Japanese Treasures from Royal Collections

Box and cover by Akatsuka Jitoku, circa 1900–07, presented to Queen Mary when Princess of Wales by Prince Fushii Sadanaru in 1911. Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022, Japanese Treasures from royal Collections

The Royal Collection in Britain contains one of the finest holdings of Japanese works of art in the Western world, significant for both the unique provenance and quality of the objects. Highlights of these Japanese treasures are now on show in a major new exhibition Japan: Courts and Culture, which opens on 8 April.

The exhibition explores the diplomatic, artistic and cultural exchanges between Britain and Japan over more than 350 years, from first encounters and early trade under James I (1566-1625) to the diplomatic engagement and modern partnership of Her Majesty The Queen’s reign, includes armour, weaponry, porcelain, lacquer, woodcut prints, delicate fans and embroidered screens.

The Earliest Direct Contact with Japan

The earliest direct contact between England and Japan was made when the first English ship reached Japanese shores in 1613. The captain, John Saris, brought letters and gifts from James I for the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) in Edo. Saris returned with a letter granting the English permission to live and trade in Japan, and with gifts for the king. These included a set of samurai armour by Iwai Yozaemon (active 1585-1610), presented by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (the third son of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the second shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty) in 1613, the earliest suit to arrive in Britain and the first surviving non-European work of art to enter the Royal Collection.

Armours by Iwai Yozaemon, one of the armourers of the Tokugawa clan, in other European royal collections indicate that this was a popular diplomatic gift from the Tokugawa family. The distinctive form of helmet was extremely popular during the Muromachi period (1392-1573) and the traditional style would have appealed to the Tokugawa family, who were known to be conservative in their tastes.

During the isolationist policy of Sakoku that commenced in the 1630s, the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to trade directly with Japan. Demand for Asian luxury Asian goods was growing in Europe with the increase in global trade and an interest in the East triggered a taste for the exotic, especially for rare porcelain and lacquerware from East Asia, as the techniques and manufacture of such goods were yet to be discovered in Europe.

Japanese Treasures in the Royal Collections

The British royal family led the way in collecting these Japanese treasures, including highly prized examples of Japanese lacquer, porcelain, and textiles, much of which was produced specifically for the export market. In the 17th century, Mary II (1662-1694) displayed vast quantities of Japanese porcelain in her apartments at Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, including a pair of Arita hexagonal jars and covers, circa 1670-90, which are in the exhibition. Kakiemon-style over-glazed vessels in this form have become known as ‘Hampton Court vases’ due to their close association of the palace where Mary II kept her collection. Identical pairs of vases were rare in Japan, and unusual for being ‘matched’ with designs that are symmetrical when placed side-by-side. The vases, decorated in blue, green, yellow and red enamels, would have been made for export and it is possible that they were specially commissioned through the Arita factories in Japan.

In the 18th century, Queen Caroline (1683-1737), consort of George II (1705-1737), formed a significant collection of Japanese lacquer. A century later, George IV (1762-1830) incorporated Japanese porcelain into the opulent decorative schemes at Carlton House in London and the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Many of the pieces acquired by the King were given new functions through the addition of elaborate European gilt-bronze mounts, turning a simple jar into a pot-pourri vase and animal figures into incense burners.

Japan Reopens to the West

Japan reopened to the West in the July 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ‘black’ ships into the harbour at Uraga, the entrance to Edo Bay. He was there to re-establish, for the first time in over 200 years, regular trade and discourse between Japan and the Western world and the Tanagawa Treaty was eventually signed in 1854. Soon after the renewal of open relations, goods began to flow freely between East and West, and diplomatic and political links were re-established. Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900), was the first member of a European royal family to visit Japan, when he travelled there in 1869. The Prince met the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) at the Imperial Palace and was presented with an impressive samurai armour, including a helmet dating from 1537. In a letter to his mother, Alfred wrote: ‘To give you any account of this country, I feel quite at a loss. Every thing is so new & so quaint that I am quite bewildered’.

The next members of the British royal family to visit Japan and add to the collection of Japanese treasures were Queen Victoria’s grandsons Prince George of Wales (1865-1936), the future King George V, and his brother, Prince Albert Victor.  In 1881, the teenage Princes were serving as midshipmen aboard HMS Bacchante and were granted shore leave to meet the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shooken. They returned with presents for their family, including a teapot and cups for their father, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and with diplomatic gifts from the Emperor. According to the official diary of the tour, the Princes had their arms tattooed during their visit to Japan – Albert Victor with ‘a couple of storks’ and George with a dragon and a tiger, a combination said to signify East and West.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance

In the early 20th century, a defensive Anglo-Japanese Alliance was formed to secure both nations’ interests in the Pacific. This was also a period of growing artistic exchange. The most significant cultural event was the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition (May-October), which included demonstrations of Japanese crafts, music, sports and entertainments. More than eight million people visited the exhibition, including Queen Mary (1867-1953), consort of King George V, who was an enthusiastic collector of East Asian art. The 1910 exhibition helped Japan to develop a more favourable public image in Great Britain following the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. Much of the material on display consisted of manufactured products; the hope was to increase Japanese trade with Britain. After the exhibition many of the exhibits were sent back to Japan and some were sent to other cities in Europe where other exhibitions were planned. The remaining objects were presented to museums and other institutions.

Continuation of Royal Visits and Diplomatic Gifts

The relationship between the Japanese and British imperial and royal families continued to flourish through reciprocal royal visits, attendance at coronations and the exchange of gifts. In 1902, Prince Komatsu Akihito (1846-1903) attended the coronation of King Edward VII (1841-1910) and presented the King with an embroidered folding screen of the four seasons. In 1911, Queen Mary received a coronation gift of a miniature cabinet bearing the imperial chrysanthemum crest, created by Akatsuka Jitoku (1871-1936), one of the most accomplished lacquerers of his generation, adding to the growing number of Japanese treasures in the royal collection.

Shirayama Shosai Lacquerware

While the Second World War dramatically impacted the bonds formed during the early 20th century, a new era of Japanese-British co-operation has been forged since The Queen’s accession in 1952. On the occasion of Her Majesty’s coronation, the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) sent The Queen the first post-war diplomatic gift between the two nations: a cosmetic box decorated with a heron by the great lacquer artist Shirayama Shosai (1853-1923). Appointed as Teishitsu gigein (Imperial Household Artist) in 1902, Shosai was one of the most celebrated artists of his time, along with contemporaries that included the celebrated Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) and Ikeda Taishin (1825-1903).

Shosai co-founded the Japan Lacquer Society (Nihon shikkokai) in 1890 and contributed to the foundation of the Lacquer Department of the Tokyo Art School (Tokyo bijutsugakko) with the aim to both preserve and modernise traditional Japanese aesthetics. Shosai started out his working life as an apprentice for sword accessories, but with the 1876 Sword Abolishment Edict (Haitorei), Shosai quickly shifted his career to lacquer at the age of seventeen and received a nine-year training in the maki-e lacquer technique under Kobayashi Kozan. At the age of twenty-seven, Shosai joined the Kiritsu Trading Company (Kiritsu kosho kaisha), which had been established shortly after the 1873 Vienna World Fair due to the rising demand for Japanese art in the Western art market that also resulted in the emergence of Japonisme.

Seventy years later, as the nation celebrates Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, visitors to The Queen’s Gallery will have the opportunity to see this exquisitely crafted coronation gift up close alongside other Japanese treasures and to discover more about the unique and lasting relationship between Britain and Japan.

Japanese Treasures from Royal Collections, from 8 April to 12 May, 2022, at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, rct.uk.