The 18th Century was coming out of a feudal period that had lasted since at least the 1600's. It had been under military government since 1185, so the military had been in power for nearly 700 years. By the early 1800's, the shogunate, the military government, was actually starting to go into decline. It was regarded as being rather ineffective by those who were intent on actually creating their own power base within Japan. From about the 1630's Japan had an isolation policy, no foreigners had been allowed in at all except through the port on Nagasaki and only the Dutch were allowed in at that point. The previous countries Spain and Portugal were Catholic and Protestantising and of course this created problems in Japan, so effectively from 1637 Japan was closed off to the rest of the world. However in the early 1800's, the west started to make incursions into Japanese waters - the Russians from the north, the British and then the Americans with Commodore Perry sailed into Uraga Bay just outside Tokyo and this was really the catalyst for Japan to effectively reopen, the term we use today reopening to the west. There was a time of civil war in Japan, and within a very short time, lots of unequal treaties were raised to the benefit of the west, but the Japanese were also extremely eager to adopt what the west could offer that time, and what the west could offer at that time of course was trade, but trade in weaponry, and what the Japanese were extremely interested in were guns and canon, and they'd known about guns since the late sixteenth century, but the gun was never regarded as an honourable weapon and the Japanese always just use muskets, matchlocks in fact. But the technology came in to build canon, and of course canon were extremely useful in the civil wars that were going on at that period. So the west came in, we bought the artillery; this all contributed towards the downfall of the military government and in 1867, the emperor was fully restored to power and moved his court from Kyoto to Edo, which is modern day Tokyo.
By 1867, sorry by 1876 the Samurai as a class were officially abolished, and the Samurai of course were the great patrons of the arts, as were the merchants of the time, but the Samurai were the top patrons of the arts. So with the abolition of the Samurai's, Meiji had the loss of patronage for all the traditional arts, and chief among the traditional art forms that the Samurai patronised were the metalworkers, because the metalworkers were the ones who made their swords, they were the ones who made the fittings for the swords. Different scores of metalworkers were also the ones who made the large bronzes for Buddhist temples, also for Shinto shrines. But what happens with the establishment of the Meiji government in the 1870's is that Buddhism goes into decline, Shintoism is adopted as a state religion, so there's no longer a production of massive bronzes for temple use. So you have all these skills effectively going to waste, however what was also happening in the late 19th Century, in fact from the about 1850, 1860 onwards, was a great series of worldwide expeditions, and the Japanese when they heard about these were very eager to show the west that they weren't just a feudal nation, they were really an industrial nation, or at least they aspired to become an industrial nation. So they set out to show the west what they could produce, and they started to exhibit some fabulous pieces in various world exhibitions. There were pieces shown at the 1862 exhibition in London, but these were pieces acquired by a British diplomat, Sir Rutherford Alcock and the western Japanese in the country at that time, and they were extremely amused to see what the west thought the Japanese would be able to produce. So soon after that, they started to produce these massive objects to show how far they could take their technology, to show what Japan was really about in the middle to late nineteenth century.
And the piece that we have here in the V&A is a rather splendid incense burner by perhaps one of the most well known bronze casters, metal workers of the late nineteenth century, an artist known as Suzuki Chokichi. He was born in 1848 to a family of metalworkers, and his skill was such that by the time he was 24, he was one of the directors of a state sponsored industrial company Kirtsu Kosho Kaisha who were empowered to commission and create, and they had a whole stable of artists, they had artists who were producing metal lacquer, ceramics, all for the sole purpose of being exhibited in the west to show the west what the Japanese could produce.
The piece that we have was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, and our director at that time Cunliffe-Owen who had a deep interest in Japan, because Japan, people hadn't really seen many Japanese works by this time, so Japan was very much a novelty, but it moved from being a novelty, to being an inspiration for western artists, in fact that's one of the 'raison d'etre' for setting up the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Museum was here to provide objects which would inspire and influence the design work in this country.
So Cunliffe-Owen went across to the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and he must have seen this object, and we know this because he had correspondence with a Parisian dealer called Bing, Siegfried Bing. He was actually German but based in Paris and he was one of the major dealers in Japanese art at that time. Perhaps helped in no small way by, I think it was his brother-in-law who was a German consult in Japan at that time, so he had the inroads into Japan to find these good objects. Anyway, Cunliffe-Owen was deeply interested in this incense burner which was huge, absolutely massive, it's nearly 2 meters tall and I don't know the weight but it's extremely heavy, very very heavy. Cunliffe-Owen was very interested, but couldn't afford it at that time. Five years later, in 1873, Bing writes to the Victoria and Albert Museum to say that he's undergoing some changes in his trading, and in fact what he was doing was he was changing his whole spiral of trading at that time, but he bought this incense burner on speculation from the 1878 exhibition, and what we don't know is precisely how much he paid for it at that time. What we do know is that the Victoria and Albert Museum paid one thousand, five hundred and eighty six pounds, and several shillings, I can't remember the precise amount at the moment, but it was a phenomenal amount, it was nearly 13% of our annual budget spent on a single object, so it shows how important Cunliffe-Owen thought the object was, and it showed the esteem in which contemporary objects, contemporary Japanese objects were held by the west, in fact we had to get special permission from the treasury to buy it because it was so much.
But the object came over, and was placed in pride of place in the museums galleries, and presumably did influence a lot or workers at the time, but it's a very curious piece because it mixes various styles and traditions. The basic shape of the incense burner is a, it's a tripod; it's a classical Chinese shape of the sort that came over during the Muromachi period. Its set on a very naturalistic base, it's on a wooden tree stump with two peacocks beside it as well. So it's this very curious mix and it's something that the west very much appreciated in Japanese art, there were many comments at the time about the naturalism of Japanese art, and the Japanese great respect for nature, and yet you've got this massive incense burner sitting on top of a piece of nature. The incense burner itself is also interesting itself because actually it's not at all a practical piece, and the lid that you would take off to burn your incense inside is far too heavy. When we put it on display we had to have three of our object handler’s hoiking it into place, so obviously it would never actually work as a real object. It also displays some interesting mixes of motifs, again it shows certain traditional Chinese motifs it has, on the edges of the handles, it has the traditional fret pattern known as the Greek Key. But if you look down on the side of the edge of the bowl of the incense burner, that motif has been transformed into stylised dragons and clowns, and some of the techniques used there to decorate that part of the bowl are the same sort of techniques that would have been used for the decoration of Japanese sword fittings. You've got inlaid gold; you've got different patternations of copper as well. The legs of the incense burner as well have also been deliberately patternated to give this wonderful coppery red colour, it's made by pickling. Each metalworker had their own recipe for doing this patternation, and it's actually quite difficult to reproduce, many artists have tried. But we have this wonderful patternation, and certainly what we can't see from the incense burner here is the patternation underneath the bowl because it is so rich, and so lustrous and actually there are many many layers, there’s a great depth to it, we had to get it analysed by our conservators when it was being put on display.
But moving down to the base itself, very naturalistic tree trunk, very naturalistic looking peacock. Now what we do know is that certainly from the 1800's onwards but on a much smaller scale Japanese metalworkers were in fact casting from life they were using real creatures or real objects to cast from, and it's a tradition that goes back a very long way. But the scale of this object here is vastly different from the little turtles that were being made around 1800. The tree stump itself, I feel has been cast from a real tree stump. The top however has been worked, if you look at the top there’s a line across the top that I think is probably the casting seal, a casting line rather. But if you look at the top, the flat surface where the peacock stands and the legs of the tripod fit in you can see that it's been reworked, but if you look down to the actual bark of the tree itself it is so naturalistic that I cannot believe, although the Japanese would have been perfectly capable of it, I cannot believe that this is not something that has actually been cast from life, the detail is far too great on there. If you contrast that with the detail on the flat surface you can see it's very obviously been reworked.
The peacocks themselves, difficult to say exactly whether they've been cast from life. We know that Suzuki Chokichi when he made his Twelve Great Hawks which are now in the Tokyo National History of Modern Art that were shown at the Chicago Exhibition of, I think it was 1873, we know for the three years leading up that period he was surrounded by hawks in his studio, and one of his other pieces, he kept an eagle from Hokkaido in the north of Japan in his studio, so that he could study it. So it's not, I'm not wholly convinced that the peacock, and the peahen in fact have been cast from life. However, if you look at the tail of the peacock, the wonderful feathers on there, I'm convinced that that has been cast from a real peacock’s tail. Some of the detail has been reworked, but the way the feathers form convinces me that this has actually been cast from life.
One of the other details you can't see clearly, and it's a minor detail, is the peacock’s eye, actually has concentric circles of patternated bronze on there. The pupil of the eye, the black part is a rather wonderful copper gold alloy called Shakudo, which is patternated to this rich black colour. The regent of Japan Hideyoshi rather poetically described this as the colour of rain on a crow’s wing, but it goes out from there to Shibuichi which is a silver and copper alloy to copper itself.
But it's his fabulous attention to detail in very small areas that I think is what gives Japanese metalwork its fascination.