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Mon, Dec 19, 2022

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Artistic exchanges between British and Japanese courts retraced at Queen’s Gallery

Placing the spotlight on a somewhat unusual theme, “Japan: Courts and Culture,” an exhibition that opened earlier this year (2022) in London, retraces the artistic and diplomatic exchanges between the British and the Japanese courts over a period of 350 years. For this occasion, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace adopted a new, sober and very elegant scenography made of black or red walls and cases whose gently glossy surfaces are reminiscent of lacquer. Fascinatingly, most of the objects on view have been presented or commissioned by the Japanese imperial family.

Iwai Yozaemon, Armour, c. 1610
Sent to James I by Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada in 1613

The exhibition starts fittingly with the very first gift from a Japanese ruler to reach the English court, an impressive armour sent by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada to James I of England in 1613. Yet, a few years later, Japan’s military government would close the country to foreigners, thus cutting diplomatic relations with Britain for almost 250 years. During that period, monarchs would nevertheless continue to acquire Japanese artworks through traders, attesting to the vogue for exotic goods such as Japanese porcelain and lacquer cabinets.

Arita, Hizen Province, Hexagonal jars and covers, 167090
Acquired by Mary II

Ending its seclusion, and the long interruption in the exchange of gifts between the two countries, Japan sent an assortment of presents to Queen Victoria in 1860. Among them was a remarkable set of Yari, or spears. Measuring almost four meters in length, these luxurious objects (made between 1750 and 1850 for the blades and 1800 to 1850 for the mounts) are entirely covered in innumerable small pieces of mother-of pearl set in lacquer. They would have been carried by the entourage of a feudal lord during processions to pay homage to the shogun.

Soon there were also personal contacts between the two courts, as members of the royal and imperial families began to travel between the two countries. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, Queen’s Victoria’s second son, became the first foreign royal visitors to Japan in 1869. Over the course of four weeks, he acquired numerous works of art, many of which were exhibited to the public in the following years, to great acclaim.

The exhibition presents captivating examples of metalwork, lacquerwork and paintings.

Alongside highly polished decorative objects such as pairs of metal vases displaying intricate inlay techniques and complex decoration stands a cast iron vase (1900-1910) by the firm of Nizaemon whose rustic simplicity is a rare illustration in the exhibition of the wabi-sabi aesthetics. It was probably acquired by the Prince of Wales during his visit to Japan in 1922.

During her state visit to Japan in 1975, Queen Elizabeth II was presented with an eye-catching vase by Hamada Shoji, a leading potter of the twentieth century and pioneer of the Mingei movement.

Hamada Shōji, Square vessel, 1960–75
Presented to Her Majesty The Queen during her State Visit to Japan, 1975

Official gifts were also presented of course on the momentous occasion of a coronation, such as the portable cabinet presented to Queen Mary by the Emperor Meiji in 1911. The work of Akatsuka Jitoku, a member of the Imperial Art Academy who created several imperial presentation pieces, it displays a sumptuous gold ground against which flowers are blooming and a peacock is taking its flight. A chrysanthemum crest identifies the cabinet as an imperial gift.

Akatsuka Jitoku, Miniature cabinet of drawers, c. 1905–07
Presented to Queen Mary by the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken as a Coronation gift, June 1911

Lacquer was also the medium selected for a gift presented by Emperor Showa to Elizabeth II for her coronation in 1953. A gorgeous cosmetic box by Shirayama Shosai, who became an Imperial Household Artist in 1906, it is among the most remarkable objects in the exhibition. Against the lustrous black of the box’s cover, a heron stands with its feathers delicately rendered in a gradation of whites and silver.

Shirayama Shōsai, Box and cover, c. 18901905
Sent to Elizabeth II by the Emperor Shōwa on the occasion of her Coronation in 1953

While all the precious objects in the exhibition are displayed behind glass, an exception is made for two spectacular embroidered folding screens, thus allowing visitors to fully appreciate and admire their quality, exceptional state of conservation and the painterly effects of the silk. On the one illustrated below, the magnificent mountain scenery, executed in muted colours, seems to glimmer gently under the sun and the river to be flowing under our eyes.

Kyoto, Japan, Embroidered folding screen, 1880–97
Sent to Queen Victoria by the Emperor Meiji for her Diamond Jubilee, 1897

Normally scattered among various royal residences, the wide array of objects in the exhibition demonstrate that the beauty of nature is the central theme of Japanese courtly art.



Art Historian


Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)



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