An Interview with Tim Clark

Tim Clark is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Asia at the British Museum. Before retiring from the Museum at the end of December 2019 he had served for many years as Head of the Japanese Section with responsibility for over 30,000 objects relating to Japan. He was awarded a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellowship by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese arts and Cultures for the academic year 2003-2004.

Tim’s particular field of interest is Japanese paintings and prints of the Edo period (1600-1868) and Meiji era (1868-1912). He has curated many exhibitions on aspects of Japanese art and authored and co-authored numerous books about Japanese pictorial art.
In April 2020, Tim was awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette (旭日小綬章, Kyokujitsushōju-shō) by the Government of Japan for his distinguished achievements in the promotion of Japanese culture in the UK.

Congratulations for this wonderful and very well-deserved honour. What are your feelings about this award?

It feels great! I’ve been honoured to receive the award on behalf of the many teams I’ve worked with over the years, in the UK, Japan and around the world.

Shunga exhibition in 2013
Drew Gerstle, Tim Clark, Yano Akiko and Ishigami Aki

You retired from your position at the British Museum last year. Can you tell us a little about your future plans?

The BM has invited me to be a Research Fellow, specifically to work on two projects: further research and write-up on Late Hokusai; and helping to develop a new project on pictorial art and salon culture in Kyoto and Osaka, 1750-1900 (with Drew Gerstle, Akiko Yano, Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University and many others). Once lockdown is over, I badly need to clear out my old office.

What would you regard as the greatest highlights of your time at the British Museum?

That’s a difficult one… You are not supposed to favour any of your children over the others, are you? Specifically? I guess it has to be working on Utamaro and Hokusai with Asano Shūgō, and on Shunga with Drew Gerstle (and almost fifty others). In general, more than anything, it has been meeting and collaborating with smart people from BM and all around the globe. High up that list of treasured collaborators are Nicole, Simon, Hiromi, Ryōko, Akira and all your other colleagues at SISJAC.

Tim Clark and Simon Kaner at the Third Thursday Lecture, Norwich in 2006

Who and what inspired you to devote your career to Japanese culture?

I became fascinated by Japan as a child. Then friends of my parents gave me an ukiyo-e print when I was in my early teens. Somewhere along the way a hobby became a career, lucky me!

Tim Clark and Nicole Rousmaniere at the British Museum in 2015

Can you tell us about working with your supervisor Professor John Rosenfield at Harvard University? You recently dedicated the Nara symposium to him. Can you elaborate on his impact on your research?

John Rosenfield was an outstanding mentor to many of us in the field – closest to me in age are Sam and Anne Morse, Timon Screech, Nicole Rousmaniere and Cynthea Bogel – (and there have been many others). John’s specialist research was mainly in Buddhist arts and his last great book was about Chōgen. So Sam, Anne and I were gratified to be able to dedicate the Nara symposium last October to his memory. Personally, John really encouraged me in my scholarly interest in ukiyo-e. In those days (1980s), ukiyo-e was not universally recognised as a significant field of study.

Can you tell us about your experience in Japan when you were a student at Gakushuin University, Tokyo?

I first met Kobayashi Tadashi as a summer research fellow at the Freer Gallery, Washington DC (twice) in the early 1980s. I really enjoyed learning from him as we surveyed the ukiyo-e painting collection there together. It was fun as well as intellectually so stimulating. Prof. Kobayashi kindly agreed to my request to become a research student at Gakushūin, where he supervised my work. We enjoyed some great zemi-ryokō (seminar research trips) as a group of lively students travelling around Japan with him.

Could you say something about your favourite place(s) in Japan?

Just about any eel restaurant 😊 My old flat in Roppongi in Tokyo. Trips in wildest Kyushu with Robert Campbell and with Nicole. Rambling around Higashiyama in Kyoto. Shopping for art in Kanda Jinbochō in Tokyo. And many, many more. It’s hard to think of places in Japan that I don’t like…

Tim Clark with Elizabeth Coombs and Roger Keyes in York 2016

You co-curated the exhibition ‘Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave’ at the British Museum. If, hypothetically, Katsushika Hokusai came to the UK, what would you like to show him? Where would you like to take him?

I think Hokusai (and Oi) would do a brilliant job on their own. Hokusai was curious about absolutely everything and although he could come across as eccentric, I wonder if that wasn’t partly a mechanism to protect his time for constant creativity (he became such a celebrity). If I had the power, I would arrange for them to have completely free access, day and night, to all the museums, art galleries and zoos in the UK. I’d love to introduce them to my friends Roger Keyes and Elizabeth Coombs. And if they still had any energy (they probably would), I’d like to walk with them by the sea. And that’s before I get onto all the questions I would pester them with…

What is your favourite English-language poem?

Anything written by my partner, Seamus Curran (yes, I’m biased).

I remember you played BBC Radio 3 while working at your desk. Does music play an important part in your life?

It does. To be honest I used Radio 3 in the office to create a bit of a protective sound world around me. It really helped me to stay focused on the tasks at hand. At home I generally defer to the catholic tastes of Seamus (see previous). David Bowie, Richard I (Wagner) and Richard II (Strauss), Billie Holiday, and Arcade Fire have been the soundtracks of our times together. And his playlist list keeps growing, I’m happy to say.

I know you are a very good cook. What do you think is the best cookbook for foodies? Do you have a favourite dish?

I’m an OK cook, I suppose, not particularly creative. I do enjoy cooking for friends. Delia Smith (go Yellows!) is the bible and I like trying new recipes from the Guardian most weekends. I’ve never really tried to cook Japanese food, which I love; that may become a fun retirement hobby.

Tim Clark and Donald Keene at the British Museum in 2010

You have been a great supporter of the Sainsbury Institute and have often visited in Norwich – most recently giving a Third Thursday lecture with Angus Lockyer (March 2019). Do you have any particular memories of, or favourite places or experiences in Norwich you could share?

Treasured memories of the gathering with Sir Robert and Lady Lisa at their home in Dulwich, the garden overflowing with the white flowers that Lisa loved. Dame Elizabeth and many leading Japan scholars were also present. Was that the spiritual founding of SISJAC? (Nicole?) Donald Keene almost whispering his lecture about Emperor Meiji in the nave of Norwich Cathedral – and us all hanging on every single word. Strolling around the medieval streets of Norwich early in the morning – and late at night – and sampling the local ales with SISJAC fellows.

How would you assess the role of the Sainsbury Institute in promoting the study and better understanding of Japanese art in the UK? Any suggestions for the future?

Speaking parochially first, SISJAC has supported amazingly all the great Japan projects at BM since 2000 – with your knowledge, people and impressive human networks. The research you have nurtured and generated has established unrivalled scholarly links all over the globe; and all the while you’ve grown an amazing supporter base in the East Anglian communities. You’ve created a serious and welcoming collegiate centre at 64, The Close.

I think we all need to reach out as much as possible with the powerful tools that digital and the web have given us. Lockdown showed just how much the web can be used enrich our lives. It truly has been a godsend.

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