John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London at the Victoria and Albert Museum

My blog posts have been sporadic across the two years I’ve been the sole writer My output has been anything between one a day, one a week, one a month, one a quarter even. Sometimes I have a real itch to write about a recent public history experience, at other times I just want to write. My post today sits somewhere in between these motivators. On the one hand, the John Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A was a visual triumph and totally relevant to my PhD research, and, on the other, I’ve had five days off in London and I really want to commit something productive to the screen.

Now then, to something more important than my incentives for writing today after a lengthy absence, the exhibition itself. I went to see Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London mainly because my PhD research centres on Indian material culture within museums in Glasgow and I wanted to see what was on offer in London. As it happens, the exhibition featured several items on loan from Glasgow Museums. Without going into too much detail, this is a huge relief for the future of my thesis. Simply put, there is existing material pertaining to the relationship between Glasgow and India in the nineteenth century held in Glasgow’s museums. This is fantastic news!

So, the exhibition itself looks at the role played by John Lockwood Kipling as an artist, collector, and curator. It combines Kipling (the father of the Rudyard Kipling – the author of the Jungle Book) with contextual information about the spread of art within the British Empire to create a cohesive narrative about Indian Arts between 1837 and 1911. Naturally, the overtly positive image of Kipling pursuing Indian arts and crafts with respect and appreciation gives a rather rose-tinted impression of the British Empire. I don’t think this necessarily takes away from the exhibition because Kipling was an unusual case within the imperial system. He travelled to India and wanted to learn about the people and the arts he came across. I found his sketches of craftsman at work particularly emotive. Here were examples of Indians being portrayed as individuals. It is possible to assume that this mode of drawing real people would have created a relationship between the artists. In the time it took to complete the drawing, you would assume a dialogue would have taken place and a contract of sorts set up. For me, it was interesting to think about this interplay between the artists. In a way, the sketches were a way of collecting the arts Kipling encountered. Although naturally, I’m quite biased because I research collections and collecting habits in the nineteenth century…

Overall, it was thought-provoking to see commercial aspects of cultural exchange within the Empire. Trade museums were used to promote empire, Indian “stuff” was mass produced in Britain and then sold to Indians, and Kipling promoted copying antiquities to save them being removed from their native land. This is a story of how Indian culture fed into British culture and vice versa. I won’t spoil it too much, but I definitely recommend you see it before it closes. If nothing else, it is a beautifully stylish exhibition and the arts on display are truly stunning, a real feast for the eyes.

One last plus, it’s FREE!

Victoria and Albert Museum until Sunday 2nd April 2017.



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