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.

Finale:

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

Acknowledgements:

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

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

 

Isle of Man: The Great Laxey Wheel

The Great Laxey Wheel, opened in 1854 – named ‘Lady Isabella’ after the wife of the mid-19th century Governor, the Hon. Charles Hope, – is probably the Isle of Man’s most recognized landmark and its most important piece of industrial archaeology.

The Great Laxey Wheel ‘Lady Isabella’

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Isle of Man: Cregneash Open Air Museum

Last month, I visited the Isle of Man, an island full of history and spectacular scenery, and today I’m looking at the village of Cregneash which has a special place in the hearts of Manxmen. Even in the mid-19th century, this isolated village was known for its insistence on keeping to the ‘old traditional ways’ of farming and living and where the inhabitants still spoke Manx, a Gaelic language most closely related to Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic which was rapidly dying out elsewhere on the island. Cregneash became a sort of ‘curiosity’, a place to be visited by Victorian visitors who wanted a glimpse into the Olden Days.

Approaching Cregneash with its traditional thatched and whitewashed cottages

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Elizabeth Hawksley: Apologies

I had a painful fall last week. I was crouching down to photograph an interesting ancient tombstone on the Isle of Man – as one does – and I stupidly tried to use the top of the tombstone which was covered with damp moss to pull myself up – and fell.

I now have a number of large bruises down my right side which have gone through red, violet, blue and are fading slowly through plum and black. I am slowly improving but it is extremely painful to sit down and typing is impossible.

Many apologies – and keep well.

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

Georgette Heyer: Faro’s Daughter

In my opinion, Faro’s Daughter is probably Georgette Heyer’s most emotionally intense book. The relationship between the hero, the cold, rude, fabulously rich Max Ravenscar and the beautiful Deborah Grantham who presides over a gaming establishment in St James’s Square in the heart of fashionable London in the 1790s, has a sexual tension which is quite unlike any of her other books.

Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster 1939

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What the Servants Did

I’m always intrigued, when visiting a Stately Home, or indeed, any home from yesteryear to see how the domestic arrangements worked. And it’s surprising how many things there are in common – from cottage to stately home. The first thing you notice is how important the class system was.

Kitchen in Keats’ house

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‘The Hartfield Inheritance’ comes out in e-books

My late friend, a Research Professor, was the author of a number of books, and we often discussed writing. She also, privately, wrote poetry.

She did not normally read Regency romances! I was both thrilled and slightly apprehensive when she asked to read The Hartfield Inheritance, my third Elizabeth Hawksley historical novel.

A week or so later, she returned the book – with a poem tucked inside – and here it is.

The original cover

Continue reading ‘The Hartfield Inheritance’ comes out in e-books

The Fascination of Street Furniture

One of the things I most enjoy about finding myself in a strange town is looking at the street furniture; that is benches, railings and their finials, door knockers, weather vanes and the like. And some countries are better at producing interesting examples of the genre than others. This struck me most forcefully when I visited Volterra in Etruria.

Two birds on a twig with a hook at the end, on the wall of the Piazza del Priori next to a tunnel in the city walls

The metal hook itself did not look particularly old, it could be 20th century, and I think the hook at the end was there to hold something, a lantern, or perhaps a basket with hanging flowers. Whichever it was, it was visually pleasing and I began to look around for more examples.

Drinking water is always freely available in Italy

Water taps and drinking fountains are ubiquitous in Italy; drinking water (well, it’s a hot country) is everywhere and the Italians have very high water quality standards.  One of our company stopped for a drink, and I was struck by how pleasing the shape of the water tap was; it stood on an iron hexagonal base with a four sided column which gradually sloped in to the neat four sided roof. It had a shiny copper tap.

A gryphon lantern high up on a building

This splendid gryphon lantern is set high up and the walls behind it look formidable. I walked round and round it trying to find a good angle to photograph it from.

Volterra is perched on top of a high plateau and the views are splendid. It was founded by the Etruscans, taken over by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, but it managed to remain an important town. It became a Lombard town in the Middle Ages and was eventually taken over – violently – by Lorenzo de Medici in 1472. It has a lot of history.

There is plenty to see: temple ruins, a cathedral, a museum with numerous funerary urns from Etruscan tombs and a Roman theatre. It has much to offer anyone who is interested in history and architecture .

The Plaza de España, Seville

I’m now jumping forward to 1929, to be exact. I don’t know if early 20th century Moorish tiles expanded into a long balustrade – echoing the city which was taken over by the Arabs in the 8th century AD – count as ‘street furniture’. I decided it did – after all, if it had been made of wrought iron, say, it would count. I thought it made a magnificently impressive piece of street furniture. In fact, I fell in love with Seville.

What I found interesting was that the decorative Moorish tiles, used extensively in mosques in North Africa, came to Spain with the Arab Conquest, and, when, several centuries later, the Spanish pushed out the Moors, the Spanish Hapsburg Empire eventually included the Spanish Netherlands. It was the Spanish who brought the art of Moorish tile decoration to the Netherlands where it became known as Delftware.

I had been wondering what Delftware was doing in Seville – but I had it the wrong way round. The question should have been, how did Moorish decoration get to the Netherlands!

 

The Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris dates from 1612. It is, surely, one of the most impressive.

I loved the symmetry of the tall red brick houses with their blue roof tiles; and the fountains with their lions’ head spouts. It’s a lovely place to relax in, and, in one corner, there’s an ice cream café with the most delicious home-made ice cream.

I don’t know if the wash basin in the café ladies’ loo counts as street furniture – probably not – but it’s certainly unusual and I decided that, as it was for the  public, it counted (at least for this post!).

The water comes out of the satyr’s mouth and, to pull the plug to empty the wash basin, you must pull the stick in the bottom left-hand corner. It took me quite a while to work all this out!

Parisian street furniture: the elegant 17th century lamp and the post of a wrought iron gate and railings in the Place des Vosges.

The view is down one of the sides of the Place des Vosges. You can see two lanterns and the well-known phrase from the French Revolution; Les aristos à la lanterne signifying that all aristocrats should be strung up from the street lanterns, made me shiver.

Remove the lantern itself and the resulting iron scroll would be just right to throw a rope and noose over. In fact, if you look carefully you can see that there are three lamps with lanterns hanging from them. You could get rid of three hated aristos.

The iron post is interesting, too. Could that be a head wearing a pom-pom hat at the top of the post?

Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. The Changing of the Guard outside the Presidency.

The street furniture here is the sentry boxes – they are modern but with a nod to tradition with their arched tops. I rather like the right hand one which is wired up for something but in a somewhat amateurish manner.

Incredible though it may seem, Bulgaria has a king: King Simeon II – you can see the Royal coat of arms above the door in the photograph. He was born in 1937 and crowned King as a child after the death of his father, King Boris III. He went into exile with his family in 1946 after Bulgaria overthrew the monarchy.

In 1996, after the Communist Party lost power, he was invited back and warmly welcomed; he was even Prime Minister from 2001-2005, but the country remains a republic.  

Royal street furniture: a lock from the gates of Buckingham Palace, London

The railings and gates along the front of Buckingham Place are covered with quirky bits of decoration. The lock in the photo dates from the late 19th century. The base of the lock plate has a scallop shell; above we can see a putto or cherub, wrapped in a voluminous cloak which swirls around him as he looks down at the shell. He wears a helmet (with small wings?) but not much else. What is he doing? Why is he dressed in that way? The scallop shell is a signal of direction – for example, if you are going on Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the scallop shell indicates the route to follow. But that still doesn’t really explain what it’s doing on Buckingham Palace railings.

I’ve come to admire good street furniture and, nowadays, I always look out for it.

All photos by Elizabeth Hawksley

© Elizabeth Hawksley

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