Japanese Art Wares


Japanese Art Wares


Discusses the popularity of Japanese aesthetics and goods in England, the economics of their mass-production, and brief descriptions of the most popular objects.




December 1888


essay (art)


pp. 94–96


When, five or six years ago, Bedford Park was supposed to be the Mecca of aestheticism, a Philistine poet ad¬dressed a sarcastic invitation the faithful to

. . come and read Rossetti here By a Japanese-y lamp.”

Much has happened since then. Bedford Park is no longer sesthetic (if in¬deed it ever was so), and the appreciation of Japanese art wares has long ceased to be confined within its narrow bounds. There is now hardly a drawing-room in the kingdom in which the influences of Japanese art are not felt. Walls are draped and tables covered with the rich brocades of the Land of the Dragonfly ; brilliant enamelled plaques have been found a cheap and effective substitute for china, always costly and often of doubtful antiquity. We put our flowers into Japanese bowls; serve tea from Japanese trays; and in the hot summers that have become the fashion fan Ourselves, without regard to sex or condition, with Japanese fans. Some of us hang our snuggeries with Japanese pictures; others collect the beautifully illustrated books filled with “ figures strange and sweet, all made out of the artist’s brain,” that have come down from the Nippon of the Mikados. Most of the Japanese wares that are sold in England are exceedingly cheap, and there is consequently some danger that they may become vulgarised. But it so falls out that English taste can endure a good deal of such vulgarisation; and because a Japanese fan or two may brighten a garret, that is surely no reason why they should cease to beautify a boudoir. A much more imminent danger is that the Japanese may themselves become vulgarised by the absurd imitation of European customs and fashions which is at present the rage in their wonderful island. Dress-improvers and Parisian chiffons may be essential to the salvation of Japanese beauties, even as frock-coats and tall hats have become necessary to the comfort of their husbands and brothers. But Japanese native dress, especially the dress of women, was charming in itself, suggestive of infinite gracefulness, and capable of the richest and most delicate ornamenta¬tion. Much of this there is reason to fear we may lose unless the Japanese can be brought to recognise, before it is too late, that European fashions are oftentimes neither rational nor beautiful; and that even an island in the Pacific, so distant from modern civilisation and so long secluded from outside influences, may chance to possess canons of taste as well worth preserving as any that were ever laid down in the West.
That the large importations of Japanese wares into England during the last few years have had much to do with the sharpening and elevation of our artistic sense does not admit of a doubt. How large those importations are, would perhaps hardly be suspected by those who have not made inquiry. The cheaper goods are, of course, most in demand ; and the pretty little fans and hand-screens that are sold in the streets for a penny each arrive in the port of London in consignments of millions. Hundreds of cases of cheap wooden ash-trays are im¬ported every year; and each case contains 4,000 trays. The large lacquer trays which are used for five o’clock tea, and the smaller ones which are utilised as salvers and card-trays, are sold in numbers which almost equal those of the fans. They are made in scores of sizes, and in the most diverse designs, and they can be put to so many uses that their popularity is likely to increase rapidly for a long time to come. For years past most incomes, even the largest, have been undergoing a process of reduction; and the obtaining of articles of household adornment which are at once cheap and beautiful has become a matter of importance to a great many chdte laines. In the hour of need the many delights of Japanese knick-knackery were discovered; and the ex-penditure of literally only a few shillings will now insure that a room shall be ornamented with many a brilliant stripe and spot which shall add to the gaiety of a summer and increase the cosiness of a winter interior.

The most beautiful products of Japanese industrial art are as yet in comparatively restricted use in England; since, while being strictly speaking cheap, they are relatively much dearer than the articles with which all classes are familiar. Still, even the higher-priced wares have of late been in greatly-increased demand. The Japanese artificers produce nothing finer, more delicate, or more essentially artistic, than the silken em¬broideries which are now being largely used as hangings for drawing-rooms and boudoirs, as anti-macassars, as covers for cushions, and even as portieres, where some¬thing light and graceful is preferred to the heavy tapestry-like stuffs which have hitherto been commonly used. These breadths of silk are of very convenient size—their length is ten feet—and they may therefore often be used as window-curtains, for which they are uncommonly effective. The ornamentation consists as a rule of birds and flowers, which are hand-em¬broidered upon the silk, most frequently in colours, but often in gold. In the higher-class goods the gold used is the actual virgin metal, which will not tarnish. The purchaser of these stuffs can therefore make her mind easy that, so long as the fabric endures, the embroidered figures will retain their original lustre. Many of these silks are of very great beauty, all spangled with birds of gorgeous hues, or sown about with flowers, whose tints have been imitated with extraordinary fidelity. In whites, blues, and golds in particular, the craftsmen who make these stuffs excel marvellously. Antique Japanese embroideries are in great request, and the agents of English importers ransack the Empire for fine specimens, which of course command high prices. A very effective ornamentation of a somewhat similar character consists of quaint human figures in stiff brocade mounted on cardboard. These figures look very
well upon the panels of doors, or upon any small space of blank wall.

Much of the most characteristic Japanese art work is executed in lacquer—trays and small boxes for odds and ends being, perhaps, the most familiar articles so made. Of the trays I have already spoken ; but it should be added that new designs and shapes are constantly being devised, and that some, at least, of the newer fashions are very pretty and convenient. The small boxes are admirable as ready receptacles for a pair or two of gloves, or for the odds and ends of the toilette-table. But it will not do to entrust anything valuable to their keeping. They are usually furnished with locks and keys; but a Japanese lock is an engine pour rire, and the best can be picked in a moment with a hair-pin or a bit of bent wire. These boxes, when not of lacquer, are most commonly made of a kind of black wood, and the lids are fantastically ornamented with dragons, insects, and an endless variety of minute figures cast in gun-metal, and plastered on with a certain order in disorder which aims only at variety. To the class of pretty but useless presents belong the native pipe-cases, similarly ornamented. They are not large enough to contain the more heroic pipes of the West, but they are graceful little trifles.

Upon the great subject of fans I could, of course, say much; but I must confine myself to a brief notice of some of the new designs. And it may here be well to establish the necessary distinction between a fan and the more clumsily-named “hand-screen.” The latter is nearly always pleasant to look upon, and is well worth the very small coin that it costs; but in artistic merit and in excellence of workmanship it will not compare with the fan properly so called. There are now in the market a bewildering variety of designs, some very elaborate, others exceedingly simple. Some “ variegated fans ” which have lately been introduced are most pleasing. They consist merely of the ordinary paper and bamboo; but according as the fan is reversed it is alternately blue, crimson, or gold. A fan, crimson on one side and dead gold on the other, is exceedingly charming. The better examples are hand-painted ; but the patterns upon the cheapest fans and hand-screens are stencilled. Then there are yet other fans of recent introduction, coloured in monochrome and intended for painting upon. But perhaps the very newest variety of this description is a series of fans bearing designs embroidered upon satin in colours of great brilliance and limpidity. These are certainly the most beautiful of all the Japanese fans that have hitherto been introduced here.

For purposes of wall-decoration there are few things more effective than the cloisonne plaques which are made so well in Japan. They are much less liable to be injured than pieces of china, since the basis upon which the ornamentation is laid consists of brass or copper. The design is laid on with fine wire of silver, copper, or brass, while the colours are enamelled. The depth and delicacy of the tints thus obtained are quite re¬markable. These handsome and brightly-coloured plaques can be obtained at very modest prices. To this class of ornaments belong the bronze jardinieres adorned with bands of fantastic tracery, or, more commonly, with the conventional dragons of which the Japanese never tire. Some very handy little bronze candlesticks, suitable either for the writing-table or the bed-room, are somewhat simi-larly ornamented, and look exceedingly well. In china the familiar Imari ware, with its broad masses of striking colours and its variety of bold designs, is still high in favour, and is sold in large quantities. It is of course understood that this ware is modem. The designs are imitated from old work which, upon the rare occasions that it is met with, fetches startling prices. Also there are cheap imitations of the imitations made in a kind of paste. The red and gold Khaga ware is very decorative, but its effect is a little barbaric, and it would not suit every room. Some of the larger plaques of this ware are hand-painted by artists of eminence in Japan, and they sell in England at £4 or £5 each.

For at least two centuries Japanese screens have had a European fame. Evelyn mentions a room in the house of Mr. Bohun, at Lee, which was wainscoted with Japan screens—of lacquer bien entendu—of which the famous vernia Martin was an imitation. Screens of Japanese lacquer are now curiosities of price; but still the Land of the Rising Sun sends us a great variety of beautiful screens in materials more easily perishable. Some of the newest importations are delightful. They consist of two or more folds, and the panels are filled in with silk or satin embroidered in gold and colours. Here again birds and flowers form the chief motives of decoration; but one screen of unusual size which I have seen is embroidered with a landscape, with trees in the fore¬ground populous with monkeys in grotesque attitudes. Some particularly rich and handsome screens are of brocade, painted; while others are covered with hun¬dreds of native photographs, very various and entertain¬ing. A great golden dragon embroidered upon a black silk screen is startlingly effective. More costly screens of a semi-barbaric cast are of black wood with carved bases, the upper portions inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. But for an apartment of ordinary modesty there is nothing more effective than a plain screen of black silk or satin, embroidered with birds of gorgeous plumage, their wings wide-outstretched.

The tale of Japanese novelties is so long that many useful and curious things must be very summarily dismissed. The small grotesque masks that are now seen in so many shops can be put to a great variety of uses. They are to be had, according to their quality, in coloured plaster, in painted wood, or in bronze, and they represent monkeys’ heads, heathen deities, and grinning faces of the most diverse expressions. When two are joined together they make very quaint stands for pho¬tographs or menu cards, and they are sometimes used as bandies to bell-pulls; while the bronze ones make excellent paper-weights. Among articles more solidly useful, every housekeeper who studies economy should be made aware of the virtues of Japanese fibre matting. Being about eighteen inches wide, it is admirably suited for stairs and corridors, or for any use to which drugget- ing is usually put. This matting is pale yellow in hue, is very clean and cool to look upon, and is almost
imperishable. It is as soft as jute and nearly as strong as whalebone, and it costs only a penny a foot!

To those who like to be very Japanese, I may recommend a not unpleasing form of semi-transparent window- curtain, consisting of the young bamboo and many-coloured beads threaded alternately. The effect is quaint and thoroughly Oriental. We have all along been familiar with the ordinary bulbous patterns of Japanese paper lanterns; but of late a number of new and fantastic shapes have been introduced that have a very odd effect when they are lighted up. One can now illuminate a conservatory or even a garden with gaily-coloured lanterns fashioned in the semblance of ships, lighthouses, fish, animals, and grotesque human figures. These lanterns are to be had in almost any size, from half an inch to five feet in height.

It has of late become possible to purchase large Japanese cabinets of polished black wood, elaborately carved and inlaid, sometimes with ivory, sometimes with mother-of-pearl, and not infrequently with both. It is difficult to conceive of a piece of furniture better suited to the display of china and curiosities of small bulk than one of these cabinets. They contain many quaint little recesses and pigeon-holes, with here and there small drawers for articles that might be injured by constant exposure to the air. A cabinet that is worth having is sure to be expensive, whether it be Japanese or European; but those from Yokohama or Tokio are, relatively, less costly than equally well-made ones of home manufacture would bo. For a Japanese cabinet there can be no more effective decoration than a collec¬tion of native curios and relics of old Japan. Much bric-d-brac of this kind is to be had at figures which are far from exorbitant—ivories, enamels, bits of work in mother-of-pearl, and such-like beautiful trifles. The importers of native work eagerly snap up Japanese antiquities, and they are now to be had in great variety, from twenty-four hour clocks to the daggers with which recalcitrant nobles were allowed, under the old regime, to commit the “happy despatch.” An appropriate curio for a lady’s dressing-room would be one of the antique steel hand-mirrors which have no doubt reflected the charms of many an island beauty in the long ago. Old sword-hilts of gold and ivory have of late become quite an article of commerce : many of them are very fine and delicate, and would be valuable additions to any cabinet of curiosities. The lover of old ivories will find much gratification in the curiously shaped and carved ivory but-tons which are now often met with. They could no doubt often be very effectively used upon modem costumes.

The beauty and variety of the art wares which are now being imported from Japan cannot be fully realised without a visit to some great warehouse, crammed from basement to roof with the airy and graceful designs that are produced in such profusion in the Mikado’s Empire. Japanese decorations need no longer be confined to the drawing-room and the bed-room. The severe dining¬room and the studious library may both be brightened and adorned' by the judicious employment of some of the pretty things that come to us from the North Pacific. A little taste and a five-pound note will work miracles in the most sombre and puritanical of houses.