Ruddy's 'Indian' Smile: Unknown Portraits of Rudyard Kipling

By Contenti, Alessandra | British Art Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Ruddy's 'Indian' Smile: Unknown Portraits of Rudyard Kipling


Contenti, Alessandra, British Art Journal


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

At her death in 1976 Kipling's daughter, Elsie Bambridge, left a set of exquisite drawings representing Rudyard Kipling as a young man to the National Trust. These are preserved in the Kipling Archive at the University of Sussex and might induce us, once correctly dated and attributed, to revise certain notions about the writer's character and personality, let alone his physical appearance in his early years of adulthood.

The set of leaves contains different drawings using various techniques (archive catalogue index: 1 vol. 12 1/4 x 10 inches ff. 92, '166 leaves mounted') described as 'drawings in pencil, pen and ink, and crayon, washes in grey or sepia, etc., c.1870-90, of heads (especially of R. K.), figures, animals, scenes of Indian life, mythological, satirical and other subjects, principally by J.L.K. [including drawings by E. Burne Jones (4), Philip Burne Jones (1), the Earl of Carlisle (3), Rudolph Swoboda(?)'. (1)

One sketch out of the entire set has been reproduced so far--the only one that can be identified and placed with no margin for error, (2) athough, on the whole, the sketches have not received the critical attention they deserve both for their obvious quality and their biographical relevance. This is probably due to the difficulty of 'placing' them in time and space and in establishing their authorship, even though it is unlikely that they passed unnoticed through the hands of the numerous scholars and biographers who have consulted the Kipling archive.

But their charm is tantalizing: one is tempted to brave the enigmas they pose for the sake of learning something more about the writer and those 'Indian' years. Indeed, should their authorship be demonstrated and their chronology ascertained, they would represent a considerable addition to the scanty number of known images of the novelist as a young man, i.e. between 1882 and 1889 (the years of his second stay in India, after spending ten years in England to pursue his studies) and no small help in establishing certain aspects of his personality at the beginning and in the early years of his literary and journalistic activity. I believe these sketches represent an important element in completing--in fact, in reconstructing--the image of this great author as a young man, of whom very little is known and who only recently has re-awakened the interest of cultural historians. (3) They might add a significant tessera to the mosaic of his biography by answering in the first place the question of exactly what the young Kipling looked like between the ages of 18 and 24, perhaps the most productive period of his life: they would help us reconstruct or imagine how his appearance matched, or revealed, his creative personality at the time, and the flowering of his brand-new 'persona litteraria'.

Frankly, it is rather difficult to reconcile the official images (mainly photographs) that we have of Kipling at that time with the author of the contemporary works (his reportages and his Indian tales). In no way did the perfectly groomed young gentleman in a tightly buttoned jacket and stiff collar, standing with one leg slightly crossed over the other, his hair glued fiat on his skull and/or neatly parted in the middle and a cigar in his left hand in an official photograph of the mid1880s, appear to relate to the over-fatigued reporter working 10 hours a day in the hot furnace of the office of the Civil and Military Gazette, to the hallucinated night visitor wandering through the mean streets of the walled city of Lahore, to the author of hilarious and brilliant letters and stunning short stories that revealed for the first time to English readers the reality of life in India. Those official photographs do not match, above all, the image emerging from contemporary verbal accounts of his person and the (few) descriptions of people who had known him in his juvenile years; these show another Kipling, shabbily dressed, during his frantic activities, worn out by fatigue, heat and lack of sleep, and yet awfully energetic, curious and recklessly funny. …

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