The Kibbo Kift Kindred
by Jonathan Griffin
In 1929, the Whitechapel Gallery mounted an exhibition of painted tents, carved ceremonial totems, shields, banners, costumes, archery equipment, embroidery and weaving looms. These objects, all of them crafted by hand, were not the work of some remote island tribe, nor even medieval European artefacts, but the regalia of an idiosyncratic group of men, women and children, predominantly English and active during the 1920s, who called themselves the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. This autumn, the Whitechapel Gallery has put many of those same materials back on display in a show co-curated by Annabella Pollen, the author of a meticulous new history of the group.
The 1929 ‘Educational Exhibition’, as it was called, was meant to illuminate the general public on the beliefs and customs of a society that had been widely ridiculed by the popular press. The pointy hooded jerkins worn by the Kinsmen brought to mind, as they well might, the pointy hoods of the American Ku Klux Klansmen (the name didn’t help either), while their open-handed style of greeting was often confused with the European Fascists’ salute.
On the contrary, the Kift was founded on a radically progressive ideology, cooked up from various pre-existing oddments by a former Scout leader named John Hargrave. After the First World War, Hargrave was appalled to see the wholesome woodcraft traditions of the Scouts denigrated by ex-military men who, he felt, were intent only on moulding little soldiers. Traumatized by his wartime experiences as a stretcher-bearer, Hargrave became a pacifist and a believer in the spiritual nourishment of the outdoors life.
His 1919 book ‘The Great War Brings it Home: The Natural Reconstruction of an Unnatural Existence’ laid out the ideas that, over the next two years, led both to his expulsion from the Scouts and to the foundation of a new alternative movement. He found the name, Kibbo Kift, in an antiquarian dictionary of Cheshire colloquialisms; it means ‘proof of strength’.
The organization’s values were hale and hearty, intended to rectify the degenerate course that modern, industrialised society was taking. “‘Every effete civilisation must crumble away. The only hope is that a new and virile offshoot may arise to strike out a line of its own,” Hargrave wrote. (You can see where the confusion with Fascism may have arisen.)
Instead of nationalism, however, the Kibbo Kift’s ambitious ideology called for a World State, which would naturally be led by Kinfolk. Nevertheless, the language, nomenclature and symbology of the group harked back, as often as not, to a mythical Arthurian Olde Englande. Chivalry was aligned with the “occult mysteries” of the 15th-century Illuminati. Elsewhere, they were almost Postmodern in their eclecticism. The banners, ceremonial staffs and statues exhibited at the Whitechapel mix influences from Celtic runes and Anglo-Saxon heraldry with Egyptian hieroglyphs, Native American patterns and Futurist designs featuring motorcars and engines.
Ironically, it was Hargrave’s attempted popularisation of the movement, in the early 1930s, that sealed its fate. By doing away with its eccentricities, he also lost the Kibbo Kift’s unique – if marginal – appeal, one that was deeply rooted in a distinctly English brand of individualism.
First published: World of Interiors, January 2016