Japanese cloisonné in 19th century literary sources
From rather tentative beginnings in Nagoya the production of modern cloisonné enamels had expanded by the end of the nineteenth century to become one of Japan’s most profitable forms of export and cloisonné enamels were bought in vast numbers by western collectors. However, little was truly known about this new art form and there was much confusion regarding the dating of cloisonné. It was hoped by collectors that these objects were of some great age and many were disappointed to realise that they were in fact new. An essential part of a Victorian gentleman’s tour of Japan was to the studios of cloisonné artists and many wrote about their experiences.
In 1878, Sir Rutherford Alcock, one of Britain’s first diplomats in Japan and organiser of the Japanese display at the 1862 London International Exhibition 1862 exhibition commented on cloisonné enamels:
‘Their patterns are generally intricate and minute, small sprays, flowers, diapers, and geometrical figures all being laid under contribution, while leaves of various colours – drab, white, light green are interspersed. These being minutely subdivided, it is impossible not to be struck with admiration at the marvellous delicacy of execution and fertility of invention, if not of imagination, displayed. Such works would simply be unproducible in any country where skilled workmanship of a high order, and artistic in kind, was not abundant and obtainable at exceedingly low rates of remuneration. Many of the enamel works must represent the labour of years, even for two or three hands.'
(Sir Rutherford Alcock: Art and Art Industries in Japan, 1878)
James Lord Bowes had acquired a large collection of Japanese art, including many cloisonné enamels, and was among the earliest of collectors in the West to write in detail on the subject. He had extremely adamant views about the history and development of Japanese cloisonné, almost all of which were totally wrong. He classified Japanese enamels into groups which, under his scheme, placed many objects in the eighteenth, or even seventeenth centuries. His views were criticised by many of his contemporaries for being totally out of keeping with what was already known at the time.
In 1901 Captain Frank Brinkley, an astute observer of the arts of Japan, wrote as follows:
‘Mr Bowes maintained his views with remarkable firmness… No Japanese collection, public or private, contained any specimen of the wares which he supposed to have been produced and preserved in temples and noblemen’s residences during nearly three centuries. No Japanese connoisseur had any knowledge of such objects having been manufactured previously to 1837… Some of the specimens which Mr Bowes attributed to the seventeenth century were unhesitatingly identified by artisans of the present time as their own work, and the signatures which certain of the specimens bore were claimed by the men who had actually signed them… he clung to that theory with a tenacity which, considering the testimony on the other side, is probably unique…. One thing, however, is certain; namely that until the nineteenth century enamels were employed by the Japanese decorators for accessory purposes only. No such things were manufactured as vases, plaques, censors or bowls having their surface covered with enamels applied either in the champlevé or the cloisonné style… prior to the year 1838.’
(Captain F Brinkley: Japan, its History Arts and Literature: Volume VII ‘Pictorial and Applied Art; Volume VIII ‘Keramic Art’, 1901)
It was to Yasuyuki’s studio that many western travellers to Japan ventured: one such account is by Rudyard Kipling:
‘It is one thing to read of cloisonné making, but quite another to watch it being made. I began to understand the cost of the ware when I saw a man working out a pattern of sprigs and butterflies on a plate about ten inches in diameter. With the finest silver ribbon wire, set on edge, less than a sixteenth of an inch high, he followed the lines of the drawing at his side, pinching the wires into tendrils and the serrated outlines of leaves with infinite patience… With a tiny pair of chopsticks they filled from bowls at their sides each compartment of the pattern with its proper hue of paste… I saw a man who had only been a month over the polishing of one little vase five inches high. When I am in America he will be polishing still, and the ruby-coloured dragon that romped on a field of lazuli, each tiny scale and whisker a separate compartment of enamel, will be growing more lovely.’
(Rudyard Kipling: From Sea to Sea and other sketches, 1904)
In Herbert Ponting’s ‘In Lotus Land Japan’ (published in 1910) there is an entire chapter devoted to Namikawa Yasuyuki who he describes as a ‘man of quiet speech and courteous manner, whose refined classical features betrayed in every line the gentle, sympathetic nature of the artist’. He describes the view from Namikawa’s house:
‘Outside was a narrow verandah fronted with sliding windows of glass, and beyond was the essence of all that is aesthetic and refined in a Japanese garden. There was a little lake with rustic bridges, and miniature islands clad with dwarf pine trees of that rugged, crawling kind that one sees only in Japan…’
In the workshop Ponting observed:
‘Each member of staff has absorbed the master’s ideas from his earliest acquaintance with the art; and although Namikawa now does little work himself except designing and firing he closely supervises each piece during its entire execution… His artists do not work by set hours, but only when the mental inspiration is upon them… as I passed that little unobtrusive shingle at the gate, with its simple inscription ‘Y. Namikawa, Cloisonné’ how truly typical it was of the unaffected modesty of real genius.’
(Herbert Ponting: In Lotus Land Japan, 1910)
By all accounts Yasuyuki was much more easy-going than other producers and was more than happy to entertain the steady stream of western visitors who called on him.
The environment of his studio, which survives today as the Namikawa Museum – its garden largely unchanged since Ponting’s time – was, and still is, both relaxing and serene.