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‘Turtle Woman’, Kamejo

Vanessa Tothill
17th Aug 2018
By Vanessa Tothill

There are many charismatic pieces within the Henry Marsham Collection at Maidstone Museum, particularly among the animal-shaped incense burners and incense containers. Many of these objects reveal the playful imagination of the artist, who has combined naturalistic forms with functionality. Sometimes the animal form is a reference to the zodiac year of the Chinese and Japanese lunar calendar (Year of the Rat, Year of the Dragon, etc.), and at other times the animal symbolizes longevity and good luck (shrimp, crane, turtle).

Kamejo, meaning ‘turtle woman’ was the name of Mrs Tsumura Kamejo (?-1772?) who produced brass sculptures using the lost-wax casting technique in the mid-to-late Edo period (1600-1868). Kamejo inherited her father’s foundry after his death and continued the family business in Hizen, Nagasaki, Japan. Kamejo took commissions for her inventive incense burners that were modelled after mandarin ducks and quails.

At Maidstone Museum we have one example of Kamejo’s work: a brass incense burner in the shape of a quail (uzura).

The quail twists its head back towards its body and has opened its beak revealing a small tongue. The lid is disguised as the feathery wings of the bird, which can be lifted off to reveal the hollow bowl of the incense burner. Hidden in the bird’s mouth, at the neck and among the feathers are small perforations for incense fumes. The incense burner rests on two naturalistic bird feet. The quail was designed as one of a complementary pair. The legs of the partner bird have been modified so that it squats low to the ground, but it similarly twists its head back over its body.

Kamejo’s work is unusual because it provides us with an example of bronze ware that was made for the Japanese domestic market, rather than as an export ware produced for western consumption.

Kamejo’s quail also demonstrates the high quality of metal ware produced during the Edo period (1600-1868) and the taste for naturalist detail in the applied arts.

Under the ruling Tokugawa family, the feudal system that organised society into four status groups (samurai- farmer-artisan-merchant) meant that craft-based industries were hereditary occupations that passed through a family line. While it is known that women were involved in textile manufacture and processing, it is refreshing to find evidence of female involvement in the bronze casting industry.