Museums with Japanese Art

Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Cord pressed and glazed tea jar by Tatsuzō Shimaoka, 1968.

Some say that art has the power to connect people. For us at the Sainsbury Institute, we are very fortunate to have the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) and their Japanese collection as a conduit to connect with our visitors near and afar who are interested in Japan. Most of the Japanese collection at SCVA is part of a major gift to the University of East Anglia by Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury in the early 1970s. Since the opening of SCVA to the public in 1978, a modest number of Japanese objects have joined the SCVA collection including Japanese pots on a long-term loan to the Sainsbury Centre from Sir Hugh Cortazzi.

Together, the Sainsbury and Cortazzi collections help broker international relationship for the Institute as many travel to Norwich to study and survey the works of art. Academics include Professor Masatomo Kawai, who specializes in medieval and pre-modern Japanese paintings, Dr Tokugo Uchida, who is an expert on urushi lacquer, and Dr Sarai Mai, an expert on Buddhist art. The scholars have been deeply impressed with the collection and had plenty to report. Their studies have helped firmly situate both the SCVA and the Sainsbury Institute on the Japanese visual culture map. This would not have been possible without the excellent objects that both the Sainsburys and Cortazzis have collected. But perhaps one of the most important connections that the objects help build is our sense of staying connected with our benefactors. Through the objects they have cherished and decided to share with others, we are able to connect with the collectors, their legacy and their extraordinary generosity.

Personal collection of pots in London

In this issue, I’d like to specifically turn our attention to the art objects placed on long-term loans to SCVA by Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi, key patrons of the Institute, as a tribute to Sir Hugh who sadly passed away this August. In his memory we hope to reflect on his kindness through the gifts he has left us in both spirit and in form. In particular, we would like to focus on Shimaoka Tatsuzō (1919-2007), a potter in Mashiko with whom Sir Hugh and his wife developed a lasting friendship.

Sir Hugh Cortazzi (1924-2018) was a guiding force in Anglo-Japanese relationship for well over six decades. He was arguably the most distinguished Japanese specialist of his generation in the Foreign Office. After studying at St Andrews University, he joined the RAF in 1943 who three years later in 1946 sent him to Iwakuni and Yonago in western Japan.
Former British Ambassador to Japan, he has been one of the most dedicated and passionate supporters of the Sainsbury Institute since its inception in 1999.

Taking a great interest in the Japanese language and text, he returned to university to study Japanese at the School of Oriental and African studies in the University of London before joining the British Foreign Service. He has been posted to Japan four times during his tenure including his final post as British Ambassador to Japan in 1980. During these postings and subsequent visits to the country, he formed friendships with many. This included the potter Shimaoka Tatsuzō, who embraced both tradition and experimentation.

Sir Hugh first met Shimaoka in the 1960s on the recommendation of a friend who was very knowledgeable about ceramics. With experienced interest in Chinese ceramics, especially celadon and blue and white porcelain wares, Sir Hugh was very happy to know more about Japanese ceramics. He went to an exhibition held at Matsuya showing works by the up-and-coming potter who was later to become a colloquially titled “Living National Treasure”. The couple was so impressed with Shimaoka’s work that they immediately visited his residence. Charmed by Shimaoka’s humble, warm and welcoming nature, they soon became friends. Their friendship manifested in Sir Hugh collecting about 40-50 pots by Shimaoka, of which some of the best are on long-term loan to SCVA.

Square vase by Tatsuzō Shimaoka, 1960-80.

The remaining objects are kept and cherished by Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi at their two residences. In spring and autumn of 2017, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (Founding, and currently, Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute) and I travelled to Sir Hugh’s residences to catalogue the Cortazzi’s personal Japanese art collection. Our task was to list the items in their possession and explore future homes for the objects.

We went through each room and hall way, photographing, measuring and jotting down descriptions of each object. As we looked, Sir Hugh would recount how he acquired each object. I was tasked with photographing the pieces and scribbling down all that I could. In the beginning, I was more nervous about handling the objects with the care and respect they demanded. It didn’t take long, however, to find myself drawn into the world of memories vested in these treasures. While I was physically present with the objects, my mind was busy travelling with Sir Hugh as he cherished the human stories that each object represented. Still, I knew that the stories were not mine, but Sir Hugh’s, and that only he could tap into the extraordinary value each item held.

He spoke knowingly of the limits of his mortality and expressed his desire that their collection be shared by others interest in Japanese art and culture. Nicole was composed throughout. She was gentle and sensitive while charming and appreciative. I, on the other hand, was a weeping wreck just about keeping it together. Having had the privilege of working with Sir Hugh over the years, I have visited the Cortazzis on a few occasions with intent to return and I wasn’t prepared that this visit would be no different. Surely, I’ll be back again in the future. While I desperately hoped to stay calm, I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge that our task was to assist Sir Hugh as he prepared for his departure.

Small Japanese treasures cherished by the Cortazzis

Despite being in his 90s, Sir Hugh remained remarkably sprightly. His eyes were bright and had a certain twinkle when the conversation turned to Anglo-Japan related matters. My last memory of Sir Hugh was walking in his large country garden last September with Nicole. The air had turned decisively autumnal and the tips of our noses were turning pink like the dipping sun. He insisted that we take some apples that were weighing his trees down. He was always good at giving. We each took a couple of apples. While his edible offerings are long gone, he has also over the years shared many of his art objects with us, of which some are already at SCVA. These objects help us retrace not only the history of art, but also of shared experiences. We will greatly miss Sir Hugh. We send our sincere gratitude to his family for the many years of support, kindness and generosity he has given to each of us at the Institute.

Kazz Morohashi
Research, Public Relations and Publication Officer

With Sir Hugh at their country home in September 2017