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Rare watercolour from ‘The Jungle Book’ on display for first time at author’s family home Bateman’s, in the book’s anniversary year

A woman hangs a large watercolour painting of a buffalo onto a wood-panelled wall
A painting is hung on the wall at Bateman's, East Sussex | © 'The Return of the Buffalo Herd', ©Private Estate, credit National Trust Images-James Dobson

A rare watercolour painting from ‘The Jungle Book’ is set to go on display at the book’s author’s family home, 130 years after the much-loved story was published.

Bateman’s in Burwash, East Sussex, was a sanctuary to celebrated ‘The Jungle Book’ writer Rudyard Kipling. The National Trust has now acquired one of the beautiful watercolours that originally brought the story to life and put it on display at the 17th century house.

‘The Return of the Buffalo Herd’, dated 1901, is one of just four illustrations known to have survived from the original set of 16 painted by the Detmold brothers.

The Detmold twins were prolific book illustrators in the first half of the twentieth century. This illustration is signed with the monogram ‘EJD’ in black within a green circle, meaning it was created by Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1957).

The dark sentiment of the illustration lends a surprising contrast to lighter, modern interpretations of the story. It depicts a post-climactic scene, where protagonist Mowgli returns a herd of buffalo back to the village after using them to trigger a stampede that crushes his foe, the murderous tiger - Shere Khan.

Kipling wrote at this action-packed moment: “The torrent of black horns, foaming muzzles, and staring eyes whirled down the ravine like boulders in flood time…The terrible charge of the buffalo-herd, against which no tiger can hope to stand.”

Hannah Miles, Collections & House Manager at Bateman’s, says “Two of the four watercolours known to survive are in private collections. The other, ‘Kaa the Python’ by Charles Maurice Detmold (1883-1908) is part of the collection held at the Natural History Museum.

“We’re delighted therefore to be able to put ‘The Return of the Buffalo Herd’ on display at Bateman’s, exactly 130 years after the story was published. It will provide a rare chance for fans of the much-loved book to discover and experience the story’s darker origins as it was in Kipling’s day.”

Before arriving at Bateman’s, the illustration has been carefully cleaned by Louise Drover, specialist Art on Paper Conservator. Louise also created an exact replica of the frame that is believed to have been used when the painting was first exhibited in London.

Louise says, “I’ve been lucky in my 30-year career to work on many beautiful, and unique watercolours. It’s been particularly exciting though to care for one of the original artworks created for such a famous, much-loved story.

“I used carefully selected water-based techniques for cleaning and treatment. This included humidifying the watercolour, to peel away the old canvas lining. I also ‘washed’ the paper, by placing it on a vacuum table and spraying water through the front.

“Japanese tissue was used to make small repairs and the tone was evened out through gentle swabbing and minor re-touching with pure pigment watercolours and chalks. I hope visitors to Bateman’s are as enchanted by the artwork as I was.”

The watercolour is presumed to show Rama – the great herd bull – in the foreground, his “long, backward-sweeping horns and savage eyes” staring back on the plain with an almost melancholic gaze. Measuring around a metre by 75cm, it will be displayed under special lights to highlight the original colours, details and feel.

The Detmold twins were just 18 when they were commissioned to illustrate ‘The Jungle Book’, having been showcasing their art in public since their early teens. Despite their professional success, the twins’ personal lives were tainted by suffering and, ultimately, tragedy, with both taking their own lives – Charles in 1908 and Edward later in 1957.

Hannah continues “Comparisons could be drawn between the Detmold twins and Mowgli, who in the original story of ‘The Jungle Book’ was a rather troubled character trapped between two worlds.

“It feels poignant therefore to display their magnificent illustration alongside a copy of the book featuring all of the twins’ original pictures, in the place that meant so much to the story’s author Rudyard Kipling.”

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