Cuthbert Edmund Swan (1870-1931)
Kaa and Bagheera
signed ‘C.E. SWAN.’ (lower right)
pencil and bodycolour with gum arabic on board
8 ¾ x 10⅝ in. (22.2 x 27 cm.)
frame 16 ¾ x 18 ¾ in. (42.6 x 47.6 cm.)
Atmospherically depicted in a shady glade of an Indian jungle by C.E. Swan (who himself lived on the sub-Continent for a while), Kaa and Bagheera first featured in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Published in magazine editions from 1893-94 (and accompanied with illustrations by the author’s father, John), it’s thought that he wrote them for his young daughter, who sadly died in 1899, at the age of six. Although produced in Vermont, U.S.A., the stories (essentially fables with animals, used to impart moral lessons), were inspired by Kipling’s time spent in India - six years as a child, and six and a half years as an adult.
Kaa is presented by Swan as glistening and jewel-like, the emeralds and golds of his skin contrasting the shadowy black coat of Bagheera, and the deep mysterious greens of the jungle. A powerful giant of an Indian Rock Python, over a century old, Kaa’s introduction sees him helping Bagheera and Baloo rescue Mowgli, who had been kidnapped by the Bandar-log (monkeys). The Second Jungle Book saw Mowgli and Kaa as great friends, venturing into the treasure chamber of a lost city, guarded by an ancient cobra. In another story, Kaa helps Mowgli’s wolf-pack defeat a pack of rampaging red dogs.
Kaa was presented very differently in the 1967 and 2016 Disney adaptations. As opposed to being a mentor and friend, he was more interested in Mowgli as a delicacy, making a number of attempts to devour him. In the 1967 production, Kaa was given a lisp by the actor Sterling Holloway, which worked particularly well with the snake’s first foray into music, Trust in me (composed by the Sherman Brothers). Please click here to watch Kaa's enigmatic performance. In the 2016 Disney CGI adaptation, directed by Jon Favreau, Kaa was voiced by Scarlett Johansson, with Trust in me performed at the end.
Respected by all in the jungle, including Shere Khan the man-eating tiger, Bagheera (Hindi for ‘black panther’) is depicted by Swan as a mysterious shadow of the jungle, his powerful form resting on a fallen trunk, or branch. Bagheera was born into captivity in Udaipor, India, where his mother died when he was a cub. As soon as he was mature and powerful enough, he escaped, his contact with humans giving him a special insight into their ways. Bagheera vouched for the man-cub upon his discovery in the jungle, buying his life from the wolf-pack with a freshly killed bull. When Mowgli grew older, and wanted to return to his village, Bagheera secured his release by slaughtering another bull for the pack. Kipling’s own words on the panther, sum him up best: ‘Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody dared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than dawn’.
In the 1967 Disney animation, the story was narrated by Bagheera with a refined English accent, voiced by Sebastian Cabot. The refined English panther returned in the 2016 adaptation, played by Sir Ben Kingsley.
Born in Ireland, but spending most of his life in Hampstead, C.E. Swan was the son of the painter and sculptor John Macallan Swan, R.A. (1846-1910). He exhibited 66 times at the Royal Academy, as well as the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, and the Paris Salon.