The ubiquity of leather in society is clear to see in a visit to Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s home in the UK from 1902 until he died in 1936. It is owned by the British National Trust and is in Burwash in Sussex, south east of London and not far from the famous Rodney Marsh area. The house is furnished as it was when the family lived there, mostly with the original items.
Kipling was of course born in India in 1865, in Mumbai (Bombay) and his first job was in Lahore as a magazine editor. He married in American and they lived for a few years in Vermont before moving to the south coast of England. After a few years he bought the 16thcentury Bateman’s in 33 acres of land, to which he later added around 270 acres to make a sizeable estate.
As you walk down to the house through the gardens and outhouses the first thing that you realise, but do not see, is that at the time he bought it transport would have been largely horse-drawn and that his stable area would have been full of saddles, bridles and other equestrian leathers. Later he was given a Rolls Royce and today it sits in a specially protected area of the outhouses to be admired, with doors and engine open. The seats would certainly have been Connolly vegetable tanned leather, but today the back seats are apparently uncovered and the front look as though they have at one time been restored with newer leather, and look very comfortable.
It is inside the house that you see the huge role that leather played in life in those days. Sadly his son died in the First World War, at the age of 18, so his bedroom remains as it was when he was a young schoolboy complete with a leather football and the rugby ball above the cupboard in his bedroom. Late in the 20thcentury the vegetable tanned leather was replaced by PU coated splits and then by coated textiles although leather balls are still made in Sialkot in Pakistan and by some specialists. Other sports like cricket, hurling, American football and volleyball still use leather balls, but not all are vegetable tanned.
The most obvious spot in a writer’s house where leather is to be found is the library and Kipling had a wonderful study in which he wrote. At a previous home there was an issue with one of the staff stealing papers from his rubbish bin, so at this house strict procedures were put in place and the National Trust have therefore ceremoniously placed a large overflowing waste bin. Yet from a leatherworker’s eye what stands out is different. Many of the books are leather bound, and there was a National Trust “book man” there whose job is to check the conservation. To be fair, even knowing that Kipling’s period was one where new leather making methods had led to a lot of red rot there is little superficial sign of damage.
A glance round the room and other items are seen. Most notable are some exotic skins on the floor and couch, not the sort of thing you would see today, but we must remember he was born into the midst of British Empire and in an age where having such skins was a signifier of travel, knowledge and standing.
Well worn, and yet in remarkably good condition for a hundred years are his brief case and portfolio, which much have carried drafts and published copied of his many famous works. Leather-goods are one area where the extended value of leather is obvious as the leather rarely wears out and it is usually stitching and zips that need repairing. Kipling’s brief case is in excellent condition and does not look as though it has needed any repairs. From a distance one wonders if there is a sign of red rot showing with the document case, although generally it too looks to be in reasonable condition.
Another amazing feature of Bateman’s is the amazing gilt leather which Kipling brought second hand to install in his dining room, but that is a matter for another article altogether.