What impact does the environment we work in have on the work we create? I ask this question almost weekly because I’m fascinated by the way in which human beings can be aware of but not really see their surroundings. And after visiting the National Trust property Bateman’s, the former home of Rudyard Kipling over the weekend, it’s clear to me that the home he purchased in 1902 is as much a part of the work he created as the paper he wrote on during the process. The beauty of his words and the beauty of his environment feel like they’re holding hands and stepping forward together.
The house is built on a small scale, although in the Seventeenth Century, when it was built for John Brittan an iron master, it probably felt rather grand. The decorative details are solid and well crafted; oak paneling, limestone fireplace lintels, black and white tiled floor and the most beautiful printed leather ‘wallpaper’. He knew what he wanted and those features have aged beautifully. Did John Brittan realise that his home would be visited by thousands of people a year some 300 hundred years after he chose to build on that site? Probably not and I imagine he’d be pretty surprised to find that it looks so similar to his original design. This is a house that feels like a home, it hasn’t needed to be altered, although some of the floor levels have changed and even though the bathrooms and kitchen aren’t on display, it is easy to see how a more modern aesthetic can be accommodated within an ancient building.
Kipling is quoted as saying ‘That’s She! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her – quick!’ when he first sighted Bateman’s with his wife Carrie in 1900. He knew what he wanted too and two years later they moved their small family Josephine, Elsie and John to what was for them an incredibly warm and happy family home. The family wasn’t immune to tragedy though, Josephine caught a fever when travelling by ship to New York (Carrie was American) and didn’t survive and John, was killed in the early days of WWI.
Kipling appears to have been a doting father, involved in his children’s lives and a giver of advice. His letters to them are warm and caring, full of daily life, telling them what he is doing while he is away and aimed at their level of understanding. I had heard that he forced his son into the army, but that doesn’t appear to be correct. Perhaps his only failing in this respect is that he and his son were both very shortsighted and when John didn’t pass his physical, Kipling pulled some strings – and John ended up in a regiment posted to the Front. They were both firm supporters of King and Country, but that must have been little comfort when John died just days after his eighteenth birthday.
The walls of Bateman’s seem to echo with the presence of the Kipling family. It’s as if they’ve simply walked out of the room to arrange a pot of tea for their guests. I like that and that their home was so much a part of their lives. Because so little has been changed, there is a sense of time standing still, that they’ve lived lightly within these walls and in the process have left much more of themselves behind.
Of course not every home is so worthy of preservation, but it makes me think that we should take care with our choices when looking for a home and be even more careful in the choices we make when we choose to refurbish. Are we creating a space that will enhance our lives, that will be a haven and support us when times are tough? Are we altering a space to better it or simply because fashion suggests that this is the course we should take? Are we creating a space that has integrity? Is it true to the rest of the building? Does it honour the original design – would that craftsman recognise his creation 300 years later?
In thinking about how our environment affects our creation (or in this case, our lives) we need to step outside ourselves, to assess and to analyse. Being too close to a project can mean the decisions made are emotional and not quite as well reasoned as they should be. Will what we create within its walls stand the test of time? Does the space feel balanced and function well together – does it breathe? If we think of our homes as a whole being, as a living entity – for it will outlast us – perhaps that is the key.