Japanese Decorative Art

The acclaimed Japanese decorative art and prints collection at Maidstone Museum contains a host of Edo and Meiji-period works

Japanese Decorative Art & Prints

Maidstone Museum’s collections from the Japanese Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji periods (1867-1912) are exceptional in their size, quality, and importance. Among the very best of all public-ownership collections in the South East, and praised as internationally significant, our collections rival those of the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum.

Containing almost 4,000 artefacts, making it the third largest Japanese collection in the UK, our collection tells the story of how Japan lived in isolation during the Edo period and how quickly it changed when the country opened up to foreign influence in the Meiji period. The collection was primarily amassed by two local collectors and donors:

  • Walter Samuel (1882-1948): the eldest son of Marcus Samuel, Lord Bearsted of Mote House, Maidstone, and founder of Shell, Walter Samuel amassed his collection from 1905-1923. This collection includes 390 sword fittings such as tsuba (sword guards), 250 inro (portable medicine boxes), netsuke (toggles for inro), 150 lacquer containers and furniture, and bronzes. The jewel of Samuel’s collection is undoubtedly the 620 Ukiyoe woodblock prints by famous Edo period woodblock print masters. These include Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ and ‘Red Fuji’, and a complete set of Hiroshige’s ‘Hoeido Tokaido Way’ series. We also have over 80 related woodblock printed books. The Samuel Collection was presented through The National Art Fund in 1923.
  • Henry Marsham (1845-1908): the son of the third Earl of Romney, Marsham was a retired army officer turned businessman who lived in Weavering House, Maidstone. He settled in Japan in 1905, sending a wide-ranging collection of everyday domestic Japanese pottery and tea ceremony ware, together with some fine non-export porcelain, back to Maidstone Museum. Marsham’s collection of around 700 ceramics was bequeathed to the museum in 1908.

Art of the Edo period

The art of the Edo period is unique due to the self-imposed isolation of the nation under the Tokugawa dynasty’s military rule. The style is uninfluenced and remote from the fashions, scientific discoveries, and industrial developments of the West. Maidstone’s artefacts are primary sources in representing this isolation. The violent end of the Edo period in Japan saw an internal reaction against traditional arts, many never recovering their original form or quality; thus the collection encapsulates a lost triumphant period of Japanese Art.

Alongside the importance of the objects in their own right, the collection reflects the prevailing European collectors’ taste and presents a unique ‘time-capsule’ in the history of collecting Japanese art, making the collection a primary resource demonstrating Victorian collecting of Japanese material culture.

Japanese ceramics

The Japanese ceramic collection of over 1,000 objects contains many rare and high-quality examples. It is particularly strong in domestic ware made for the Japanese market, including Kyoto ceramics. It epitomises Japanese taste, far from the type of over-decorated export wares which were popular with Western collectors of that period and now represented in other museums. Makers and wares represented include Iwakurayama, Tozan, Ninsei, Arita, Imari, Satsuma, Kakiemon, Rokubei, and Seto.

Woodblock prints

Approximately 700 Ukiyo-e woodblock prints include very fine female beauties by Utamaro and Gekko, iconic landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, exceptionally rare actor prints by Kuniyoshi and Sharaku and early prints by Harunobu and Moronobu. Japanese works on paper include 84 printed books, five Edo period maps, and 31 scroll paintings/calligraphy (Kakemono).

Lacquer and metalwork

The lacquer collection contains 105 top-class inro (personal medicine/seal pouches), along with traditional lacquered writing boxes and well-decorated items of domestic furniture. A budai (lacquer writing table) and matching suzuribako (inkstone box), and pieces by the Kajikawa Family are of particular note. Other fascinating parts of the collection include the 152 netsukes (miniature carvings in wood and ivory), many representing subjects from Japanese mythology, daily life, animals, and other scenes from nature.

The collection of metalwork includes excellent Japanese swords and finely decorated sword fittings (tsuba, kozuka, kogai, and fuchi-kashira). In addition, there are a number of exceptional Meiji-period decorative bronzes and cloisonné enamels of outstandingly fine work.

Discover more

The artefacts are supported by a large library of works on Japan, early photographs, texts and correspondence. The collection also contains rare consignment boxes in which the Marsham items were packed and transported from Japan, which give invaluable contextual information.

The collection is a superb and irreplaceable resource for academic researchers, artists, designers and craftspeople, with high-quality workmanship representing the most significant artisans and craftsmen of the period. It has an important place in the history of British art as well as non-Western art: Western makers have continually derived inspiration from Japan since the 1870s, when the ‘Japonisme’ movement inspired paintings, fashion, and interior decoration. The study and use of the collection has – and will continue to have – profound impact on the study of Japanese Arts and Culture, with regular access by international and national specialists and students.

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