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Digitising the Chiddingstone Castle Collection of Japanese Lacquer: A Workshop Report

On the 11th of October, a workshop on digitising Japanese urushi lacquerwares was held at Chiddingstone Castle as part of the project supported by the Ishibashi Foundation Digital Futures Initiative. Led by Dr Ryoko Matsuba and assisted by Naomi Collick, curator at the Castle and Yuhan Ji, Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer, the workshop is made possible by the collaboration between SISJAC and the Art Research Centre (ARC) at Ritsumeikan University in Japan. We were also joined remotely by Professor Ryo Akama and Professor Keiko Suzuki (Art Research Centre, Ritsumeikan University), Kazumi Murose (urushi artist and Living National Treasure), Tomoya Murose (urushi artist), Masami Yamada (curator at the V&A Museum), Hiromi Uchida (Japan Arts Council), as well as students from both the University of East Anglia and Ritsumeikan University.

The session began with Naomi introducing the history of Chiddingstone Castle’s collection, which covers areas such as Buddhist, Ancient Egyptian, Stuart & Jacobite, and most significantly Japanese art. These collections formerly belonged to Denys Eyre Bower (1905-1977), an avid collector who devoted his life to finding fascinating artworks. With a passion for collecting from a young age, Bower left his long-term job as a banking clerk and set up an antique shop in London at the age of 38. Over the next 12 years, Bower was able to continue adding new works of art to his collection. He bought the Castle in 1955 to house his collections and opened it to the public for a small fee.

Bower was actively acquiring Japanese artefacts in the decades around the middle of the 20th century. He had a keen sense of quality and amassed a sizable collection of Japanese lacquer at affordable costs, but he did not concentrate on any particular schools or artists. As a result, the collection features a variety of styles and techniques, such as rinpa, kodai-ji maki-e and export styles, with objects dated to anywhere between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, covering the entirety of the Edo and Meiji periods. The designs are equally wide-ranging and feature landscape, birds and flowers, textile patterns, as well as motifs from woodblock prints. The objects include writing boxes, tea containers, picnic sets, incense game boxes, both used in Japan domestically and made for export. Among the most significant objects of export lacquerware in the collection is the ‘Chiddingstone casket’, which is part of a small group of high-quality lacquerwares made in Japan in the 1630s-1640s. It is particularly rare because its shape was inspired by European architecture, possibly an Italian pavilion, yet it is covered in traditional Japanese designs and imagery.

A group of inrō from the Chiddingstone Castle collection

Concurrently on the Ritsumeikan side, a photobooth has been set up to demonstrate the best practices of digitising 3D objects of art. The setup, which included the camera location, lighting, and backdrop, was explained to us by Professor Akama. He noted that fixed focal length photographic lenses are always preferred in taking photos of art objects, and that means the position of the camera must be adjusted depending on the focal length of the lens. It is a trade-off between the lenses to use and the camera distance because it is risky to set the camera too close to the subject. One fundamental thing to keep in mind when moving the camera is that one leg of the tripod must always be in front, facing the picture booth, to prevent it from falling onto the object in the event that the camera becomes unsteady. For photographs taken for research purposes, instead of having a single, narrow focal point, it is also recommended to use wider aperture and make sure as much information as possible is clearly presented.

Professor Akama continued to explain that, depending on the shapes of objects, the lighting will also need to be adjusted, so that the camera does not capture reflections on the surface that blurs the view of the object. Lower lighting is advised if the object’s surface is uneven since it prevents excessive reflections and allows patterns on the surface to show.

Additionally, the Ritsumeikan team demonstrated how to use colour cards, an essential tool to achieve perfect colour matching in a studio setting. Professor Akama notes that the grey card is the most important component; once it is captured by the camera, the colour would serve as a reference point for photographers to adjust their exposure and white balance settings. The RGB colour codes printed on the cards also allows the colours to be precisely matched and readily altered in Photoshop afterwards.

Answering a question raised by Mr Murose about the common colour combination of black and gold found on lacquerwares, Professor Akama acknowledges that this is challenging, if not impossible, to reproduce this colour combination digitally: in practice, some craftsmen would resort to adding real gold leaves to printed photographs to represent the colour faithfully. The fact that photographers frequently concentrate on the motifs and designs may contribute to the problem, making the black lacquer ground appear brighter than it actually is.

Professor Ryo Akama and Professor Keiko Suzuki explaining the photography setup to an online audience

Transitioning back to the studio inside the Castle, we had also set up a photobooth the previous day and were ready to apply some of the techniques freshly learned from the Ritsumeikan team. Naomi chose a 17th century box for incense utensils as the object under focus. The box lid features the design of a Chinese immortal and a dragon, while a number of other motifs found on the box are also inspired by foreign cultures that would have been exotic to the Japanese eyes. For instance, the karakusa floral scroll motif around the rim of the box is inspired by designs of export lacquer, particularly for the Portuguese market. During the interactive live session, with generous advice and help offered by Professor Akama and Mr Murose, the lighting, camera settings, positioning, and care of lacquer objects were discussed and explored. Good work always comes from the details: in capturing the design on the lid, we noticed that it is particularly challenging to make sure the object stays parallel to the camera, causing a slight distortion in the square shape of the lid in the reproduced photograph. To get around this issue, an alternative, horizontal set-up is needed for photos to be taken from above.

Camera view of the 17th century lacquer box during the workshop

Out of a total of around 800 Japanese objects housed in the Chiddingstone Castle, more than 600 are lacquerwares, making the collection one of the finest in Western Europe. As most of the objects are in storage and are not yet available to view online, we are hoping to carry out further digitisation work on the collection in the future to make the collection accessible to a wider public.

Yuhan Ji

Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer, SISJAC

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