The Genius of Japan
Western exposure to the arts of Japan in the 19th century ignited a profound respect among European artists and designers, transforming forever the art of goldsmiths and jewellers
Katherine Purcell, Friday, 1st April 2011
Japan existed in a state of near total isolation between the 17th and mid-19th centuries, with trade strictly controlled due to the fear of foreign influence. During this period the Tokugawa dynasty governed from Edo (present-day Tokyo), under the supreme control of the head of the family, the shogun.1 From the 1630s only a few Dutch and Chinese merchants were allowed access to the island of Deshima in Nagasaki. A trickle of Japanese artefacts found its way to Europe from here, consisting mainly of porcelain made for export, lacquer and silk. Consequently, opportunities to see a full range of Japanese works of art were rare until 1859, when negotiations conducted by the American Commodore Perry (1794–1858) succeeded and a number of ports were opened to trade.
In 1853 the Dutch government lent some Japanese pieces to the International Exhibition in Dublin, including woven silver, bronze, illustrated books and lacquer. It was also a Dutch merchant who, in 1854, organised the first selling exhibition of Japanese art at the Gallery of the Old Watercolour Society on Pall Mall in London. A wider range of objects was available there, including tea tables, cabinets, boxes inlaid with pearl and enamel, bronze vases, porcelain and bamboo work. The South Kensington Museum, later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum, purchased a number of the works on display.
The first real opportunity to appreciate the full range of the decorative arts of Japan came with the London International Exhibition of 1862 and, more specifically, with the collection selected by Sir J. Rutherford Alcock (1809–1897), first consul-general to Japan. A former consul in Shanghai, Alcock had taken up his post in 1858 at a particularly challenging and dangerous time when foreigners still faced considerable hostility. However, Alcock’s diplomatic status enabled him to see much of the country and he was the first foreigner to ascend Mount Fuji. Alcock was also an enthusiast of Japanese art, becoming one of the first Western collectors of ukiyo-e prints.2 In 1878 he published a book titled The Art and Industries of Japan, in which he contended that the Japanese love of nature could contribute significantly to the applied arts in Britain. Such a return to nature had been championed by many designers and art critics 35 years earlier, John Ruskin (1819–1900) being its staunchest advocate.3
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