Crosscurrents of Courtly Exchange: A Report

An international conference Japan: Crosscurrents of Courtly Exchange was held by Royal Collection Trust in collaboration with the Sainsbury Institute as part of the Learning programme for the exhibition Japan: Courts and Culture on Tuesday 14th and Wednesday 15th February 2023. The conference focussed on further exploring the themes of diplomatic and courtly exchange addressed in the exhibition as it entered its final weeks. Having been involved with the logistical arrangements for over a year, including the necessary postponement of the conference following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, I was keen to see the fruition of the many emails, phone calls and spreadsheets. The conference began with a well-attended reception and private view of the exhibition itself at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. I had seen the exhibition previously but wandering round the exhibits with a glass of wine as attendees shared thoughts, ideas and comments about the displays seemed the perfect way to begin what was set to be a fascinating few days of talks and lectures.

The conference itself was held at Windsor Castle in Pug Yard Learning Centre– a fitting and majestic setting for scholarly discussions on courtly relations. There were many familiar faces at the conference as well as new ones, and it was an exciting opportunity to engage with people in person from a wide variety of institutions, specialisms and areas of interest.

Sainsbury Institute colleagues and speakers gathered outside Windsor Castle on a misty start to the first day to the conference. Left to right: Uchida Hiromi, Professor Arakawa Masa’aki, Professor Tsuda Tetsuei, Professor Kawai Masatomo, Despina Zernioti CMG, Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere.

The first day began with a perfectly themed talk given by Dr Mary Redfern (Curator of East Asian Collections, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin) which explored a set of tableware purchased by the Japanese imperial family from English manufacturers for a banquet with Prince Albert Victor and Prince George. By tracing the use of tableware from modern day banquets, such as that used by the Obamas to welcome the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in 2015, all the way back to the imperial banquet in 1881, the talk highlighted the importance of tableware as a means of articulating multiple facets of identity in state exchanges. The talk also showed how the Japanese imperial family used tableware in the late 19th century to position themselves within the international community of sovereigns.

The initial talk was followed by one from Dr Rosina Buckland (Curator of the Japanese Collections, British Museum) who examined a pair of landscape folding screens that were on show at the exhibition. Formed as part of a diplomatic gift from Japan to the UK in 1860, the gold leaf and rich pigments covering the front of the folding screens, as well as delicate rendering of the decorative features and sumptuous painting style reveals the quality of the draughtsmanship and high-ranking nature of the gift. Despite what was commonly thought of as a period of isolation during the ‘closed country’ policy (Sakoku) of the Tokugawa era, these screens demonstrated the carefully constructed means of communicating through diplomatic gifts that the imperial household undertook during this period. Documentation from the time stated that there were originally eight pairs of landscape screens provided in the gift, with the remaining seven still unaccounted for – a tantalising end to a fascinating talk which showed the importance of such gifts within the diplomatic arena.

Professor Anthony Best (Professor in International History, London School of Economics) then provided a helpful socio-political angle to proceedings, discussing the evolution of Anglo-Japanese relations over the 20th century. From its early beginnings and a period of adjustment to each other’s different systems of rule (one example being the gifting by the British of a steam yacht named ‘Emperor’ to the shogun), to more contemporary developments, such as the Emperor Naruhito’s attendance of Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral, the first time the emperor left Japan since the pandemic and a rare attendance of funeral by a reigning Emperor, the talk highlighted both the intensity and idiosyncrasies of UK-Japan relations on opposite sides of the world.

Attendees were then treated to a tour of the state apartments at Windsor Castle, with two groups led by the exhibition’s curator, Rachel Peat (Assistant Curator of Non-European Works of Art, Royal Collection Trust) and our own Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere. I participated in the tour led by Nicole as we were guided round the apartments with a history of the armour, ceramics and furnishings that filled the rooms. We were also very fortunate to have with us Living National Treasure Murose Kazumi, whose is a specialist in urushi lacquer (a term we will return to later). With a brief but considered glance at some of the objects in the apartments, Murose-sensei was able to date the creation of the items as well as the techniques by which they were made. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the room as we were taken through a live interpretation of the works, and Professor Arakawa Masa’aki (Professor of Japanese Art History, Gakushuin University, Tokyo) also lent his expertise in describing an exemplary pair of Kakiemon vases in the collection.

The mist lifted at Windsor for the afternoon before we began the tour of the State Apartments.

Returning to the lecture hall and filled with a sense of awe at the treasures we had just seen, the day was rounded off with a keynote talk by Rachel Peat who discussed the crosscurrents of ongoing exchange that the exhibition had facilitated. One such example was a sake bottle that featured in the collection, previously without provenance but that transpired to be part of a diplomatic gift which could be accurately dated. This talk encapsulated how the exhibition and conference act as a springboard today for the very crosscurrents of exchange that existed (and continue to exist) between the imperial and British royal families of the past, as the exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery demonstrated.

Day two of the conference first saw a session entitled Conservation in Conversation, where three Royal Collection Trust conservators who worked on the items in the exhibition discussed some of the unique techniques employed and the challenges of preparing objects for display. Techniques involved piecing together minute fragments of mother of pearl on spears (yari) in the collection, to XRF analysis of the metal vases in the collection to understand Japanese patination techniques. Particularly interesting was the need to shift in mindset from European tendencies, simply put – to make everything as shiny as possible, to better understanding the original Japanese manner in which the items were intended to look. For example, the patination and deliberate decay displayed in metalwork was intentional in order to highlight the transience of life. Equally impressive were the custom made Perspex blades created to allow the separate display of sword scabbards, handles and blades without damaging the objects, and the carefully crafted floating suit used to display samurai armour made in 1537 to prevent undue stress being placed on the silk bindings between the different parts of the suit.

Royal Collection Trust conservators discussed the techniques they used to prepare objects for display in the exhibition with Rachel Peat.

This was followed by a talk from Murose-sensei, who gave us further insight into the urushi lacquer objects in the collection through his expert eyes. Prefacing the talk with the fact that he would ideally need to handle the objects to give a fully accurate reading (with observations only 10% accurate from catalogue pictures, and 50% accurate through the glass display case), Murose-sensei discussed the use and techniques of specific objects in the exhibition. One of the stars of the exhibition, an urushi box with a heron made by Shirayama Shōsai (1853 – 1923), was described as a particularly impressive piece, with a combination of maki-e (sprinkling of gold onto urushi lacquer) and hana maki-e (feather urushi decoration). Murose-sensei also explained how he was part of the direct teaching lineage of Shirayama-sensei, perfectly demonstrating how artistic expertise is a living tradition and has been passed down from master to student in Japan over many years.

Despina Zernioti CMG (Director, Corfu Museum of Asian Art) presented on the museum she directs, uniquely positioned as an Asian collection housed within a British palace on a Greek island. The museum again typifies the interweaving and crosscurrents of interactions in the royal sphere – with the building itself the Palace of St Michael and St George. You can find out more about the museum in a recording of our Third Thursday Lecture from October.

Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere then gave us a fascinating overview of some of the ceramics that featured in the exhibition, compared to objects from other collections – most notably those currently in the British Museum that were acquired by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks in the later 19th century. Nicole’s talk emphasised how the objects in the royal collection are not just part of a museum collection but are instead a living collection formed of objects that functioned as both objects of diplomacy and objects of the household. This concept of living and evolving traditions and collections was exemplified by the comparison of Kakiemon ‘Hampton Court’ vases with a vase currently held at the British Museum made by Kakiemon Sakaida XV in 2016. These two vases showcase a living tradition that has been passed down from the late 1600s to the present day.

Left: Matched pair of hexagonal jars and covers, Kakiemon style Hizen ware, 1670-90, Royal Collection Trust, RC!N 1094.1-2, a-b. Royal Collection Trust /© His Majesty King Charles III.
Right: Kakiemon XV (b. 1967), ‘Hampton Court’ vase, 2016, British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The final talk of the conference was given by Professor Arakawa who further explored the Kakiemon vases we had seen in the state apartments and how this style of ceramic transformed the colour white from a base colour to the principal character within decoration. The style presents continuous space, with koku, the void, becoming the most important feature in decorative schemes and articulating abstract ideas and harmony within a space. One such example was a vase depicting Sugawara no Michizane (Kitano Tenjin) and his favourite plum tree, which according to myth flew to join Sugawara while he was in exile in Kyushu. The white space between the figure and the plum tree was carefully rendered to articulate the love between Sugawara and his tree. The style also represents the idea of crosscurrents that underpinned the conference, with the form and use of space being derived from ink painting from China, ceramicists from the Korean peninsula who taught local Japanese craftsman in porcelain techniques, and colour schemes designed to appeal to a Dutch market. The result is a rich yet calm decorative scheme quintessential of Japanese porcelain.

Professor Arakawa discussed the careful use of space and white within Kakiemon ware and its influence across other mediums and styles.

Attendees were then taken from Windsor Castle to Japan House London, where Murose-sensei gave a closing talk about the practice of urushi and sustainability. Urushi itself is made from tree sap – distinguished from European lacquer which is made from insects – and is extremely durable, lasting for hundreds of years and only significantly damaged by sunlight. Once it is damaged, it returns back to the ground and can be used to grow more trees – perhaps even more important today where the prevalence of single use plastics and disposable items is wreaking havoc on ecosystems and the planet. Murose-sensei also brought along an urushi bowl which accompanied the then 80 year old Yuichiro Miura to the top of Mount Everest in 2013, withstanding temperatures of up to 50 °C and down to -40 °C at night. Contextualising the art of urushi in terms of both sustainability and ecology highlighted the need to protect both craft and material in the future – of particular importance as urushi trees are at risk of dying out in Japan. You can watch a recording of the talk here. (For those interested, there are also two short films available with Murose-sensei which discuss an introduction to urushi and his early inspirations and the importance of Living National Treasures). A closing reception was then held (with plenty of sake, Asahi and wasabi peas) and was a fitting end to the events of the week.

Murose-sensei’s talk on sustainable urushi restoration, given in Japanese and interpreted into English, was followed by a lively Q&A session about the practice of urushi, as well as its future as a sustainable alternative to plastics.

What perhaps struck me most was the enthusiasm and genuine passion that all attendees had for Japan, and were keen to share in an environment which brought them face to face with not only objects, but also with each other as we return to in-person events. The conference has opened up further dialogue about these collections and practices, and what the future might look like in terms of their study. I feel privileged to have been a part of the proceedings, and am grateful to all those at Royal Collection Trust, Japan House London and colleagues at the Sainsbury Institute who created and facilitated such an impressive celebration of this collection.

Olivia Butler

Office Co-ordinator and Project Support, Sainsbury Institute