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Japanese Fine and Applied Art

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Japanese Fine and Applied Art

Samantha Harris
24th Jan 2017
By Samantha Harris

Samantha Harris, Collections Manager at Maidstone Museum, takes a closer look at the diverse selection of objects that make up our Japanese fine and applied art collection.

Working with such a large, diverse and fascinating collection as that held by Maidstone Museum is a really exciting role, with particular highlights being the caring of, documenting, researching, and enabling use of our Japanese fine and applied art collection.

The varied collection consists of over 4,000 objects – dating from the Japanese Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji periods (1867-1912) – and includes woodblock prints by internationally renowned artists, rare ‘domestic’ ceramics made for use by people in Japan (rather than ‘export ware’ of a very different style made for people outside of Japan), armour, swords and sword fittings. In addition, we also possess lacquer, books, and costume accessories such as inro (small box containers which would hang from the belt) and netsuke (beads, often intricately carved, which would attach the inro to the belt).

The collection is regarded as the best Japanese collection in public ownership outside of national museums, and represents the third largest Japanese collection in the UK. As such, Maidstone Museum regularly hosts researchers from the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, University of East Anglia, and institutions in Japan, to increase the understanding of the collection.

We take great pride in the fact that the artefacts within the collection are able to tell the story of how Japan lived in isolation during the Edo period. This was an era when the government ceased travel and limited trade with the outside world, and one which would only embrace foreign influence – and significant change – at the onset of the Meiji period.

From a personal perspective, I also feel that the collection holds some of the most beautiful pieces in the museum, with the outstanding craftsmanship and unique style a magnificent representation of the nation during these periods.

Of course, when it comes to the Japanese collection, one of the most common questions I am asked is, ‘Why is it in Maidstone?’ Well…

Victorian and Edwardian collectors

The link with Maidstone comes from the majority of the collection being donated by local collectors; in particular, three gentlemen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Henry Marsham (donated 1908), Walter Samuel (donated 1923-4), and Julius Lucius Brenchley (donated 1873). As such, not only are the Japanese collections fascinating and beautiful in their own right, they also reflect local collectors’ tastes and present a unique ‘time-capsule’ for Victorian and Edwardian collecting.

Marsham, son of the third Earl of Romney, whose ancestral seat was at Mote Park, lived in Japan and collected from 1905. He was a collector of great insight, with a sympathy for – and an aesthetic understanding of – the Japanese way of life. His interest in Japanese pottery was almost unique among Western collectors of the time, and he accumulated a large collection of unpretentious but attractive domestic non-export wares which are very rarely found in collections outside Japan.

Samuel, on the other hand, travelled in Japan extensively because his father’s oil company, Shell Oil, had business interests there, and his family lived at Mote House after the Marshams. His varied collection of Japanese art was donated in 1923 via the National Art Collections Fund and included items from famous Victorian collectors including Behrens, Trower and Hawkshaw, and was catalogued by the leading expert of the day, Mr Henri Joly.

Our final collector, nicknamed the ‘Gentleman Explorer’, is Julius Brenchley. Brenchley is best known for the large collection of ethnographic material he collected while travelling the world throughout his life, much of which he bequeathed on his death to Maidstone Museum, with other objects passed to the British Museum. In 1863 he travelled to Japan, adding further to his collection, purchasing works of art and artefacts – primarily lacquer, hanging scrolls and ceramics.

Exotic influence

I find these collections particularly special because they broaden the horizons of art and represent Eastern culture. Most museum visitors will be used to seeing Western art in museums in the UK, such as traditional European oil paintings, watercolours, sculptures, furniture, costumes, etc. The Japanese Gallery at Maidstone Museum, however, shows utterly different, non-Western art; it was the exoticism of this style which inspired artists from the 1870s, when the ‘Japonisme’ movement, looking at the art of Japan, inspired paintings, fashion and interior decoration in the West.

Next time you visit Maidstone Museum, ensure you take a closer look at the intricate and unusual nature of the objects you can see in the Japanese Gallery, and notice the inspiration on Western artists that continues to the modern day. You’ll be surprised at some of the minute details you’ll see; the hand-painted views of Japanese landscapes on the pottery, the iridescent mother of pearl inlay on the inro, or carved miniature artworks in the form of the netsuke.

Coming soon to Maidstone Museum will be an exhibition displaying an array of beautiful images created by the precision and creativity of Japanese woodblock printers. Find out more about ‘Japan: A Floating World in Print’ today.