In October 2012, while creating the illustrations for Just So Stories, Volumes I and II, my wife, Deb, and I rented Rudyard Kipling’s home in Dummerston, Vermont, for a long weekend and invited six of our friends to join in the experience.
I had gone there primarily in the hope of finding some detail or ornamentation that I could use as a motif, or motifs, to open and close each of the twelve stories throughout the two volumes. I must admit though, that the idea of hanging out in Kipling’s house, sitting at his writing desk, eating at his kitchen and dining tables, being warmed by his fireplace with glasses of red wine, sleeping in his bed and even taking a bath in his bathtub had a strangely delicious appeal. Who knew that the bathtub was Kipling’s favorite feature in the house? In 1892-1893 when the house was built, indoor plumbing wasn’t common in rural America and was only installed in homes of the wealthy.
The house had been designed by Kipling in conjunction with a respected New York architect, Henry Rutgers Marshall, and had been inspired by Kipling’s wish that it resemble a ship. The house was brilliantly laid out, of solid wood construction, was comfortable and inviting, and had been sensitively restored by the Landmark Trust of the UK.
Upon our arrival we toured the four floors of the house from attic to basement.
In the attic, we discovered an armadillo’s shell inside a glass case tucked in a room where one of the servant’s would have once slept. Was this the beginnings of the armadillo’s tale?
In the games room, there was a magnificent pool table circa 1895. Each night of our stay several games took place and we discovered which one of us was the “shark”. Her name was Sandy.
Kipling’s bathtub adjoining the master suite was on the second floor, the polished wood rim of the deep tub bore a small, brass plate with his name inscribed on it. Now that was a definite first. Who in the world has a monogrammed tub? Rudyard Kipling!
In the dining room, an exotic treasure awaited us on the first floor and when I saw it, I recognized in it what I had been hoping to find in the house. The hand-tooled leather trunk was patterned with flowers, birds and geometric designs. Had Kipling purchased it on one of his trips to the Far East? I have adapted five of the designs and you will find them throughout both volumes of Just So Stories.
On the same floor at the end of the house, or the “prow of the boat”, was Kipling’s den. It overlooked the gardens and terrace where he and his family and friends performed plays in summer, and the pastoral Connecticut River Valley beyond. His writing desk was still there opposite the fireplace. Editions of his books lined the shelves, and to the left of the desk hung a print of the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara Falls seen from the Canadian side of the Niagara River, from a painting by the American artist, Fredrick E. Church — a stunning work of art.
Now, no one but me would have reacted to that image hanging next to Kipling’s desk. But that moment gave me shivers from the bizarre coincidence and serendipity of it. Niagara Falls is my hometown. This moment of recognition was further enhanced by a print hanging in Kipling’s bedroom. It was titled, “The Bible of Amiens”. Again, no one but me would have reacted to the title. My father’s middle name was Amiens. His father had been wounded in the Battle of Amiens during World War I and that injury brought my grandfather home to his family and a short time later my father’s birth. In a strange way, I began to feel that perhaps I was destined to illustrate Just So Stories. Spooky. Very spooky.
Kipling’s ghost did not appear in the dead of night. And no furniture was moved while we slept. Instead, the house just wrapped us in its warm embrace and we were besotted by it and the chance to hang out there if only for a long weekend.