Museums with Japanese Art
Maidstone Museum Collection of Japanese Fine and Applied Art
Housed in a beautiful Elizabethan mansion, Maidstone Museum in Kent houses one of the most impressive public collections of Edo and Meiji period Japanese art in England. From ukiyo-e prints to ceramics, metalwork and lacquerwares, Maidstone Museum’s Collection Manager, Samantha Harris, takes us on a special journey of the history and the history of collecting at Maidstone.
Introduction and Significance
The Maidstone’s collection of Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji period (1867-1912) Japanese Art, is viewed by specialists as the best, most comprehensive Japanese Collection in public ownership, outside of national museums, in the UK (Gregory Irvine, V&A Senior Curator, Japan, Asian Department, letter 2009). It is the third largest Japanese Collection in the UK (Pearse B & McCooey C, 1991, ‘Companion to Japanese Britain and Ireland’ pp.73-6), numbering over 3,000 pieces and tells the story of how Japan lived in isolation during the Edo Period and how quickly it changed when the country opened up to foreign influence in the Meiji period.
The Edo and Meiji period focused collection here is a superb and irreplaceable resource for academic researchers, artists, designers and craftspeople with high quality workmanship representing the most significant artisans and craftsmen of the period. It has an important place in the history of British art as well as non-Western art: Western makers have continually derived inspiration from Japan since the 1870s, when the ‘Japonisme’ movement inspired paintings, fashion and interior decoration. The study and use of the collection has, and will continue to have profound impact on the study of Japanese Arts and Culture, with regular access by international and national specialists and students, as the Research section will attest.
The majority of the collection was donated by two eminent local collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Henry Marsham (Donated 1908) and Walter Samuel (Donated 1923-4), giving the collection local as well as national and international significance. Alongside the importance of the objects in their own right, the collection reflects the prevailing European collectors’ taste and present an unique ‘time-capsule’ in the history of collecting Japanese Art, making the collection a primary resource demonstrating Victorian Collecting of Japanese material culture.
Marsham, son of the third Earl of Romney, lived in Japan, and collected in Japan from 1905. He was a collector of great insight, with a sympathy and aesthetic understanding of the Japanese way of life. His interest in Japanese pottery was almost unique amongst collectors of the time, and he amassed a large collection of unpretentious but attractive domestic non-export wares which are very rarely found in collections outside of Japan, in the West.
Samuel, conversely, travelled in Japan extensively because his father’s oil company, Shell Oil, had business interests there. His varied collection of Japanese Art was donated in 1923 via the National Art Collections Fund and included items from famous Victorian collectors including Behrens, Trower and Hawkshaw and was catalogued by the leading expert Mr Henri Joly.
A third collector represented in the Japanese collection to a lesser extent is another local collector, nicknamed the ‘gentleman explorer’, Julius Lucius Brenchley. He is best known for the large collection of ethnographic material he collected while travelling the world throughout his life, which he donated in 1873, in part to Maidstone Museum (with the Brenchley Trust), but also to the British Museum (this includes particularly strong, early items from Polynesia and Melanesia). But in 1863 he also travelled to Japan, adding further to his collection, purchasing works of art and artefacts. His Japanese collection at Maidstone Museum includes primarily lacquer, hanging scrolls and ceramics.
The collection consists of over 3,000 objects. It is an active, mature and coherent assemblage with good acquisition history and qualitative contextualising material.
The ceramic collection of over 1,000 objects contains many rare and high quality examples. It is particularly strong in domestic ware made for the Japanese market, including Kyoto ceramics. It epitomises Japanese taste, far from the type of over-decorated export wares which were popular with Western collectors of that period now represented in other museums. Makers and wares represented include Iwakurayama, Tozan, Ninsei, Arita, Imari, Satsuma, Kakiemon, Rokubei and Seto.
The c.700 Ukiyo-e woodblock prints include very fine female beauties by Utamaro and Gekko, iconic landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, exceptionally rare actor prints by Kuniyoshi and Sharaku and early prints by Harunobu and Moronobu. Japanese works on paper include 84 printed books, 5 Edo period maps and 31 scroll paintings/calligraphy (Kakemono).
The lacquer collection contains 105 top-class inro (personal medicine/seal pouches), along with traditional lacquered writing boxes and well-decorated items of domestic furniture. A budai (lacquer writing table) and matching suzuribako (inkstone box) and pieces by the Kajikawa Family are of particular note. Other fascinating parts of the collection include the 152 netsukes (miniature carvings in wood and ivory) many representing subjects from Japanese mythology, daily life, animals and other scenes from nature.
The collections of metalwork include excellent Japanese swords and finely decorated sword fittings (tsuba, kozuka, kogai, fuchi-kashira) with fine craftsmanship. In addition there are a number of exceptional Meiji period decorative bronzes and cloisonné enamels of outstandingly fine work.
The artefacts are supported by a large library of works on Japan, early photographs, texts and correspondence. The collection also contains rare consignment boxes in which the Marsham items were packed and transported from Japan, which give invaluable contextual information.
The entire Japanese Collection is held coherently on site at Maidstone Museum. A significant proportion is on display in the purpose built permanent gallery (2012), part of an award winning £4million HLF funded project, co-curated with Gregory Irvine (V&A Senior Curator, Japan).
Importantly, as a public collection and cultural venue, entry to all permanent galleries is free of charge, enabling it to be “accessed by a variety of audiences in a variety of ways with different levels of engagement” (Great Art and Culture for Everyone, ACE, 2013).
In addition to permanent galleries, the Museum’s temporary exhibition spaces can widen the offer of Japanese displays, including ‘Treasures of Hirado’ 2013, during the Japan 400 celebrations. Staff have also developed a Japanese woodblock prints touring exhibition, which can be hired out to other institutions.
The Museum’s popular schools programme has developed session to provide access to materials for young audiences, who may not have any prior experience of non-western art. The collection also forms the nucleus to regular and Japanese events, previously including shishi-odori dancers, Taiko drumming, specialist talks and family activities.
Maidstone Museums represent a significant knowledge resource for researchers with a collection of over 600,000 nationally and internationally significant artefacts in diverse and eclectic areas of study. Much work has been undertaken, particularly over the past 25 years, to increase research in, recognition of, and access to, the Japanese Collections.
Facilitating and carrying out research is one of a Museum’s core functions. The purpose of research is to ensure that the information Museums share and interpret is accurate, up to date and based on the highest standards of scholarship. It also developed and maintains beneficial partnerships with other institutions. The Japanese Collection is one of a number of specialist collections held by Maidstone Museums which have a very good reputation with research networks.
The importance of the collection is becoming recognised with international researchers often directed to our collection by specialists at the British Museum, V&A and Sainsbury Institute. The Museum is actively developing research partnerships in collaboration with museums and institutions both in the UK and abroad.
National and international contacts or key research partnerships which have led to visits and collaborations over the past 5 years include:
• British Museum (Timothy Clark – Japanese Prints; Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere – Japanese Collections)
• V&A (Gregory Irvine, Senior Curator, Japan, Asian Department – Japanese Collections)
• Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture (Japanese Collection)
• Otemae University and Tokyo National Museum (Professor Oka Yoshiko – Kyoto-ware; Sato Yuka– Japanese Ceramics)
• The Museum Yamato Bunkakan & Abeno Harkas Art Museum (Japan) (Director, Dr Asano Shugo – Japanese Woodblock Prints)
• Chiba City Museum of Art (Japan) (Director, Professor Kawai Masatomo– Japanese Ceramics)
• Kyushu Ceramic Museum (Professor Ohashi Koji)
• MOA Museum ( Director, Dr Uchida Tokugo)
Indicative of the Museum’s commitment to research and making the collection more intellectually and physically accessible is the University of East Anglia and Sainsbury Institute (SISJAC) funded specialist cataloguer and documentation project currently underway. This will enable the Museum to build on existing Best Practice standards in collections management, maintain its ACE Accreditation status, and capture future research more effectively. It will also increase access to the collections nationally and internationally as a research resource. These records will be made accessible online through the redevelopment of the Museum website (with a collection search facility), for worldwide online access long term. This research, along with other staff research which is underway, will add further detail to object captions in the Japanese Gallery for better interpretation for the public.
Recent visiting scholars include Dr Ryoko Matsuba. Ryoko, who is part of the Hokusai project at the British Museum photographed and documented works on paper, including the collection of thus far unphotographed Japanese woodblock printed books. In February 2016, we had a return visit from Professor Oka of Otemae University, who is set to return again in February 2017 to continue research of the Kyoto and Kansai ceramics. Most recently in November 2016 we were visited by Dr Uchida Tokugo, Director of the MOA Museum in Atami to view our Lacquer Collection, and provide information which will add detail to our records and knowledge of that area of the collection.
We aspire to increasingly engage with other groups and institutions to encourage greater research, working with our existing links and supporters at SISJAC, and other specialist groups.
Maidstone Museum Collection of Japanese Fine and Applied Art