied in writing throughout his life, his talents took a different form than those of Rudyard. "He was more of a mover, a fixer," says Julius Bryant, the V&A's Keeper of Word and Image who co-curated the exhibition with Susan Weber. Wisely, given the diversity of his interests, the show is organised chronologically. Kipling was born in 1837, and was destined to follow his father into the Methodist ministry. “But,” says Bryant, “aged 13 or 14 he was taken to the Great Exhibition by a fellow minister’s son. For Kipling, that’s the moment when he decides on a different mission in life.” Bedazzled by the profusion of international objects – of which a significant proportion, exhibited by the East India Company, had been brought from the Indian subcontinent – he studied art, and apprenticed himself in the Staffordshire Potteries.

The mature Kipling subscribed to the idea, most famously espoused by William Morris and the Arts & Craft movement, that the applied arts were in no way inferior to the fine. This ethos was sympathetic to that of the South Kensington Museum, which had been funded with the Great Exhibition’s proceeds. "It didn't hierarchise art," explains Bryant, "so the move to London was an easy transition." Kipling’s initial aesthetic mode, as glimpsed in the façade decorations he co-designed for Stoke-on-Trent’s Wedgewood Institute, was the sort of Venetian Gothic vaunted by John Ruskin – a style that would form the base for many of the grandest civic buildings of the British Raj.

In 1965, Kipling was appointed professor of architectural sculpture at the Jeejeebhoy School of Art in present-day Mumbai, where he later become principal. During this period, the colonial government commissioned him to tour the subcontinent’s northwestern regions, drawing various craftspeople and objects; several of these are on display in the present exhibition. Kipling’s accounts of these tours, narrated over long familial evenings, inspired many of Rudyard’s stories. "Rudyard doesn't," says Bryant, "really travel to villages as his father did. "His first-hand knowledge of [Anglo-Indian] society is similar, but he was less experienced in terms of the ancient heritage."

After a decade in Mumbai, Kipling moved to Lahore, now in Pakistan, where he became both principal of the Mayo School of Arts and curator of the Lahore Museum, modelled on South Kensington and memorably featured in Rudyard’s Kim (1901). Here he broke colonial convention by appointing local artists and craftsmen, many of them former students, to his faculty. “His annual reports,” recounts Bryant, “show him trying to find work for the teachers and his students, from printed invitations to painting murals.” One of his students, the architect Bhai Ram Singh, collaborated with him on the Mughal-inspired Durbar room at Queen Victoria’s Osborne House. A ceaseless promoter of Indian arts and craft, he also traveled the world with his own Crystal Palace-like exhibitions and salvaged decorative features from condemned buildings.

Many of the objects connected to Kipling ended up in the V&A collections; indeed, such items make up some 64 per cent of the present exhibition. Other exhibits are drawn from the Sussex houses of Kipling's children, Glasgow's museum archives (which inherited Kipling's work from the 1888 Glasgow International Fair) and the archive of the Lahore art school and museum. That the collections in Lahore were so easy to track and access is a legacy of Kipling's own labours. "Kipling was," recounts Bryant, "a diligent Victorian, a sort of civil servant type, and he kept annual reports for his museum and school."

This image of Lockwood Kipling as a punctilious administrator might seem to de-emphasise the colonial context. Furthermore, one may wonder why Kipling was a necessary filter through which to view 19th century Punjabi craft. Lockwood Kipling is not an exhibition that condones imperialism and its many outrages, but by training its focus on one of the British Empire's more sympathetic civil figures it could be accused of honouring it by thrusting a great white hero to the forefront. This would be somewhat unfair: although Kipling's activities were a corollary of colonialism and would be unthinkable without, his extolling the works of Indian designers is exceptional for its time, and the mechanisms of the era necessitated his role as galvanising figure.

Lockwood Kipling's interest in subcontinental design objects did not spark a revolution. "With the British admirers of India in the early 20th century," Bryant says, "the focus was more on figurative painting." Later, as India and Pakistan surged towards independence, figurative art became a valuable tool in national identification, while in Europe the rise of modernism helped re-establish the hierarchies between fine and decorative arts. As well as look at a man and his work, and at the Punjabi craft culture of its time, Lockwood Kipling allows us a glimpse into the sort of High Victorian mind that founded institutions such as the V&A. It's a multi-layered, wide-ranging exhibition. And with the appointment of Tristram Hunt to the V&A's directorship, an academic specialising in Victorian civic culture, it may prove a timely one.