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Vase, Martin Brothers, 1899. Museum no. C.464-1919

Vase, Martin Brothers, 1899. Museum no. C.464-1919

The arts of Japan had a profound influence on British culture in the second half of the 19th century. For a long time only the Dutch had been allowed to trade with Japan, but in the 1850s the country opened her ports to other foreign powers, including Britain. Large numbers of Japanese objects were subsequently imported into Britain. Japanese art was very different from anything being produced in this country. It provided a major source of inspiration for many artists and designers in the period from 1850 to 1900.


Natural motifs

British artists and designers were particularly influenced by stylised motifs based on natural forms found in Japanese art. Flowers, birds and even insects were very popular.

Circular designs

Japanese-influenced circular designs are based on decorative crests, called 'mon'. These appear on many Japanese objects, sometimes in combination with geometric patterns. Japanese books illustrating mon provided another source.

Geometric forms

Japanese design was admired for its simplicity and elegance. It inspired British designers to make objects with geometric forms. The straight lines and undecorated surfaces of these works contrasted with much Victorian design.


Victorian furniture was sometimes stained to make the wood black like ebony. This was done to imitate Japanese lacquer.


Christopher Dresser (1834 - 1904)

The designer and writer Christopher Dresser was a great advocate of Japanese-style design. He began to collect Japanese objects after seeing them displayed at the London International Exhibition of 1862. Dresser set up several import companies and promoted Japanese art through exhibitions, lectures and publications. In 1876 he travelled to Japan as a representative of the V&A, visiting numerous artists and manufacturers in order to buy things for the Museum's collection. In his work Dresser sought to express the 'breadth of treatment, simplicity of execution and boldness of design' that he admired in Japanese art

Edward William Godwin (1833 - 1886)

The architect, designer and critic E.W. Godwin was a great admirer of Japanese art and design. His appreciation of Japanese art was reflected in his architecture and in his designs for textiles, wallpapers and for the theatre. He was particularly famous for his 'Anglo-Japanese' furniture. Godwin did not seek to imitate Japanese art. Instead, he sought to combine the general principles of simplicity and elegance that he admired in the art of Japan with the needs of the home.

Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843 - 1917)

Arthur Lasenby Liberty was the founder of the famous Liberty's shop in London's Regent Street. The store opened in 1875 and specialised in selling goods imported from the East. It did much to foster the Victorian craze for all things Japanese. From the 1880s Liberty began to commission works from designers such as Christopher Dresser and E.W. Godwin. A great enthusiast of the art of Japan, Liberty visited the country in 1889.

Buildings and Interiors

25 Cadogan Gardens

25 Cadogan Gardens, London, was the home of the artist Mortimer Menpes. Designed by Arthur Mackmurdo, the house was completed in 1895. Menpes was not content with merely filling his new home with Japanese objects. He had interior fittings made for him in Japan by a craftman he met on a visit to the country in 1896.

The White House

E.W. Godwin designed the White House, in Chelsea, for his friend James MacNeill Whistler in 1877-1878. No photographs survive, but the architectural drawings suggest a Japan-inspired interior. The latticework of the staircase derived from Japanese architecture and the fireplace was decorated with circular crests. Shelved areas were designed to display Whistler's collection of Chinese and Japanese blue and white porcelain.

The Hill House

Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed The Hill House in Helensburgh, near Glasgow, for the publisher Walter Blackie. The house was completed in 1904. The uncluttered open plan, the geometric form of the furniture and fittings, and the use of dark wood against light-coloured plain walls all reveal Mackintosh's interest in Japanese interior design

Related Styles

Influence of China 1840 - 1900

In the 19th century designs sometimes incorporated elements from both Japan and China. However, the view of Chinese culture was tarnished by the experience of the Opium wars which resulted from China's resistance to British attempts to open up its territories. The 'opening' of Japan had been achieved without much conflict and its culture was generally looked upon in a more positive light.

Read more about the Influence of China

The Scottish School 1885 - 1915

Designers of the Scottish School sought to create unified decorative interiors. They found much inspiration in the interiors shown in Japanese prints. These images suggested that the Japanese lived in an artistic environment where each element of architecture and design harmonised. The geometric forms that characterise much of the work of the Scottish School show the particular influence of Japanese art.

Read more about the Scottish School

Aestheticism 1870 - 1900

Japanese art had a great influence on Aestheticism. Aesthetic interiors were often decorated with Japanese prints, screens, fans and other objects. An appreciation of the art of Japan is seen in the work of many Aesthetic artists and designers such as James McNeil Whistler and E.W. Godwin. Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who sold Japanese art at his famous London store, was a great promoter of Aestheticism.

Read more about Aestheticism

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