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Collectors of Japanese Art

Discover more about a key contributor to Maidstone Museum's Japanese collection
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Maidstone Museum’s Collectors of Japanese Art

Vanessa Tothill
22nd Nov 2016
By Vanessa Tothill

The Japanese Collection at Maidstone Museum is comprised of objects gifted by numerous generous donors. Four of the main contributors who shaped the collection at Maidstone were Julius Lucius Brenchley (1816-1873), Charles John Todd (1855-1939), Henry Marsham (1845-1908), and Walter Samuel (1882-1948).

With Japan closed to direct trade with the West for much of the Edo Period (1603-1868), it is interesting to note when the first Western collectors of Japanese Art arrived on Japanese shores, with Julius Brenchley the first of the Maidstone collectors in 1863. These early visitors bought directly from art dealers or curio sellers rather than agents based in Europe or America.

While a considerable amount is known about Brenchley, Marsham and Samuel, a great deal less is known about Reverend Charles John Todd, whose passion for Japanese Art resulted in Maidstone Museum’s acquisition of exquisite examples of ceramics, lacquer, and bronzes. A vast number of the items from Todd’s private collection were donated to Maidstone Museum, examples of which are currently on display in the Bentlif Art Gallery.

Opening foreign trade

The American Navy forced the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854, the details of which were set out in the Convention of Kanagawa. Foreign diplomatic pressure, combined with the threat of American, French, and British military duress, resulted in Japan’s acquiescence to the establishment of treaty ports along its coastlines.

This change in foreign policy was a considerable factor in the collapse of the Shogunate, and exacerbated political and social unrest. Western interference contributed to the Boshin War (1868-9) and restoration of imperial authority in 1868. During the early 1860s, anti-foreign sentiment – summed up by the slogan ‘Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians’ – led to attacks on foreigners. Unsurprisingly, Japan at this time was perceived as a xenophobic and hostile country.

Reverend Charles John Todd, M.A.

Of Maidstone Museum’s Japanese Art collectors, Reverend Charles John Todd was the second to visit Japan. Employed as a chaplain in the Royal Navy, Reverend Todd was stationed in Japan from 1890-92 (Meiji 23-Meiji 25). By this time, political stability had returned to Japan and Todd enjoyed touring the interior and visiting cities.

Todd, on board HMS Mercury, was mostly stationed at Hakodate (a port on the northern island of Hokkaido) and Yokohama in Tokyo Bay (west of Tokyo, on Japan’s main island of Honshu). Detailed below are extracts from Todd’s letters (held by London Metropolitan Archives) to his family during this period, letters which reveal growing affection and respect for the country and its people, as well as detailing the beginning of his antiquarian pursuits as a collector of Japanese Art1.

My favourite pieces in the collection are the refined porcelain Nabeshima wares, from the Ôkawachi official kilns in Hizen (Imari City, Kyushu), which were donated to the museum in 1939. Todd’s woodblock prints and hanging scrolls were donated in 1940, and the remainder of his Japanese Collection was received in 1956. Maidstone Museum was not, however, the only museum to benefit from Todd’s passion for collecting; 68 items were bequeathed to the British Museum after his death.

Archived letters from Todd

An archived letter penned on August 29, 1890 describes how Todd’s toe was crushed by heavy ship furniture during a rough typhoon in the East China Sea while on course from Yokohama to Hakodate. Unable to walk, Todd nevertheless enjoyed three days in Yokohama exploring by rickshaw. Todd’s first impressions of Japan were extremely positive and revealed his enthusiasm for collecting:

“… this glimpse has made me quite in love with Japan, the people are so picturesque and polite, everything is most beautifully clean and altogether it is quite charming. The street where the curios are is wonderful – porcelain, bronzes, carving, embroidery all most lovely.”

A week later, Todd writes that, in spite of his injury, he has managed to venture ashore to hobble around the curio shops at Hakodate. He observes that Hakodate is a large town and that many people are dressed in ‘European garb.’ Todd was so impressed by the craftsmanship of the curios he found, he commented upon the availability of quality pieces and their price:

“There are occasionally some good bits of old lacquer to be picked up here as the place is out of the tourist trail but they are expensive all the same.”

While in Hong Kong, in a letter penned on March 31, 1891, Todd describes how his quarters on the HMS Mercury were becoming cluttered with his growing collection of Japanese artefacts. A camphor box is constructed in which to temporarily store them, and this box is labelled for safekeeping. Todd is horrified when he learns that his box has been mixed up with an associate’s possessions and mistakenly brought ashore at Yokohama. Todd is certain that the rough handling of the porters has destroyed the box’s precious contents:

“… heavy bronzes, valuable china and delicate lacquer all dashed together in the rough handling of a steamer passage. I almost wept when I thought of my old lacquer, Kaga, Imari, Nabeshima and old Satsuma all smashed to atoms. It is not only the money value, though I had pinched myself in many ways to buy them, but the associations and pleasures of a year’s collecting and the thought of the pleasure they would give to Papa and friends for whom I had meant them. One or two of the pieces were quite unique and can never be replaced.

“I really feel quite heart broken about it. Really good things are getting harder to find year by year and it [is] sad to think of some of the lovely things I had all smashed to pieces through such a gross carelessness…

“I saw Garfit yesterday, and got my curios. Some of the china was smashed and of course the most valuable piece.”

Todd goes on to describe in this letter his voyage from Nagasaki to Yokohama and the pleasure of a fortnight’s shore leave spent travelling from Yokohama to Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Uji, Otsu, and Lake Biwa, before returning via Nagoya and Shizuoka. From the following passage, we are able to learn how much effort Todd had invested in learning about Japanese art:

“I was enchanted with Nara and Kioto with the splendid old temples filled with wonderful paintings, carvings and other art treasures and the fact of my having been for the last year studying the art, history and legends of the people added immensely to my enjoyment; as when the priests saw I took so much interest in what I saw and knew something about they were most civil.”

Todd refers to his efforts to learn the Japanese language, which he uses during his nine days spent in Kyoto while sightseeing and shopping for antiques:

“I live all the time at Japanese hotels and can even speak the language fairly easily for all practical purposes of travelling or shopping.”

In a letter from Yokohama dated July 8, 1891, Todd mentions his first experience of watching a sumo tournament and his surprise when the wrestlers’ loincloths were wrenched off. During this four-day visit to Tokyo, Todd enjoyed the capital’s treasures, parks, and temples, and even went to the Kabuki Theatre. Todd writes:

“I also saw Danjûrô [Ichikawa Danjûrô IX, 1838-1903], the Irving2 of Japan… a marvellous actor.”

Reverend Todd truly made the most of his time in Japan, even if it did leave him with empty pockets:

“At present I am stone broke. The lovely things in Japan are too tempting altogether.”

On April 29, 1892, Todd relates how he visited the ‘great potter’ Miyagawa (Makuzu) Kôzan (1842-1916) in Yokohama. Todd writes of this encounter:

“I told him my father was a connoisseur and he gave me a piece of his work to present to him with his compliments. It is a small vase and very beautiful.”

Todd also describes his introduction to the Meiji Emperor and Empress at an Imperial Garden Party held to celebrate the flowering of the cherry blossoms. Todd was surprised and a little disappointed that they were attired in European dress instead of wearing their ‘national costume.’

Todd is a fascinating character and, in many ways, was a man of his time. Todd’s participation in the Victorian Wars and his love of big game hunting – his need to experience the thrill of danger and be in the thick of the fray – reveal a reluctance to settle for the quiet life of an English country chaplain.

In an extract from a letter sent from Yokohama dated November 19, 1891, Todd comments upon the mindset of his generation. When Todd mentions that he will spend his Christmas in ‘this Earthly Paradise Japan’, he goes on to write:

“The charm of this country grows on one the more one sees of it and its delightful people with their courtesy, kindness and love of nature and art, and yet we – some of us – dare to call them uncivilised because forsooth they wear different clothing and eat different food from what we do.”

Maidstone Museum is grateful to the Reverend Todd, who embraced Japanese culture and art with such passion, and the generous Todd family for their numerous donations.

1A selection of letters are held by London Metropolitan Archives, CLC/508/MS17945.
2Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905).
Main image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.