Purchase Story

John Lockwood Kipling Bas-Relief Found at Estate Auction

I first began visiting Lambertville, New Jersey’s antiques shops, the Golden Nugget Antique Flea Market, and Rago Auctions in the 1990s while a graduate student in the art history department at the University of Delaware. Moving on in 2001 to a post as director of collections and exhibitions at the Allentown Art Museum, I found an occasional treasure for the museum’s collection in Lambertville, and after launching an independent career in 2006, my Lambertville visits increased as I attended previews at Rago, buying and consigning not a few times.

In September 2015 I attended the preview for an estate auction, just to browse and likely to enjoy one of Rago’s always delightful lecture/receptions. Roving about the main gallery, I spotted hanging high on a wall over a doorway an intriguing plaster relief presenting an array of jungle animals along with a scantily clad young man with a snake twined about his body. The title The Kipling 1900 Kalendar was inscribed on a horizontal banner under a tondo profile of author Rudyard Kipling flanked with elephant heads, with a reserved spot just beneath and to the left, presumably for affixing a tablet of calendar pages.

This triggered a flashback to childhood when my parents had read to us Kipling’s Just So Stories for Children (1902), recalling to the current day the delightfully wrought phrase “the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River.” In fact, children’s book illustrations were a major impetus for my later interest in art history and particularly American illustration.

Although the relief was unsigned, Rago attributed it to John Lockwood Kipling, an unfamiliar name—but clearly a relative of Rudyard. I left a written bid on the relief and was surprised and pleased to learn a few days later that I had been successful. Taking the heavy piece home, I speedily looked up John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), learning that he was Rudyard’s father and a highly gifted two- and three-dimensional artist and an art teacher, administrator, writer, interior decorator, exhibition organizer/designer, and museum curator. It was seemingly not one of my more lucrative or art historically important discoveries, and I left the plaster sitting around the house for many months; it is so heavy that I was afraid if I hung it on the wall it might pull the hook out and smash on the floor.

Fast forward to December 2017—reading the art section of the Sunday New York Times, I spotted an advertisement for a John Lockwood Kipling retrospective organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that had opened at the museum and was currently at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in Manhattan, accompanied by an extensive publication (John Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London, edited by Julius Bryant and Susan Weber, Yale University Press, 2017).

Wow, I thought, my oddball piece might be quite a rarity! On a Thursday in December, I dipped into the hefty and lavishly illustrated catalog at the Met’s Watson Library, then headed over to the Bard Gallery, easily spending two hours in the informative and stunningly beautiful exhibition. I learned that John Lockwood Kipling, inspired by his youthful experience as a ceramics artist for Wedgwood and subsequently as an architectural sculptor, created plaster and terra-cotta reliefs; some were set into architecture, while others were photographed and used to illustrate books by his son and unrelated authors.

Although my sculpture refers to Kipling’s Jungle Book, with its hero Mowgli and his animal friends, including Baloo the bear and Bagheera the black panther, it was actually the prototype for a mass-produced calendar produced in 1899 by New York publisher Doubleday & McClure and fabricated in two versions: embossed paper or sheet brass. An example of the latter type was featured in the show and depicted in the catalog. The Kalendar was offered for sale in a trade journal with the accompanying description: “Mr. Kipling, Sr., has modeled an extraordinary plaque representing a profile likeness of the author, flanked by two elephants’ heads, with a figure of Mowgli and his jungle companions below. This has been reproduced exactly, in relief, in embossed brass, making a very striking, and unusually artistic calendar…. Size, 10 x 15; Price, $3.50” (from Doubleday & McClure Company’s entry, a list of its publications, in an 1899 The Publishers’ Trade List Annual, Volume 1, p. 18, 1899).

The fact that several other American and European trade and popular periodicals also covered the Kalendar’s publication testifies to the “Kipling-mania” then prevalent, as does the stiff price. Although the brass calendar bears Kipling’s signature and the plaster model does not, there can be no doubt of its authenticity, as it is the identical design. In an e-mail exchange, Julius Bryant, co-curator of the Kipling exhibition and author of the chapter on Kipling’s sculpture, shared that he has never seen any duplicates of Kipling’s reliefs. He also stated that the known Kipling reliefs are signed. It is unclear why Kipling did not sign the Kipling Kalendar. The dimensions are larger at 22¾" x 15½" but have the same height to width ratio as the commercial calendar.

A preliminary pencil drawing for the entire composition is in the collection of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, reproduced in the exhibition catalog side by side with an example of the brass version, owned by the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library owns a related terracotta tondo of an elephant head and the brass Kalendar lacking its paper tablet.) The complex details, the artist’s sure hand, and the exotic animal imagery combined with the substantial size make John Lockwood Kipling’s sculpture visually arresting. The condition is superb; even the wash of brown color shows little wear. Presumably the piece was made by the casting process; a close inspection shows that additional hand-incised lines were added later to set off the borders of leaves and other tiny details.

It is interesting to compare this bas-relief with others by Kipling; the materials and surface finish of the pieces demonstrate his keenness for experimentation. First, there is the use of the basic materials of reddish terra cotta versus off-white plaster. Among the known plasters, some remain their original color, others are covered with a brass sheet or painted to resemble brass, and others, like mine, have a transparent colored wash applied (see the National Trust online collections catalog for images of other Kipling bas-reliefs [www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/results?SearchTerms=john+lockwood+kipling+sculpture]).

The question of rarity arises: if the plaster was made as a model for the mass-produced calendar, is mine the lone example? According to Julius Bryant, about 60 terra-cotta and plaster reliefs were made by the artist, but only 15 survive today in the collection of Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s home in East Sussex, England, part of the National Trust. None of the known reliefs are duplicates, implying that John Lockwood made only one for each project. The trust’s collections catalog does not list either a plaster or commercial version of The Kipling 1900 Kalendar. It is fascinating how art objects migrate from country to country, continent to continent. In the case of John Lockwood and Rudyard Kipling, both spent time in the United States—Rudyard lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, from 1891 to 1896, and John visited this country—so the sculpture’s reappearance at an estate auction in the Northeast is not so surprising. Who knows what treasures may turn up when we shut down the computer and venture forth with no goal in mind other than object adventures?

Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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