Japan: Courts and Culture

The sumptuous new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Japan: Courts and Culture which opened on 8th April, 2022 and runs until 12th March, 2023, displays some of the finest works of Japanese art in the western world, and covers items dating back to 1613, when King James I was presented with a magnificent suit of Samurai armour as well as other gifts by the Shogun Tokugawa in the Japanese Emperor’s name. This is the earliest Japanese item in the Royal Collection.

1. Suit of Samurai armour (1580-1610)

More importantly for the British, the British East India Company was officially permitted to trade with Japan and the 350-year relationship between the Japanese Imperial and the British royal houses began. Sadly, the initial entente cordiale lasted only until the 1630s when Japan closed her borders to the outside world in an attempt  to control foreign influence – a state of affairs which lasted for 220 years.

2. These attractive pieces of blue and white porcelain probably came from the collection of Augustus II of Saxony who set up his own porcelain factory once he knew the secret of how it was made

However, once the Stuarts had seen the wonderful Japanese porcelain and lacquer work, neither of which were known in Europe, they set about acquiring examples from European merchants wherever they could. Somehow, between 1639 and 1854, British royalty managed to keep in contact with the Japanese Imperial family, if not in person, then at least through their purchases. And, if Japanese merchants weren’t willing to sell porcelain, this couldn’t be said of the Chinese who swiftly produced a variety of blue and white porcelain aimed specifically at the European market.

3. Two sake bottles 1840-1860. Probably sent to Queen Victoria by Shogun Togugawa Iemochi, 1860

In the early years, the West had difficulty in knowing the difference geographically between India and Japan, and China and Japan. Did that matter so long as they got the luxury goods they coveted? But the trade secrets of porcelain eventually came out and top quality porcelain factories spread throughout Europe.

By the mid-19th century, the Japanese Imperial and British royal families were officially back in touch, and various British princes were sent off to Japan to broaden their minds and forge good relationships with the Japanese Imperial family.

Personally, I love blue and white porcelain, but, the new royal British owners of porcelain items obviously felt that they needed mounts. The moment I saw a vase with mounts, I was instantly taken back to the George IV: Art & Spectacle exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in 2019 when I first learnt what ‘mounts’ were. As one of the guides explained: ‘it was fashionable during the Regency to add extra bits to art objects to make them even more arty.’ She pointed to two Chinese vases under two small tables. ‘Originally, they would have been plain,’ she said. ‘The Chinese themselves did not go in for over-ornamentation.’

The guide continued: ‘What the Prince Regent wanted was to make the art object even more Chinese than it was already.’ I was staggered. I’d always believed that the gold rims at the top of a vase, or the gold stands at the base were part of the original. This, surely, was what Chinese/Japanese vases were really like.

Apparently not.

4. One of a pair of vases with covers. These vases are Chelsea porcelain dating from 1750-75 which have been given gilt bronze mounts. They were probably bought by George IV who definitely went in for mounts.

In other words, mounts were decorative bits of ornamentation, usually in gilt, gold, or silver-gilt, which transformed the original object into something else entirely.

5. The mounted jar above proves my point. The original porcelain jar has been mounted with gold and gilt bronze for use either as an urn or for pot pourri

George IV bought it in Paris, already mounted, and it ended up in the Brighton Pavilion.

We can see that, by the 18th century, the distinction between Chinese and Japanese porcelain was becoming blurred – let alone the question of the mounts; but we need to remember that, in the 18th century, the Imperial Japanese and the British royal families were no longer directly in touch.

6. I love these porcelain hares – or rabbits? Here, they are a pair of pastille burners.

The hares look as if they are wearing patchwork, perhaps against a chilly night. When they were in the Brighton Pavilion, their garments were described in the inventory as ‘harlequin patches’ Although they come from the Japanese province of Hizen, the hares themselves have been ‘borrowed’ from China, perhaps in recognition of The Year of the Rabbit, the 4th year in the Chinese calendar. But hares have longer ears than rabbits and they don’t have white powder puff tails like rabbits.

An exquisite lacquer box which contains drawers to hold precious objects.

I found myself wondering what the Imperial Japanese visitors thought of what had been done to their porcelain gifts when they visited the United Kingdom and saw them displayed with the added golden glitter of the mounts? Did they think them vulgar, perhaps? Or even ugly?

In 17th century Europe, the secret of the use of lacquer, together with the recipe for porcelain, were unknown. Lacquer comes from the sap of the Toxicodendron verniciflua tree and it has been used in Japan since 4000-3000 BC as a durable finish for luxury wooden objects or temple furniture. It is resistant to water, heat, woodworm, and it can be coloured or sprinkled with metallic powder. It takes a very long time to prepare and execute; each layer must be allowed to dry thoroughly and rubbed smooth before the next layer is added. It is an onerous task and needs an immense amount of skill.

Porcelain is based on crushed granite mixed with china clay which was extremely difficult to work.

8. Cosmetic box decorated with a heron, given to Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate her Coronation in 1953. It is made of wood with black, gold and silver lacquer

This has to be one of the most precious objects in the exhibition. It’s creator, the Imperial Household Artist, Shirayama Shosai (1853-1923), has incorporated miniscule streaks of gold to set off the softness of the silver feathers.

9. Lacquered cabinet with shelves

On the whole, the Japanese do not go in for furniture; shelves, like the one above, were reserved for the very richest families. One shelf might hold cosmetics, another might be for writing implements and books, and the third for incense equipment and small boxes. Queen Victoria was given the above item by the Shogun Tokugawa in 1860 and I was rather amused to note that the British Consul General itemized it somewhat helplessly as ‘1 dioesu (a sort of cabinet)’.

Once the two royal and Imperial families had re-established contact in the 1850s, the exchange of gifts continued more freely; British princes visited Japan and diplomatic and political links were secured. The early 20th century saw reciprocal Imperial and royal attendances at Coronations and the like; they were on each others’ Guest Lists.

10. A group photograph of Edward, Prince of Wales’s visit to Japan. Fortunately, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and the Japanese Prince Regent were able to converse in French. 1922.

11. I’d now like to look at this late 19th, early 20th century screen which dates from this time and which  I think is wonderful.

11. Silk screen: one of the stars of the exhibition

It comprises four panels, each representing a season: the left hand one features cranes and ducks, which represent winter, for example. What astounded me was that, at first I thought it was painted, but it isn’t. It’s exquisitely embroidered; the glossy feathers of the cranes are stitched with flat silk; long and short stitches help to blend the colours and create movement; round knots at the end of flower stamens emphasize the reality of the flowers. Looked at closely, the flowers, trees and birds almost come alive.

12. Inkstand in the form of a pheasant

Another object which really caught my attention was this silver, gold, enamel and ivory inkstand in the form of a pheasant, dating from 1868-1912. A pheasant’s plumage is iridescent and the enamelling brings this out beautifully. According to the label, it was probably acquired by King Edward VII – that enthusiastic shooter of game – it fits. Apparently, an inkwell is cleverly concealed somewhere – possibly under the wing but I couldn’t see it myself.

And I cannot omit to mention the splendid array of swords and armour, so important to the Japanese. I like the stories which accompany the chosen objects, and this sword was particularly appealing for the venerable age of its creator.

13. Field Marshal’s sword, scabbard and storage box made of gold, silver and leather (1918)

The note tells us that the blade is signed and inscribed: Gassan Sadakasu, Imperial Household Artisan, respectfully made this at age 83. It was presented to King George V by Prince Higashi-Yorihito on behalf of the Emperor Taisho, 29 October, 1918.

It is beautifully made and I’m delighted that I was able to photograph it successfully myself.


Artistic exchange: Coloured woodcut: Buckingham Palace London, seen across Green Park (c. 1911) by Yoshio Markino (1869-1956) 

The influence that Japanese and Chinese art had on artists in the west, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards in well-known, what is less well-known is what Japanese artists took from Western art. First, perhaps, was the art of painting perspective but there is more. Here, in this exhibition, we see how Yoshio Markino reacted to London’s mists and fog – seeing Buckingham Palace through a London fog as ‘ghostly allure’ rather than using a ‘pea-souper’ soubriquet most coughing and wheezing Londoners might prefer. In reality, London’s smoke and fog clogged up the lungs. Where Markino sees the beauty of the rosy glow of the gaslights in front of Buckingham Palace; a Londoner would smell the gas from the gas lamps and note how dirty his clothes got.

Japan, Courts and Culture is a once in a lifetime exhibition, and well worth seeing. Get your ticket stamped as you go out and get in free until March 12th , 2023.

© Elizabeth Hawksley


Photographs 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 14

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Photographs 2, 4, 5, 9, 12 and 13 © Elizabeth Hawksley

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BODY VESSEL CLAY: Black Women and Ceramics


The exciting BODY VESSEL CLAY exhibition at 2 Temple Place looks afresh at one of the world’s oldest forms of the humble domestic water pot and its development from traditional pots which are serviceable for cooking and eating, to wonderful new forms, re-imagined with sophisticated new techniques which question age old gender assumptions and become works of artistry in their own right.

                                                                                                                                 Ladi Kwali: water jar

To give a quick overview: the exhibition’s subtitle is BLACK WOMEN, CERAMICS & CONTEMPORARY ART and it looks at what happened to the art of Nigerian pottery, which, until Nigerian Independence in 1960, was mainly viewed as a traditional female pursuit; that is, the making of large round earthenware water and storage pots, plates, bowls and so on for everyday use. The fact that the pottery objects themselves were beautifully crafted and decorated was not considered as worthy of comment; domestic pottery was just what Nigerian women did – and had done for hundreds of years; it was allotted little status.

Halima Audu, water pot (1957-62)

It was 1960 and, whether Britain liked it or not, the Second World War had changed everything. India had gained her independence in 1947 and now Britain’s African Colonies were clamouring for Independence, too. Suddenly, there were an number of other factors  – initially political, intent on being heard. Britain’s view was that independence should happen in a controlled way which did not rock the British boat; she did not want Nigeria to go headlong for industrialization. Nigeria, itself, of course, might have quite different aims.

                               Phoebe Collings-James exhilarating pottery challenge

I found the clash of assumptions aspect of the exhibition fascinating. For example, the exhilarating way that Phoebe Collings-James work engages with the Gothic decoration of the wood panelling behind her hanging breastplate; her work echoes both the architect’s display of sumptuous carving and, at the same time, challenges it. Both, to my mind, come off with flying colours – it felt to me that both potter and wood carver might have enjoyed the encounter.

The original catalyst for Nigeria’s post-war development with regard to pottery was  Michael Cardew (1901-1982). He was a superb professional potter, trained under Bernard Leach, who was appointed Senior Pottery Officer to the new Nigerian Government. Cardew was a high-minded, austere man who was all for Nigerian independence – but he also believed that this should happen in a way that benefitted Britain. He admired the traditional Nigerian designs and he had developed new techniques in pottery which were more cost-effective and his job, as he saw it, was to train young Nigerian men as potters who would establish small potteries all over the country which would expand into new markets. As Nigeria’s new middle-class emerged, people would, naturally, be eager to buy the new, and improved – yet traditional – pottery.

Except they didn’t. And young Nigerian men weren’t exactly queuing up to be trained, either. Why would a young Nigerian man want to become a potter in the first place – a skill which had little status? All you needed was mud for the pottery and a hole lined with wood, dung, dried leaves and so on to fire it. Anyone could do that – even a woman!

The exhibition sets out to challenge this, and we see below:

Jade Monserrat’s challenge to patriarchy

To come more up to date; Jade Monserrat (born 1981) is shouting out her frustration: why should I submit to male values and opinions of what is good pottery and what isn’t? She is asserting that she’s quite capable of discovering things for herself.   

Hurray for Jade, I found myself thinking!

Right from the start of the exhibition, I, too, found myself asking awkward questions. My first thought was that Cardew was surely extraordinarily naïve in what he was trying to do. Why would a newly- liberated country want to buy pottery which – from the Nigerian point of view – looked very like the traditional stuff their mothers and grandmothers had been producing for generations. Same old, same old. Surely newly-rich Nigerian customers would want new colours and designs? And they wouldn’t necessary come from Nigeria.

Beakers and lidded bottle

Having said that, I loved the everyday Nigerian objects on display: the plates, bowls, water-bottles (which had ceramic tops which screwed on – how on earth did they do that?), small casserole dishes, beakers and so on. I’d be happy to give any of them a home in my kitchen.

Ladi Kwali water jar with stylized birds decoration

And I loved the stylized animal designs on the objects: fish, lizards, chameleons, scorpions and so on – a lizard, for example, with its hard triangular shapes, can pack a design punch which could never be achieved by a European rabbit!

And what of the ceramic armour? I found myself wondering if it was challenging the cultural burden of Classical History from the Ancient Greeks onwards? Do women really have to imitate – as far as they are able, poor things – the glories of the Ancient Greek Bronze Age with its superbly decorated armour?

Ceramic armour

The women potters in the exhibition have other ideas: could they be arguing that they don’t have to cram themselves into an alien way of thinking? They can judge for themselves if it fits them  – or if it cramps them. While I was there a group of young Black schoolgirls were animatedly talking about the hanging breastplate and backplate.  ‘It’s a bit of a mess,’ said one. ‘Perhaps it’s OK if it isn’t perfect,’ suggested their teacher.

It was a new idea and the girls’ conversation argued about it enthusiastically.

Ladi Kwali (1925-1984), courtesy of Wikipedia

But the exhibition is really there to celebrate the genius of the astonishing Ladi Kwali (1925-1984), the first woman Cardew trained, and the first female potter in Nigeria to achieve world-wide fame. She changed everything. It swiftly became obvious to Cardew that her skill was outstanding. But, although he himself acknowledged Ladi’s skill, somehow, she never really got the help she needed which  would have enabled her to make her mark on the world much earlier.

I love her work – now in museums and galleries all over the world – but there are still awkward questions to be asked and answered – those of gender politics.

Terracotta figures by Bisila Noha

I loved Basila Noha’s challenging – and defiantly female – figures.

Shawanda Corbett’s colourful ceramic figures have something new and lively to say to us, too!

I loved the visual and performance artist Shawanda Corbett’s colourful, sculptural ceramics which are engaged in communicating with both each other, and with us, the viewers.

Going round the exhibition is a bit like being flung into a sort gender ferment: looking at both the pottery and the photos of women potters of all ages, one could tell that they were up in arms, insisting on doing things their way, pushing boundaries and asking new questions.

I want to end with a little vignette: I was very impressed by a class of Black schoolgirls (roughly 10-12 years old) who were there with their teacher. She was flinging around words like ‘tactile’ and I found myself thinking, isn’t ’tactile’ a bit beyond them? But I was quite wrong. As I listened to the group  discussing the exhibition, it became obvious that their teacher had thoroughly prepared her pupils linguistically for the visit. The word ‘tactile’ didn’t faze them. Then she chucked in a new word: Do you know what ‘empathy’ means? She then explained it (and ‘empathetic’) and then began to use the word. Soon they were all joining in unselfconsciously.

I found myself thinking: you get a gold star from me! Not only had she taken her pupils to what might be considered a challenging exhibition – but one with a lot to offer them, she had also given them the verbal equipment to enable them to discuss and work out what they thought with their classmates. It would serve them for a lifetime.

All in all, this year’s exhibition offers the viewers something both different and challenging, but also immensely invigorating. I loved it.

It closes on 24th April.


Elizabeth Hawksley


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Visiting Buckingham Palace Gardens

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited (plus guest) to the Press Preview of the opening to the public of the Buckingham Palace Gardens so I asked my friend and fellow author, Sophie Weston, if she would like to come. Apart from the three Garden Parties which the Queen hosts every summer, the general public don’t usually get to see the gardens, but Covid has made the annual opening of the State Rooms and the accompanying exhibition impossible. Naturally, I said, ‘Yes, please’. Sophie and I were both looking forward to it. Normally, if you visit the State Apartments and the Summer exhibition, you come out of the palace onto the West Terrace Steps of the Palace where there is a café –

The cakes are always delicious, and I love the way that even the chocolate button on your vanilla slice has a small gold crown on it!

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British Museum: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

One of the most splendid exhibits in the British Museum is undoubtedly the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and its astonishing treasures, dating from the 7th century A.D. which was excavated 1938-9, as the country prepared itself for war.

The Bronze Helmet – fit for a King?

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Freedom v Tyranny: The Afterlife of Thomas Becket

This week I’m following up on  the blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170. I looked at how the relationship between King Henry II and his former Lord Chancellor, which had once been so close, turned to bitterness and hatred, and ended in Becket’s violent death in front of the High Altar. The murdered Becket swiftly became a martyr and a saint – and, almost immediately, miracle cures, ascribed to Becket, were recorded.

Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ on Pilgrimage to Canterbury c. 1387

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St Thomas Becket: Murder in the Cathedral

On a cold winter’s day, 29th December, 1170, three knights: Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy and Hugh de Morville arrived at Canterbury Cathedral. They were King Henry II’s loyal men and, time and again, they had heard him fume against the Archbishop Thomas Becket’s wilful refusal to obey him and side with the church instead. They vowed to ride to Canterbury Cathedral, capture Becket, and drag him back to face the King, so that the long and bitter quarrel between them could finally be settled.

They did not, at this point, mean to murder Thomas.

A reliquary casket showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. At the bottom, three knights, swords raised, are about to attack Thomas who stands in front of the altar. Two monks on the right raise their hands in horror

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Souvenir Mugs and Jugs from the Napoleonic Wars

To set the scene: 206 years ago today, on 28th February, 1815, the ex-emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, having escaped from exile on the Island of Elba, landed in France and immediately set about reclaiming his throne. His luck was to hold for 100 days. By the beginning of June he had raised 200,000 men, more than enough to match the combined armies of the Britain and her Allies. On 18th June, 1815 he would face his enemies at Waterloo.

‘British Voluntary Infantry raised 1797’, earthenware plaque, Bristol Water Lane Pottery c. 1801.

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The Queen’s Gallery: Judith and Holofernes

The story of Judith and Holofernes from the Old Testament inspired a number of Renaissance artists, Cristofano Allori and Artemisia Gentileschi among them, to paint the beautiful Jewish heroine, Judith, chopping off the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian General  who had been sent by King Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Palestine. Sex and violence, as ever, proved to be a popular mix – and very sellable.

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Queen’s Gallery: Four Masterpieces and their Stories

Sixty-five of the masterpieces which usually hang in one of the State Rooms in Buckingham Palace are now being exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace’ until January 2022. They are here because of a major services overhaul in the palace itself – a mammoth task involving the removal of lead pipes, dodgy electrical wiring and old boilers. The Queen’s Gallery visitors get the benefit because all the paintings hang at eye level which means that even the smallest paintings can be seen properly.

A Girl Chopping Onions by Gerrit Dou (1613-1675)

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Mid-Victorian artists’ fascination with ‘Oriental Ladies in Harems’

A few days ago, I went to see The Enchanted Interior at the Guildhall Art Gallery, curated and developed by the Laing Art Gallery and Madeleine Kennedy, and adapted by the Guildford Art Gallery. It examined the fascination Oriental art and life in the Middle East held for Mid-Victorian to early 20th century British artists. What appears to have attracted them most was the allure of beautiful women hidden away in harems, living in a ‘gilded cage’. The exhibition is full of pictures of exotic Oriental interiors – usually in Constantinople (Istanbul) or Cairo, or somewhere similar. There are elaborately ornamental wooden grilles to keep the women safe from prying eyes; exotic, colourful Oriental carpets; maids bringing in food and drink; and – probably most the important – the women lounging on the carpets or ottomans all seem perfectly contented.

John Frederick, Life in the Harem, Cairo. 1858. The lady lounges on an ottoman, she has flowers in her lap. A female servant enters with refreshments. A eunuch follows her.

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