‘Keep Writing’, A personal memory of Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi have been guiding lights and dear friends to the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) throughout its two-decade long history. SISJAC would not be the vibrant Institute that it is now without their careful stewardship, advice, connections, donations and loans of historical and contemporary books, art objects, prints and the spectacular historical map collection that they had carefully collected and curated over their long engagement with Japan. Hugh and Elizabeth have also been there personally for me as well, giving support and advice and much needed home cooked meals both in St John’s Wood and magical Balsocks, East Sussex. For this and so much more I will always be grateful to the both of them.

I had the fortune to meet Hugh not too long after I started teaching Japanese art at the University of East Anglia and just as Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury were contemplating their generous donation which created the Sainsbury Institute in 1999. Since our initial meeting the relationship with the Cortazzis have become central in my life and in the life of the Institute. One glance at the number of lectures, publications, and activities that Hugh conducted, from historical map conferences to Third Thursday lectures at the Institute reveal his deep personal engagement.

Lunch in Balsocks, East Sussex.
Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi and Uchida Hiromi

Early in the Institute’s history Hugh transferred his Japan related books that had been on deposit at another institution but were no longer needed there. This initial boot of academic resources helped to place SISJAC on its feet and attract further donations from individual donors, Foundations and Institutions. The Institute now boasts of an exceptional library curated by the Lisa Sainsbury Librarian, Hirano Akira, who has been carefully mentored by Hugh. Every year wonderful new additions of some fabulous historical illustrated book or Japan related material would be purchased by Hugh specifically for the library often in consultation with Hirano-san.

Historical maps have always been close to Hugh’s heart and are incredibly precious mine of information about international relations and perceptions. Hugh felt strongly that resources needed to be used and not just archived. As a result, Hugh’s maps have had an active life since being housed at SISJAC. They have been photographed at high resolution by Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University and made accessible through the SISJAC website. Scholarly map conferences have been held the institute and a book revisiting Hugh’s seminal work Isles of Gold with a possible exhibition is underway by a SISJAC affiliated scholar, Dr. Radu Leca. Former Ambassador Nogami even travelled from London to study at the map collection at SISJAC, and is among many others that have benefited from viewing the maps at the Institute. A stunning exhibition of the Cortazzi map collection took place at the Embassy of Japan in 2013 curated by Hirano-san in consultation with Hugh. 

Hugh’s passion for things Japanese, his sense of adventure and intellectual curiosity never failed, and was in fact quite infectious. He became involved initially through SISJAC with the Museum of Asian Arts, Corfu housed in a Palace in Corfu City [Kerkyra] dedicated to the Order of St Michael and St George. He supported their impressive Director, Despina Zernioti, and the important Japanese art collection that is under her careful care in multiple fashions such as writing about their exhibitions, connecting her to other people to help her sustain the collections and the building and personally visiting her and the collections. Hugh and Elizabeth even travelled with the Order of St Michael and St George to Corfu to see the collection and building and then went on to visit the archaeological site of Butrint, Albania in May 2012. Hugh with other members of the Order, including the HRH Duke of Kent KG recommend that Queen Elizabeth grant Despina Zernioti the Grand Cross of the Order to St. Michael and St. George as a reward for her efforts towards the advancement of the cultural relations between the two countries. Recently, Ms. Zernioti dedicated an exhibition on the 200th anniversary of the Order posthumously to Hugh and Elizabeth was able to travel to Corfu and attend the inaugural events. The Asian Art Museum is one of the top visitor attractions in Greece and the only national museum in Greece dedicated to Asian art. Hugh recognised the museum’s strategic importance and actively supported the museum’s diverse activities in an often challenging environment.

It is impossible to sum up the continuing impact that Hugh and Elizabeth have had not only on SISJAC but also on related intuitions such as the Asian Museum of Arts, Corfu. For me personally Hugh was more than a mentor and a key supporter of the SISJAC, he was a father figure that inspired me to always do my best, question assumptions and keep my love for Japan vibrant through action. I can hear him say to me right now, ‘Come on Nicole, keep writing, there is no time to be lazy.’

Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere
Founding and Research Director, Sainsbury Institute

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