120-plate Japanese helmet, 1700-1800
This extremely fine quality Japanese helmet is of the type known as suji-bachi (ridged bowl) and is made from 120 russet iron plates riveted vertically. The inscription inside the helmet reads 'Joshu (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture) Suifu ju Yoshihide Saku'. The armourer is not recorded, but was likely to be of the Myochin school, one of three main schools of armourers who worked in Joshu province.
The circular top fitting (tehen no ana) is of shakudo, an alloy of copper and gold which is patinated to a rich blue-black hue. The leading edges of the flexible neck-protector (shikoro) are of fine pierced shakudo with a design of chrysanthemums and backed by gilded copper plates. The sixteenth century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi described this shakudo as having 'the colour of rain on a crow's wing'. The edges of the peak and the leading edges of the side curved fittings (fukigaeshi) are also of shakudo with finely engraved floral decoration. The fukigaeshi also has round decoration in shakudo of stylised hollyhock leaves, the family crest of Tokugawa family, the samurai clan who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868.
This was a period of relative peace in Japan after the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which paved the way for the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns. From 1615, when Tokugawa defeated his last enemies at the Battle of Osaka Castle, the samurai class had little further occasion to test their skills in battle but were nevertheless required to maintain their military arts. Armour was increasingly relegated to a ceremonial role, not least on the annual samurai processions from their regional domains to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and the Tokugawa court. Decoration and appearance took precedence over practicality and armourers had the opportunity to develop their skills and their patrons could reveal personal taste in the fine fittings of their processional armour.
The provenance of this helmet is interesting. It was given to Basil William Robinson (1912 - 2005) around 1953 by H.R. Robinson (no relation), Keeper at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London. B W Robinson (known generally as 'Robbie') joined the V&A's staff in 1939 and was Keeper of the Department of Metalwork from 1966 until his retirement in 1972, and then Keeper Emeritus until 1976. He helped establish the V&A's Far Eastern Department - the first culturally based curatorial collection in the V&A.
It was Robbie's wish that his long friendship with his counterpart at the Royal Armouries would be marked by the donation of this helmet to the V&A, and this was achieved under the Government's Acceptance in Lieue (AIL) Scheme.
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum
In memory of H.R. Robinson