Amongst the many wonders of the Marsham collection of Japanese ceramics at Maidstone Museum is a tea set by the ceramicist and poet Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875). Rengetsu lived in a period of social change during the late Edo period (1603-1868) and early Meiji period (1868-1912), achieving unprecedented success. A story still circulates that every household in Kyoto once owned one of her ceramic wares.
Rengetsu was raised a woman of Samurai class; beautiful, well educated, trained in martial arts, tea ceremony, calligraphy and more. But at thirty-three, Rengetsu shaved her head, renounced her elite lifestyle, and took formal vowels as a Buddhist nun, taking on the name Rengetsu, meaning Lotus Moon. Rengetsu faithfully upheld her vows until her death in her late eighties. It is generally agreed that Rengetsu took her vow after the untimely and unbearable deaths of her children and her closest family members.
There are three main features to look out for in Rengetsu’s work: first, the Japanese script. Of the six-piece tea set in our collection, every piece has a set of characters; these are poems. The poems feature on the inside the tea bowls and on the outside shoulder of the tea pot. Second, Rengetsu did not paint her calligraphic script directly onto finished and glazed surfaces; instead she inscribed the text directly into the wet clay. Third, you will see how rudimentary Rengetsu’s work is. This becomes more evident when you walk around the tea bowls; they are not perfectly spherical or level, and the sides may be thicker or thinner in places.
The closer you look, the more you find. The tea bowls have been moulded with foliage, flowers and a decorative border. The tea pot has a utilitarian design; the spout is long and gracefully curved, and the handle is like two wooden spoons moulded into one. They extend out just short of a right angle. The lid has a three-part top.
To really grasp how important and valuable these items are to our collection, consider also the dimensions. For the tea bowls, the rim diameter is 71mm and the base diameter 33mm. The height is just 33mm, which is indicative of just how tiny they are. Rengetsu’s precision and ability is exceptional. It is a hard task to inscribe two rows of calligraphic script into the wet surface of a tea bowl standing only 33mm tall. The scale of the teapot is similarly small; including its lid, it is 75mm in height and, at its widest point, it has a dimeter of 100mm.
Rengetsu made work to sell, and it was to become her main means of income when she chose to follow the path of Buddha. Rengetsu was entirely self-taught and early on she made a very wise move. Knowing that her pottery was poorly crafted, Rengetsu marketed her wares on the basis that each piece was different; no two pieces would ever be the same. Simple to look at they may be, but everything about them feels personal and made by conscientious decision. Her ceramic techniques, her calligraphy, her poetry – whether you look at them separately or as one – in each there is nothing to suggest that Rengetsu borrowed style or influence; her work was her own.
Consider also the context of Rengetsu’s work. Terminologies applied to her wares may include crude, naïve, utilised, less is more. These words have, and continue to, pop up again and again in design and fine art trends. But here is a woman, a nun, who reached her creative peak in her sixties and seventies, working in the late 1800s, with few resources, creating a style so much her own that for all the politics, competition and male-dominated crafts, Rengetsu was an overwhelming success.
Rengetsu’s poems carry with them a gracefulness that is tender and nurturing. Today we might call them mindful poems. They give you the feeling that she was writing in the now. The tradition of Waka still lives on in Japan, and it’s the genre of poetry that Rengetsu loved the best. The waka poet articulates what they feel, omitting any inclination as to why they might feel it. It is written phonetically, making it an accumulation of sounds, each with multiple meanings. And so, wrapped up in our tea set is the message that Rengetsu, in her life, and in her work, becomes more complex with each layer of consideration.
The museum has been able to obtain transcriptions of the six poems inscribed into the tea set. Three such translations are detailed below:
Poem #55 – tea bowl
at the Inn
I take this unkindness as grace
beneath the heavy moon
and evening blossoms.
This poem is an example of how Rengetsu loved and thrived in the natural landscape that surrounded her, and through which she journeyed on pilgrimages of worship and of loyalty. Rengetsu finds safety, calmness and companionship under the night sky and blossom trees. In the true style of waka poetry, Rengetsu doesn’t tell us why she has been turned away from the inn, but she tells us what she does and how she feels.
Poem #448 – teapot
In an intensely
tree a little cuckoo
cannot hold back
her twilight song.
Poem #448 demonstrates graceful simplicity. It is a sensory poem with a song, a scent and a heart-warming joy, generated by a moment in time, listening in to nature.
Poem #269 – tea bowl
Here in the shallows
warriors vied to cross
their names carried
to fame and oblivion
on the waters of Uji River.
Poem #269 makes a reference to Kyoto’s ancient rule and The Battle of Uji. This was a famous, brutal battle between two Samurai factions that triggered the Genpei War. In Japan, the Samurai Warrior was of the highest order; they were elite, highly trained and formidable. Rengetsu’s poem does not directly reference the battle itself, but she lingers, meditatively, on the river. As such, Rengetsu brings us back to nature. The Uji River graced the Warriors with both their fame and their ultimate oblivion.
There is a quietude to this poem, of reflection, acceptance and of calm. Is it possible that Rengetsu is ruminating on death itself? She was very clear in her life that she wanted to die quietly. She wrote multiple poems about her own death and had a close friend prepare her a funeral shroud whilst she was still alive. In her poetry, ceramics, in following the path of Buddha, Rengetsu served a lifelong devotion. This is a weighty poem for such a tiny, fragile tea bowl, but perhaps therein is Rengetsu’s message that in all that is fragile, there can be found a resilient strength and purpose.