During my time studying the School of Art collections there has been one object which has always captured my attention and constantly enthused me – a small, Japanese, box-shaped object delicately dressed in fine iron inlay by a masterful craftsman (figures 1a-1e). This cabinet, which has never been opened in recent times, has only occasionally been displayed in public exhibitions and seemed too beautiful not to be put in the spotlight. The cabinet has led me to the story of its patron George Powell, as well as to its own cultural history and development, but also onto a bigger story of the influences of a western world opening itself to Japanese art and culture.
George Powell (1842-1882) of Nanteos was an influential figure for the School of Art Museum. A man of Aberystwyth and a dilettante, he upon his death bequeathed “all I possessed ‘of bigotry and virtue’ ” (Powell, 4) which included a wide and vast variety of curiosities. He spent most of his adult life in London and France and had sufficient means to pursue a life of travelling throughout Europe, northern Africa and Iceland (Meyrick and Holland, 3). There is no diary to Powell’s ‘grand tour abroad’ however we know that he travelled far and wide because he ‘carefully preserved his correspondents letters and had them bound in 11 volumes’ (Meyrick and Holland, 3). Powell donated the Japanese iron inlay cabinet to the University’s General Museum upon his death in 1882. I believe that the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (as it was then known) didn’t know much about the object’s history or the techniques of Japanese artefacts at the time. In the Bequest of the Late MR. G. E. J. Powell. Of Nanteos to the University College of Wales Museum, objects I found of interest are listed as ‘Metal Work No. 50 Fan-shaped tray (small) No.51 Cabinet No.52 Kettle’ which are linked together in the text written with a note reading ‘all in fine Japanese brass work elaborately chased’ (Bequest of…, 3). In March 1883 an article in The College Calendar proudly presented ‘Mr Powell’s Bequest’ briefly giving an overview of what was donated, but also mentioning that ‘in metal work we find more evidence of the beauty of Japanese workmanship in a cabinet, a kettle, and a tray all in brass, oxidised and elaborately chased with designs’ (The College Calendar, 163) . It is the first documentation I have found alongside the Bequest that mentions the cabinet, but it is lacking in detail and correctness. The cabinet is incorrectly listed as ‘brass’ which shows the lack of knowledge and expertise when the object was initially analysed.
Due to there not being much to go on I began to research into Japanese cabinets, refining my research to objects popular during the years Powell was collecting. I came across the term kodansu, which translates to “small cabinet”. I found similar objects which were rectangular in shape, similar in size, generally containing three drawers, decorated elaborately and covered in gold lacquer. However, they were predominantly wood lacquer cabinets. This was until I came across damascene ware by Komai of Kyoto. The Komai family were a ‘sword furniture maker’ for generations. They are praised for developing a new type of Japanese Zogan called Nunome Zogan, literally meaning “elephant inlaid” (Aisaburo, 53) . This is a process where a hard metal surface is given a file like texture with a chisel, and a soft metal – in the case of the School of Art’s kodansu, gold – is hammered into it. It would then be burnished and planished and the soft metal would become permanently attached. The final stage is to either oxidise the steel or lacquer over the top of it.
The Meiji restoration of 1868 was a political revolution in Japan which brought about the demise of the militant Edo government and the rise of imperial ruler Mutsuhito. The Meiji period of 1868-1912 was notable for political, economic and social change. There were ‘major changes brought about by the Meiji restoration…. and a Haitorei Edict (March 1876), the Japanese were no longer allowed to wear swords,’(Shoulga). This changed Komai of Kyoto’s business model. Like many other craftsmen they had to change from making swords to survive so they started making damascene ware producing a wide variety of objects including ‘vases, purses, cigar, cigarette and card cases, jewellery boxes, coat buttons, combs, buckles, incense burners, hanging plates, lockets, brooches, charms, spoons, bracelets, cabinets and others.’(Shoulga) The new Meiji leaders were also keen to improve their global influence around the world and encouraged companies to produce objects for the export market. Many of these included traditional images associated with Japan or Japanese life. Pieces such as the kodansu were constructed to detail life in Japan to foreigners, and the objects would often have deeper meaning to them, even if it often went unknown by their patrons. This was to further the influence of Japanese culture in the western world.
Looking at the kodansu in the School of Art Museum, the front plate (figure 1a) includes a temple scene depicted with a garden, pond, boat, bridge and Japanese maple trees. The main image is framed by a border made up of individual maple leaves which are a symbol of strength and endurance. The temple looks very similar to that of the Buddhist temple Nanzen-in in Kyoto, however slight differences, such as the detail on the bridge, suggest that the scene is a work of fiction. Symbolism is strong within the work; the temples can represent the strong Buddhist beliefs of Japan at the time as well as the emperors who built the temples. Temples have a rich and steeped history in Japan such as the famous Kinkaku-ji, in Kyoto which in the 1800s would have housed sacred Buddhist relics as well as being situated in what would have been a vision of paradise. I have not been able to open the kodansu but there is a clasp or dial on the front panel of the cabinet which can be rotated and I believe it is used to open the cabinet. The dial is in the form of a white peach. In Japan, peach trees are considered to be the tree of life, with peaches themselves a symbolic of truth. White peaches ‘are grown with extra care’(Okayama) and they are also required to be ‘covered with a small bag to protect the delicate soft white skin to ripen it to perfection’(Okayama).
Despite these observations, the lack of a maker’s mark on my kodansu meant it was still mysterious. I started to dig into the other similar objects in the School of Art Museum: a cast iron tetsubin and small fan-shaped tray which were both decorated with Japanese Zogan. Both included a maker’s mark, the small fan-shaped tray decorated with Japanese maple leaves (figure 2a), on the reverse (figure 2b) reads ‘京都住 - Kyōto-ju 駒井製 – Komai-sei’ Made by Komai – resident of Kyōto’ (I.Nagy, ‘Japanese Iron…’). There is also the tetsubin which is decorated with what seems to be imagery of Kinkaku-ji topped with the distinctive hōō (figure 3a). On the reverse of the lid there is a maker’s mark which reads ‘金壽堂造 - Kinjudō-zō - Made by Kinjudō’ (I.Nagy, ‘Cast Iron…’). Given that I discovered similar objects in the same collection and that there are details which suggest that the kodansu depicts references to Kyoto, it is indeed possible that the kodansu is the work of the Komai family of Kyoto; however, without there being a maker’s mark it is impossible to know for certain whom the maker was.
It is not documented that George Powell travelled to Japan; however, he collected a great deal of Japanese artworks and curiosities including, netsuke, satsuma ware and shigayaki ware among others. So why collect objects from a foreign land and where did he purchase thes these items from? Japan had been closed to the western world since the 1600s and suddenly, in the 1850s, Japan ligted its restrictions on exports and exploded onto the world market – Japanese art and design started to be rediscovered in the western hemisphere. Japonisme was the phrase coined by a French critic Phillippe Burty in the early 1870s which ‘described the craze for Japanese art and design that swept France and elsewhere after trade with Japan resumed in the 1850s’ (Tate Modern). Elizabeth Aslin points out that ‘from the 1860s to the 1890s, the Japanese influence on decorative art developed from the individual interest of a few designers to become the preoccupation of an entire movement: Art Nouveau’ (Ono, 23). ‘Japonisme in Britain was dominated by Whistler’ (Ono, 15) an early pioneer of Japonisme. James Abbot McNeill Whistler was an American artist who lived in London for much of his life and his work influenced far and wide. It has been fascinating to discover that Whistler’s influence can be seen directly in creative works by some of Powell’s close friends.
Algernon Swinburne, with whom Powell had ‘become close friends from 1865 onwards, visited each other in London and Aberystwyth and both stayed at Powell’s cottage in Etretat, Normandy in 1868’ (Meyrick and Holland, 3), wrote Before the Mirror a poem which was inspired by Whistlers ‘Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl, 1862’ (figure 4). Close friend Simeon Solomon was also an admirer of Whistler. Powell had supported Solomon through his struggles particularly when he became ostracised due to late 19th century homophobia. Simeon Solomon painted Lady in a Chinese Dress with Japanese Fan (figure 5), which used Japanese cultural symbols to denote or suggest the adept culture of the sitter. It is speculated the sitter is Solomon’s sister, artist Rebecca Solomon, whom Powell had commissioned a painting from. Victorian in style and titled ‘The Wounded Dove’ (figure 6) it also demonstrates Japonisme with the use of Japanese objects and culture, such as the porcelain in the background. The money, some £15 paid by Powell in instalments, supported herself and brother Simeon when others would not. It is a sign of Powell’s support and sympathy to the Solomon family during a difficult time but also his appreciation and interest of Japonisme. Simeon Solomon’s work is inspired by Whistler’s painting ‘La Princesse du pays de la porcelain’ (figure 7), which used Chinese porcelain and oriental screens to indicate a sense of culture for the sitter. ‘La Princesse du pays de la porcelain’ was originally hung in Whistler’s ‘The Peacock Room’ perhaps one of the most prominent pieces of Anglo-Japanese artwork it is ‘now considered Whistler’s interior masterpiece’ (Meier) (figure 8). The Peacock Room was immediately infamous for the disagreements between Whistler and his patron Fredrick Leyland so it would not have gone unnoticed to a man of culture such as Powell.
Harry Heuser describes Powell as a ‘man of the world’ (Harry Heuser 19:01). As such, he would have undoubtedly been curious of Japanese objects, especially as he was also a dilettante, and seems to have often been drawn to what was popular at the time and in this case, it was Japonisme. It is unclear as to precisely where Powell obtained the iron kodansu from; however, it is possible that he could have purchased it from Madame Desoye on the rue de Rivoli in Paris. I found that Powell purchased a Japanese ivory carved tusk container from Madame Desoye’s store; the shop mark can be seen on the underside of the object detailed in figure 9b. Madame Desoye and her husband had been a resident of Japan before opening a shop in Paris in 1862. Desoye specialised in objects from Japan and sold work to many artists including, Rossetti, Whistler and Manet among others. She also sold work to the Victoria and Albert Museum including ‘contemporary metalwork vases imitating basketry’ in 1864 (Ono, 12). It is also possible that Powell purchased items from Seisuke Ikeda’s store in London. Ikeda sold lots of Komai of Kyoto’s work but after opening in 1874 had to close in 1886 due to financial issues relating to illegal activities of local employees in Kobe.
I do not know if the kodansu was indeed Komai’s; however, one day I hope that I might be able to open the kodansu and it will reveal more draws in iron inlaid work and a maker’s mark, but as of this day it is a mystery – but maybe Powell purchased this object with similar curiosity. To the trained eye, it is apparently not to the standard of Komai’s greatest work; however, it would have been one of the early damascene wares that came from the Komai family or even out of Kyoto. As such it is of historical interest as it reveals a consequence of the governmental changes and the impact of Haitorei Edict of March 1876 on makers of samurai swords. It is also a fascinating artefact of a cultural shift in art in the western world, representing the craze for Japonisme which had a dramatic and serious impact in the 1870s. Powell’s close friends Solomon and Swinburn were being creatively inspired by works of Whistler – I think that Powell too wanted a slice of the creative energy. Being a failed poet, he had changed his focus and, instead, built a substantial artistic legacy through his collection of objects. It is down to this that Powell collected objects of the time such as the kodansu. I, for one, am glad to have benefited from Powell’s individualistic collection of objects now amassed at the School of Art Museum and I look forward to continuing my research on Powell, Japonisme and the kodansu.
“About Okayama’s white peach”, Okayama Peach, Okayama Fruits and Ashitane Laboratory, http://world.momotaros.com/peach.html, Accessed date 15/05/20
Aisaburo, Akiyama. “Sights of Old Capital”, N.P, 1919
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“Bequest of the Late MR. G. E. I. Powell. Of Nanteos to the University College of Wales Museum”, 1883, University of Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth, Manuscript
“The College Calendar”, 1883, University of Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth, Manuscript
Heuser, Harry. “Working with the George Powell Bequest”, Aberystwyth University, Febuary 11th 2020, Aberystwyth School of Art, Lecture
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Meyrick, Robert., and Neil. Holland. “To Instruct and Inspire : 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection”. University of Wales, Aberystwyth, School of Art Press, 1997.
Nagy, I. “Cast Iron Gold Inlay Teapot Brass Lid – Help with Makers Mark”, Asian Art Forums, Asian Art, http://asianart.com/phpforum/index.php?method=detailAll&Id=126141, Access Date :15/05/20
Nagy, I. “Japanese Iron/Bronze Gold inlay small inlay dish- help with makers mark”, Asian Art Forums, Asian Art, http://asianart.com/phpforum/index.php?method=detailAll&Id=126141, Access Date :15/05/20
Ono, Ayako. “Japonisme in Britain : Whistler, Menpes, Henry, Hornel, and Nineteenth-Century Japan.” London ; New York : RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
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Shoulga, Georgiy. “KOMAI, OTOJIRO 駒井音次郎 (1842-1917)”, smokingsamurai, Shoulga, Georgiy, http://www.smokingsamurai.com/KOMAI_OTOJIRO.html, Access Date : 15/05/20
An earlier version of this essay was first submitted for the first year Art History module AH11220 Exploring the School of Art Collections