In 1881, two young British princes serving as midshipmen in the Royal Navy traveled to Japan, where they met the Emperor. This meeting was not the most significant between the royal families of Britain and Japan, nor the most extravagant – the princes bought a teapot and metal cups as gifts for their father in a nascent tourist market – but it was emblematic of the long and complex interaction between the two countries. While in Japan, the princes, aged just 16 and 17, got arm tattoos: a couple of storks for Prince Albert and a dragon and a tiger for the future George V, Prince George.
“Tattoos were part of naval culture and were a British aristocratic fashion in the late 19th century,” says Rachel Peat, curator of a new exhibition, Japan: Courts and Culture, which opened at Queen’s this week. Gallery. “But in Japan, the tattoo had very different connotations. It was both a revered and illegal art form many times in Japanese history, so there’s a mystique and almost a danger to getting one, which may well have been part of the appeal for the tourists.
A sense of something distant, desirable and difficult to access has been a key part of Western fascination with Japanese art, culture and artifacts. Witness this first exhibition devoted to works of art from Japan from the royal collection, for which the Queen’s galleries have been specially redesigned. Although not an exhaustive study of Japanese art – no calligraphy or kimonos and only one netsuke miniature sculpture – it reveals a captivating story of diplomacy, taste and power through art and craft.
The first royal contact took place in 1613, with an exchange of gifts including a set of samurai armor, shortly before Japan closed itself off from Western influence for more than 200 years. Not that that ends the appeal of all things Japanese. On the contrary, the closure of Japan made its products all the more fashionable and sought after, and, via Chinese and Dutch merchants, the royal family continued to build up its collection of porcelain and lacquer products, whose manufacturing secrets were still unknown in the West. . Japan’s reopening in the 19th century brought renewed royal visits and a new appreciation and understanding of Japanese art in the West, and the early 20th century saw warm relations between the countries. The rift of World War II was healed in the 1950s with a coronation gift from Emperor Hirohito to Britain’s new Queen and was widely seen as an attempt to use art to symbolize a new era of cooperation .
“These items are normally scattered across 15 different historic and royal residences,” says Peat. “So to get them together and see them together is something. Many items are gifts commissioned directly from the Imperial Family and, in some cases, even designed by them. The result is work of the highest quality, but also work that reveals a fascinating story – with ups and downs – of an ever-changing relationship not just between courts, but between cultures.
From east to west: four works from the exhibition
Screen painting, 1860
This painting of Mount Fuji in spring – one of a pair sent to Queen Victoria in 1860 – was considered lost, but was rediscovered during preparations for the exhibition. It is made of silk with hinges of paper and gold leaf, and is extremely fragile. The screens are considered paintings, not furniture, and would be displayed flat to best show off the artists work. It was one of the first diplomatic gifts to be given after Japan reopened to the world after more than 200 years of isolation.
Pair of hare-shaped lozenge burners, 1680-1720 (main picture)
These decorative porcelain figurines represent the Year of the Rabbit and are inspired by broader Eastern mythology about rabbits or hares associated with the moon and notions of immortality. They also function as incense burners, the smoke coming out through holes in the rock stumps on which the hares sit.
Armor of the Myōchin school, 1537–1850
This samurai armor is made from leather, buckskin, horse hair, bear fur, gilt copper, gold filigree and thousands of tiny pieces of iron laced with blue silk and vibrant red to form a flexible blanket that wraps around the body. It is likely that parts of several armors were used to make this costume, which was presented to Queen Victoria’s son, Alfred, in 1869. He was the first overseas king of any nationality to visit the Modern Japan.
Cosmetic box and lid, circa 1890–1905
This wooden box decorated with black lacquer, gold and silver was the first diplomatic gift after the Second World War, given to the queen by Hirohito, Emperor Shōwa, on the occasion of her coronation in 1953. It was made by Shirayama Shōsai who was one of the leading artists of the golden age of lacquer at the beginning of the 20th century. He represented here a heron whose feathers are enhanced with silver lacquer enhanced with gold fillets.