The Fine Art of Japanese Inro

A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200
A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200

Japanese inro were originally designed as seal baskets but were mainly used to hold herbal medicines. The interlocking compartments were held together by a cord and would have been hung from a waist band. They were often finely decorated in lacquer and Shibayama.

For more than two hundred and fifty years Japan had lived in relative isolation from the outside world until American gunboat diplomacy, instigated by Commodore Perry in 1853, opened up Japan for trade with the West. Throughout the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods Japan’s rich tradition of arts and crafts gave voice to a civilized nation.

Amongst these arts and crafts lacquer work was used extensively in Japan. The technique came to Japan from China in the sixth century A.D. The art of the lacquer craftsman was highly technical but their patrons’ taste for traditional designs limited artistic creativity. The popularity of the inro emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries. These new objects allowed the lacquerers a greater freedom in design and decoration as well as the opportunity to experiment technically. Exquisite artistry was lavished on inro by artist-craftsmen working for the ruling classes. Favourite subjects included figures, gardens and floral displays.

A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200
A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200

The Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro illustrated here is a fine example of this artistic and technical tour de force. Measuring just 9.4cm the inro dates from the Meiji period (1868-1912) and combines the decorative techniques of maki-e with its powder gilt ground with Shibayama inlay. The high relief, finely inlaid image depicts a hanaguruma, a two-wheeled flower cart, carrying a tasselled wickerwork basket filled with chrysanthemum, peony, iris and a bough of flowering wisteria. The composition and colours of the scene depicted in carved tortoiseshell, coral, mother-of-pearl and hardstone are exquisitely conceived and worked.

A Japanese four-case lacquer inro by Koma Koryu, Edo period, with netsuke (19th century)
A Japanese four-case lacquer inro by Koma Koryu, Edo period, with netsuke (19th century)

The Japanese four-case lacquer inro by Koma Koryu dates from the Edo period (19th century) and is differently decorated. The sides of its curved rectangular body are finely worked. Employing the hiramaki-e technique the gilt chrysanthemum are raised above the maki-e ground with its gilt speckled dark brown decoration. The hardwood netsuke is carved in the form of clam shells with ivory inlaid detail and the cord which unites the interlocking compartments can be clearly seen.

A Japanese five-case lacquer inro, Edo period (19th Century)
A Japanese five-case lacquer inro, Edo period (19th Century)

The final Japanese inro illustrated dates from the Edo period. It again features chrysanthemums against a beautifully worked maki-e ground. Although lavishly decorated it is less fine than the other two inro.

Values at auction for Japanese inro of this quality range from a few hundred to thousands of pounds today.

Toovey’s Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, is passionate about these pieces and can be contacted by telephoning 01903 891955 or at auctions@tooveys.com if you would like his advice.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Utagawa Hiroshige: Master Japanese Print Designer

Utagawa Hiroshige – ‘The Rokugo Ferry at Kawasaki’
Utagawa Hiroshige – ‘The Rokugo Ferry at Kawasaki’

One of the best known of all Japanese woodblock designers is Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Hiroshige’s landscape prints are internationally acclaimed and are amongst the most frequently reproduced of all Japanese works of art. They are defined by their unusual compositions and humorous depictions of people involved in everyday activities. His exquisite observation and depiction of weather, light and season are exemplary. Hiroshige’s work proved hugely influential for many leading European artists including Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh.

Hiroshige worked in the latter part of the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603-1867). The Tokugawa shogunate had become the unchallenged rulers. It resulted in what has been described a ‘centralized feudal’ form of government.

In contrast to this agrarian society a vibrant community of merchants and businesses grew up in towns and cities in the early and mid-19th century, at the time Utagawa Hiroshige was working.

For the first time urban populations had the means and leisure time to support a new culture of theatres, geisha and courtesans. This search for pleasure became known as ukiyo (the floating world), an ideal world of fashion and entertainment. Pictures and prints depicting images of the everyday in this new society became known as Ukiyo-e – scenes of the floating world. However, Hiroshige’s depiction of people is recurrently bound up with the landscape.

Utagawa Hiroshige – ‘Night Snow at Kambra’
Utagawa Hiroshige – ‘Night Snow at Kambra’

Hiroshige combined his print making with his inherited position as a fire warden. In 1832 he was invited to join an embassy of Shogunal officials on a journey which allowed him to observe the Tokaido Road, the Eastern sea Route which followed the coast through mountain range to Kyoto. The resultant series was called ‘Tokaido Go-ju-san-Tsugi’ (The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido). The three prints illustrated are early states of the polychrome woodblock oban prints from this series. They date from around 1833.

Oban refers to the most common size of Japanese print usually measuring approximately 23.5cm x 36.5cm.

The production of Japanese woodblock prints involved the artist, whose design would be pasted to the block so that the engraver could cut it. Straight grained cherry was often used as it allowed for fine detail to be carved. The printer would then print the image. As many as ten blocks were used to achieve the diversity of colour. At each stage of the process proofs would be made for approval.

Hiroshige’s lyrical depiction of ‘Night Snow at Kambra’ is poetic. We are left with a sense of the stillness and silence which often accompanies snow. It is late and no lights are apparent in the houses below as the villagers trudge home.

Utagawa Hiroshige – ‘Evening Squall at Shono’
Utagawa Hiroshige – ‘Evening Squall at Shono’

In contrast ‘Rain storm at Shono’ portrays farmers and porters running for shelter as the sudden downpour of rain darkens the sky and obscures the mountains. The figures, angle of the rain and the wind in the trees, lends the image a sense of urgency and movement.

In ‘The Rokugo Ferry at Kawasaki’ we witness pedlars and women on a pilgrimage, in a ferryboat. On the far shore a laden pack-horse and palanquin wait, with Mount Fuji on the horizon beneath the sunset.

These three examples formed part of a collection of eight polychrome woodblock oban prints from the The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido series by Utagawa Hiroshige. There is always a premium for early states and they realised a total of £17,500 in two lots at a Toovey’s specialist auction. Blocks would often be altered and reused. These later states can still be bought for a hundred or two and represent wonderful value for the potential collector.

This important artist dominated Japanese landscape printmaking and was a major influence for many leading European artist.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s scenes so often depict travellers along famous Japanese routes providing us with captivating sights. But it is the intimacy with which he portrays people in snow and rain in all seasons which never ceases to delight me.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 8th April 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Horsham and the Hendersons

A view of the 18th century Yonghe Lamasery Buddhist temple in Beijing taken by Rupert Toovey on a business trip to China for Toovey’s

Travel in our own times has become much more democratic and a younger generation’s fascination with exploring the world with their backpacks should, perhaps, be unsurprising given the British nation’s international mercantile history as traders, explorers and adventurers.

The Chinese bronze censer in the form of a temple dog, brought back by the Hendersons
A view of a 19th century Chinese street taken from one of Robert Henderson’s albums

Robert Henderson was born in 1851, the year that Prince Albert proclaimed the importance of international trade to wealth, peace and understanding between nations through the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and first erected in Hyde Park. The exhibition inspired a series of trade expositions across the globe including Paris and Philadelphia. It seeded the idea of the Global Economy. Robert Henderson was himself part of the 19th century global economy. He was a director of numerous companies including R & J Hendersons East India Merchants, The Bangalore Jute Factory Co. Ltd, India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Co. Ltd and the London Assurance Corporation. This influential business leader was to become a director of the Bank of England.

Emma Henderson’s father, Jonathan Hargreaves, owned a printing firm and in 1862 the family had moved from Hampshire to Rome for his health. He did not recover and died in the January of 1863. The family returned home to Cuffnells in Lyndhurst, Hampshire. When her mother died in 1872 she left Emma £12,000.

There are four albums of remarkable photographs at the Horsham Museum which are thought to have been collected by Robert Henderson. The photos reflect Robert’s extensive tours of the Far East and America in 1874 and 1875. He travelled in India, Singapore, Jahore, Java, Borneo, Siam, China, Hong Kong, Japan and America. Many of the photographs chosen were produced by the company Bourne and Beato. Photographs by this firm are highly regarded by today’s historians and collectors. They speak of the international lives led by Robert and Emma Henderson (neé Hargreaves) whom he married on 24th September 1878. In 1880 they moved to Sedgwick Park, near Horsham.

In 1885 Robert and Emma travelled to Japan. It was during this trip that they bought the large Satsuma earthenware vase and cover now in the Horsham Museum’s collection. I particularly like the quality of the Buddhistic dragon chasing the flaming pearl which encircles the body of the vase. The Henderson’s large 16th/17th century Chinese bronze censer in the form of a temple dog is exquisite and a jewel in Horsham District’s cultural crown.

These and the other Henderson artefacts were donated to the museum’s collection by Emma’s daughter Violet. Violet was born in 1902 and was to marry Lord Leitrim. It was as Lady Leitrim that Violet made this extraordinary gift in 1931. Patronage and generosity are always qualities to be celebrated and honoured over the passage of time.

In an age where modern travel is accessible and relatively inexpensive it is easy to forget how international Britain’s outlook was in the 19th and earlier centuries. Our nation has always prospered when we return to international, mercantile trade. Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover from our past the confidence to once again become an international trading nation. To take up a central role in a global economy which was articulated here in Britain back in 1851.

A detail of the Buddhistic dragon decorating the large Japanese Satsuma earthenware vase and cover brought back from Japan by the Hendersons

Our shared history and culture gifts us with a common narrative and identity. This is vital to the building of healthy societies and communities. It is equally vital to have passionate and knowledgeable custodians of the stories and treasures of our District and the world. Jeremy Knight at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery continues to celebrate, preserve and proclaim our heritage. He should be applauded for his important work in this field. The Horsham District Council is to be commended for its continued support too.

For more information on the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery’s wonderful permanent collection and excellent program of exhibitions, including the current ‘Women of Horsham’, go to www.horshammuseum.org.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th June 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.