Munshi Sher Muhammad. John Lockwood Kipling, ca. 1907. Oil on canvas. Lahore Museum, through the courtesy of the Chief Minister of the Punjab.


From the Exhibition:

John Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London

A modest portrait, less than three feet high with a simple black background, introduces John Lockwood Kipling (1837–1911), the central character in the Gallery’s wide-ranging exhibition John Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London. No architectural setting, formal dress, or props are employed to amplify and explain Kipling’s many claims to fame. One would hardly guess that this man, balding and bearded like some ancient philosopher, was director of the major museum in Lahore and principal of a school that still flourishes today as Pakistan’s National College of Arts, while also leading by example as a scholar and an artist in his own right. The portraitist has not emphasized Kipling’s myriad achievements but his intellect, with the Socratic dome of his forehead highlighted in silhouette, and his benevolence, expressed through his shining if tired blue eyes. The image seems to capture perfectly the character recalled by one of Kipling’s greatest admirers, the interior decorator Sibyl Colefax, who once described, in recalling her childhood in India, “the only one who was real” with “the head of a philosopher, & the bluest eyes I ever saw & a vast beard.”

This portrait of Kipling was commissioned in 1906 and painted by Sher Muhammad, his former pupil and assistant master at the Mayo School of Art (now the National College of Arts). Having returned to England in 1893, Kipling was surprised thirteen years later to receive the request for a portrait from his former museum and art school. He wrote to an old friend in December 1906: “I hear from Lahore that the Sch. of Art is booming along at a great rate. More numbers, more money (and for the Museum) and all my pet schemes being carried out. They want my portrait to hang up as their Venerable Founder—they don’t use those words—sacred to that stony old John Wesley, but similar like.”

As the son of a Methodist minister, Kipling must have recalled portraits of John Wesley, if only engravings. As Sher Muhammed is not known to have traveled to England for the commission, it seems likely that Kipling sent him a sketched self-portrait as the basis for the oil painting. The nearly sideward glance suggests that the artist was looking into a mirror rather than sitting for a portrait by someone else. As the exhibition and accompanying book reveal, Kipling produced self-portraits as bookplates and as humorous illustrations in his correspondence. The difference here is the spotlight effect, which adds a sense of momentary drama to the likeness. The slight twinkle in the eye may be explained by Kipling’s own confession to a friend: “I know I look like a holy-holy, but I’m not.”

Sher Muhammad is not known as a portrait painter. As one of a team of artists, he helped work up Kipling’s sketches for the banners for the Delhi Durbar in 1876, so that they could be embroidered with new heraldry as gifts to the Indian princes. In 1881 he designed the cover for the catalogue of the Punjab Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, and two years later he was among the team from the Mayo School of Art that traveled with more than 5,000 objects to install the Punjab Court of the Calcutta International Exhibition, where he exhibited his own painting of Wazir Khan’s Mosque in Lahore. In 1884 Sher Muhammad provided the first of several illustrations for Kipling’s articles in the Journal of Indian Art and in the winter of 1885–86 he and Kipling, with six students, painted a “Moorish” ballroom for Barnes Court in Simla, the official residence of the lieutenant governor of the Punjab. In 1886 Sher Muhammad produced a detailed elevation of the Punjab Chief’s College (today Aitchison College) that was reproduced on the invitation card for the new school, whose design competition had been won by Kipling and his fellow teachers (notably Bhai Ram Singh) and an architect. In 1891 Sher Muhammad returned to Simla with his pupils to decorate the chancel of Christ Church. That same year Kipling chose to reproduce Muhammad’s calligraphic drawing in the form of lion on the dedication page of his book Beast and Man in India. His enduring friendship with Sher Muhammad is clearly captured in this portrait.

Today in Lahore if one mentions the name Kipling, people may assume that you are referring to Lockwood, not to his son, Rudyard. One reason for that, beyond his legacy in the preservation of tradition Punjabi crafts, is this portrait, which has been loaned to the current exhibition through the generosity of the Punjab Chief Minister, Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, and the director of the Lahore Museum, Humayun Mazhar Sheikh. While in London and New York, the portrait’s space on the Lahore Museum’s wall has been filled by a second, almost identical painting by the same artist, thanks to the principal of the National College of Arts, Professor Murtaza Jafri, over whose desk the portrait of Kipling usually hangs, casting kind blue eyes on each prospective candidate for admission.