Japanese Garden Catalogues: Exporting Beauty

Front cover of the 1925 Descriptive Catalogue of the Yokohama Nursery Co, Ltd. All images © RHS, Lindley Library

JAPANESE FLOWERS – and their place in the home and garden – have long fascinated horticulturalists from Europe and America. In his 1892 essay In a Japanese Garden, writer and translator Lafcadio Hearn observed that ‘something about the Japanese manner of arranging flowers… can [make one] thereafter consider European ideas of floral decoration only as vulgarities’. ‘[A] Japanese garden is not a flower garden,’ he continues, ‘neither is it made for the purpose of cultivating plants. In nine cases out of ten there is nothing in it resembling a flower bed. Some gardens may contain scarcely a sprig of green; some have nothing green at all, and consist entirely of rocks and pebbles and sand, although these are exceptional’. Here we explore the art of Japanese garden catalogues.

Japanese Rock Gardens –  Karesansui

Hearn perceptively comments that ‘in order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand – or at least to learn to understand – the beauty of stones.’ Japanese rock gardens or karesansui – established in Japan in the Heian period – use raked gravel and stones to create places of meditative beauty.

The rock garden at Ryoan-ji (Peaceful Dragon Temple) in Kyoto is a celebrated example of this Zen aesthetic, featuring several large rocks placed in a sea of raked pebbles (and it was derisively described by Jack Kerouac in his Beat classic The Dharma Bums as ‘nothing but old boulders placed in such a way, supposedly mystically aesthetic, as to cause thousands of tourists and monks every year to journey there to stare at the boulders in the sand and thereby gain peace of mind’).

And yet – Japanese gardens have other elements to recommend them; the rubbled picture painted by these snippets from Hearn’s essay is not entirely accurate. Despite his insistence that the Japanese garden is ‘not a flower garden’, and that its appeal lies in the ‘beauty of stones’, it is incontrovertibly true that Japanese gardeners in the nineteenth century took a lively interest in local plants and flowers, an interest inherited by horticulturalists from the West.

Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings

Edward Morse, writing on the homes and habits of Japanese people in his 1886 book, Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, notes that ‘in no other part of the world is the love of flowers so universally shown as in Japan.’ He goes on to consider the representation of these flowers in art: ‘For pictorial illustration flowers form one of the most common themes; and for decorative art in all its branches flowers, in natural or conventional shapes, are selected as the leading motive’.

Morse probably did not have in mind the practical illustrations accompanying nursery catalogues when he wrote this; rather, I suspect he was thinking of the rich and varied role played by plants and flowers in nineteenth century ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world). But Japanese horticultural catalogues published during this period show an extraordinary commitment to detail and clear relish in the beauty of the plants they portray.

Japanese Garden Nursery Catalogues

The RHS Lindley Library in London is currently exhibiting nursery catalogues from Japan from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The display includes several stunningly intricate illustrations from these catalogues, and the close attention to detail in these images reflects that of the gardens themselves – for in the cultivation of a Japanese garden, every bulb and rock is placed according to a wider design.

Plants and Flowers for the Western Market

The prints and catalogues on display at the Lindley Library chart the growing popularity of Japanese plants and flowers in the Western market during this period, an enthusiasm which escalated until the Second World War when the exportation of bulbs diminished for several years. The impact of these exports is clear. As the accompanying text to the Lindley Library’s display suggests, the legacy of this ‘golden age of Japanese plant imports’ is the ‘wide range’ of traditional Japanese plants in today’s gardens.

Visitors to the exhibition can expect to see brightly-coloured and delicate depictions of lilies, peonies, irises, wisteria and bamboo, illustrations and prints created with great care and at some cost – a testament to the exporters’ anticipation of the interest such catalogues would receive in Europe and the USA. The catalogues of the Yokohama Nursery Company are of particular note; founded in 1893, this company was a major exporter of plants to the West, establishing offices in London, Shanghai and New York, and exhibiting gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in the 1920s.

Exporting Beauty – Japanese Garden Catalogues and Nurseries

The exhibition, entitled Exporting Beauty – the Art of Japanese Nurseries, scrutinises the impact of Japanese horticultural trends on Europe and America, placing such trends among the wider landscape of cultural exchange at the time and the immense popularity of the ‘Japonism’ movement. Through the publication of Josiah Conder’s Landscape Gardening in Japan in 1893, the aesthetic appeal of the Japanese garden became widely known in Europe, and sparked many imitations over the course of the next few decades.

The Lindley Library

The Lindley Library’s display features a book by Jiro Harada entitled The Gardens of Japan, which includes an advert for Japanese gardens by William Cutbush & Co. of Barnet: this style of garden, the advert assures, is a ‘constant pleasure to the eye,’ ‘equally suitable for town as for country’, and its cost ‘is by no means prohibitive’. The appeal of the Japanese garden was not limited to the UK; Claude Monet famously introduced Japanese elements to his garden in Giverny, and his Japanese bridge and pond full of water lilies would become the subject of his celebrated painting Water Lily Pond of 1899.

The RHS Lindley Library – the largest horticultural library in the world – reopened on 7 March this year after a period of refurbishment. The library, which holds a diverse collection of botanical art and early gardening books, is founded on the collection of botanist John Lindley. Its current display of Japanese nursery catalogues is designed to complement the Royal Academy’s Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, an exhibition which examines the role of the garden as subject and inspiration for Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Avant-Garde artists from the 1860s to the 1920s.


Until 15 April at the, RHS Lindley Library, 80 Vincent Square, London, www.rhs.org.uk

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