The Royal Collection contains many impressive examples of Japanese craftsmanship – from porcelain and lacquer works to samurai armour and intricate embroidered screens – given as diplomatic gifts, commissioned by members of the British royal family, or obtained through trade or on international visits. Japan: Courts and Culture brings together many of the spectacular pieces of Japanese art and design in the collection for the first time in order to explore the relationship between the ruling families.
Official diplomatic contact between the two countries first began in the 17th century, when Captain John Saris was commissioned by the East India Company to sail to Japan and negotiate for trading rights there. He arrived in 1613, returning home a year later with letters granting the English trade privileges in Japan, along with several lavish gifts for King James I from Japan’s military leader, Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada. Among these gifts were two sets of samurai armour, one of which takes pride of place in the first room of Japan: Courts and Culture. This gift marked the first formal interaction between Britain and Japan and, as such, is a suitably striking and impressive object. Created by one of the personal armourers to the Tokugawa family, Iwai Yozaemon, it is composed of hundreds of tiny pieces of iron, which are covered with lacquer and laced together with silk (much of which still survives today), resulting in an armour that is highly protective but also allows the wearer great mobility. Exquisitely decorated with traditional motifs like gold lacquer dragons and clouds, this armour would have made quite an impression on those accustomed to the European armour of this period, with its larger, polished steel plates.
A period of isolation
Just a few years after this auspicious start, however, the budding relationship between the two countries was brought to an abrupt halt when, in the 1630s, Japan closed its borders to the West for over 200 years as part of an isolationist foreign policy known as sakoku. During this period, the Dutch were the only Europeans still permitted to trade directly with Japan. However, this did not stop the spread of Japanese goods throughout Europe; if anything, they became even more popular and sought after. Particularly fashionable were products such as porcelain and lacquer, as the secrets of their production were not known in Europe at the time.
Members of the British court, including Mary II (1662-1694) and George IV (1762-1830), were particularly avid consumers of Japanese goods – commissioning and obtaining objects through Dutch and Chinese traders – and this fashion was echoed throughout society. What is more, despite the sakoku system, which was intended to reduce foreign influence in Japan, it is clear that many of these objects were made with a European export market in mind. Two such objects, on display in the exhibition, are the pair of hexagonal porcelain jars acquired by Mary II. These jars were produced in Arita, in Japan’s Hizen province, and are decorated with women and birds in the Japanese Kakiemon-style, but their symmetrical designs, intended to be displayed side-by-side, reveal that they were created to suit the tastes of European consumers, as ornamental pairs like this are rarely found in traditional Japanese design.
There are also examples of Japanese objects that were adapted by European craftspeople to suit the needs of local consumers once they reached the West, such as the porcelain jar acquired by George IV that has been transformed into a potpourri by the addition of gilt-bronze mounts. Although these additions have changed the function of the piece, their thoughtful design complements both the object’s original decoration and the gilded interiors of the European palaces in which it would have been placed. The curator of Japan: Courts and Culture, Rachel Peat, stresses that the repurposing of objects in this way does not reflect a lack of respect for the original Japanese pieces, but rather a demonstration of their importance – people thought that they were worthy of encasing in gold and transforming so that they could be displayed in royal residences across Europe.
A new era of friendship
The relationship between Japan and Britain changed dramatically again in the 19th century, when Japan reopened to the West in the 1850s. Among the very first diplomatic gifts exchanged by the two nations after several centuries of closure was a pair of folding screens sent by Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi to Queen Victoria in 1860, which have recently been rediscovered in the Royal Collection. Over the years, the screens’ identities were forgotten, but translation of the signatures on each confirmed that they were made by Itaya Hiroharu, one of the artists believed to have worked on the gifts for Victoria. Extensive conservation work has also revealed new information about the story of these artworks. On the back of the screens, conservationists found evidence that historical tears had been repaired using fragments of paper. This paper turned out to be part of a Victorian train timetable listing stations like Slough, Reading, and Windsor, telling us that the screens were almost certainly placed on display at Windsor Castle upon their arrival in Britain, where they would have brought the Japanese landscape – with Mount Fuji, autumnal pine and maple trees, and spring cherry blossoms – into the heart of the British court.
The first member of a European royal family to visit ‘modern Japan’s’ Imperial Court in person was Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, who travelled there in 1869, aged 25, as a naval captain on HMS Galatea. In his letters to his mother, he confesses to being ‘quite bewildered’ by the unfamiliarity of the country, although he goes on to describe the ‘beautiful landscape’ and his interactions with the Japanese government, who he says showed him ‘the greatest civility and attention’. During the course of his visit, the prince met with Emperor Meiji at the Imperial Palace, where they had tea in the gardens and exchanged diplomatic gifts. Prince Alfred gave the 16-year-old emperor a diamond-encrusted snuff box, and received in return a set of samurai armour, with an antique 62-piece riveted helmet dating from 1537. In addition to these royal gifts, Prince Alfred bought many souvenirs of his own during his visit, cementing his reputation as ‘a distinguished collector and patron of Japanese art’ upon his return to Britain.
Over the years that followed, many royal and diplomatic visits occurred between the British and the Japanese royal and imperial families. On display in the exhibition is the diary of the future King George V, detailing the teenage prince’s visit to Japan in 1881 with his brother, Prince Albert Victor. During their trip, they learnt to use chopsticks, rode through the streets on rickshaws, and even got tattoos – a ‘couple of storks’ for Prince Albert Victor, and a dragon and a tiger for Prince George. They also returned with diplomatic gifts from the emperor, as well as souvenirs like this tea or coffee pot and pair of cups (BELOW) – clearly designed for a tourist market, as they combine European tea-ware shapes with Japanese techniques and motifs – which they bought for their father, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).
The exhibition also features many of the other impressive imperial gifts that entered the Royal Collection during this period, from swords, daggers, and suits of armour to intricate metalwork and lacquer objects, reflecting the frequent exchange of diplomatic gifts between the British and Japanese courts as the relationship between the two nations grew closer.
Relations in the 20th century
By the early 20th century, relations between Japan and Britain were at an all-time high, and the two nations viewed themselves as two ‘Island Empires’ of East and West. The Royal Collection is full of spectacular imperial gifts from this period, sent to mark important events like jubilees, weddings, and coronations. Among the objects on display in Japan: Courts and Culture are an embroidered folding screen sent to King Edward VII as a coronation gift in 1902, and a miniature lacquer and mother-of-pearl cabinet given to Queen Mary on the occasion of her coronation in 1911.
The closeness of the courts is also reflected in the exchange of artistic styles that took place at this time, with artists and craftspeople travelling between the two countries and taking inspiration from the different techniques and styles they observed. However, Japanese artists also displayed a renewed appreciation for their rich cultural past, with traditional materials and techniques like lacquer and calligraphy, and classic motifs such as chrysanthemums, cranes, dragons, and peacocks, appearing in many of the works of art given as imperial gifts.
The last object in the exhibition is a gift sent by Emperor Shōwa to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 to celebrate her coronation. At the time, the relationship between Britain and Japan had only recently been restored after the Second World War and this gift was the first post-war exchange between the courts, making it particularly important. Consequently, the imperial family chose a piece of the highest calibre: a lacquer cosmetic box decorated with a heron, made by Shirayama Shōsai, one of the most prestigious lacquerers of the early 20th century. Curator Rachel Peat describes this as one of her favourite objects in the exhibition, not just because of its exquisite design, but because it encapsulates the story embodied by so many of the objects in Japan: Courts and Culture; an exchange between the two countries, looking to the future, whilst simultaneously drawing on rich historical traditions.
Japan: Courts and Culture tells a uniquely royal story, demonstrating through an array of spectacular objects how members of the British royal family have encountered and enjoyed Japan and its craftsmanship over several centuries, and how this interaction has shaped the cultures of both nations.
DETAILS Japan: Courts and Culture Address: The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, SW1A 1AA Open: until 26 February 2023 Website: www.rct.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/japan-courts-and-culture/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace
ALL IMAGES: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022.