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Treasures of the library

Cortazzi Collections at the Lisa Sainsbury Library

Colour plate illustrating decorative lacquer ware examples in Montanus’ Ambassades Mémorables de la compagnie des indes orientales des provinces unies vers les empereurs du Japon

If you are a regular reader of this column, you may have noticed that the vast majority of the special collections materials kept at the Lisa Sainsbury Library have been generously provided by Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi.

Sir Hugh, who was the British Ambassador to Japan between 1980 and 1984, and his wife have been life-long supporters of the Institute. When he and his wife learned that an academic library was being built within the Institute, they took every opportunity to support us. The couple’s first major gift to the Sainsbury Institute came in 2001, back when the Library was still preparing to open. The pair selected around 800 materials related to Japanese art and culture from their own private collection that they have acquired over the years. These materials were mainly general books, exhibition catalogues and information leaflets issued by important temples, gardens and other historic touristic sites in Japan. Despite these initial materials being more basic in nature, the Cortazzi collection formed one of the three major donations to the yet to open Library. (see note 1)

Soon after the inauguration of the Library in May 2003, we received the entire Cortazzi collection of old maps (37 items) and woodblock prints (39 items)—mainly of a pictorial genre called Yokohama—on 1 August 2003.

In the following year in 2004, Sir Hugh decided to gift his entire library collection on Japan which he kept at his country residence. In preparation, I travelled there on 11 August that year to spend two nights and three days locked in his study to list up the large holding. The collection list was then evaluated by an expert. Once the agreements were in place, I again travelled to meet Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi at their country home with a courier company to receive virtually all of the resources Sir Hugh has generously offered. Amongst the collection are the rare and beautifully illustrated copy of Arnoldus Montanus’ (c.1625-1683) book on Japan* and of Engelbert Kaempfer’s (1627-1716) The History of Japan. The two are the oldest published books held at the Library. The core of the donations consists of titles written by Westerners who travelled to Japan during the end of the Tokugawa period (1615-1868) include Ernest Satow, Basil Hall Chamberlain, William George Aston, Lafcadio Hearn, and Josiah Conder.

This act of generosity helped the Lisa Sainsbury Library to house a significant collection of old maps, woodblock prints and rare books from at an early stage.

Seven different editions of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s popular title, Things Japanese, are held at the Lisa Sainsbury Library

Sir Hugh continued to purchase resources mainly for his own research interests and writings. He also continued to build his book, print and map collections. When he wrapped up a writing project or amassed a good number of materials, he would contact me to suggest a good date when I could come and collect them from his London home. I would go with a large empty suitcase, stuff it as full as I could with books, prints and other materials and use all my strength to roll the case back to Norwich. I lost count of the number of these journeys I have made over the years, but my suitcase can certainly tell the tales, with its two wheels now reduced down to their bearings.

Sir Hugh was without a doubt a collector. I often hear that “collectors” share certain traits. These include experiencing a certain joy in the very act of collecting. In Sir Hugh’s case, we have received a set of eight different editions of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s Things Japanese. To be precise, they were the first edition published in 1890, second edition (1891), third edition (1898), fourth edition (1902), fifth edition (1905), another fifth edition but with appendix (1927) and two copies of the sixth edition published in 1939.

On another occasion, Sir Hugh won an auction bid for an exquisitely presented set of Ornamental Arts of Japan(1882-1884) at Bonhams. The set is comprised of four volumes of large bound books that measure 43cm in height and 30cm in width and weighed 18kg in total. I received a message soon after with the instruction to collect the four-volume set from Bonhams on Bond Street and bring it straight back to Norwich for library accession. I was surprised that he did not want to take them home to enjoy them himself first. Rather, he was keen to add the volumes to the Cortazzi collection as soon as possible. Being the frugal commoner that I am, it beggared belief to meet someone so kind, generous and selfless. I suppose he was passionate about building a signature collection on Japan in the UK.

The tales of Sir Hugh’s generosity do not end there. For instance, whenever he received emails of catalogues from antiquarians on old maps, he would forward the message on to me. He would instruct, “If there are any maps in here that would contribute to the Cortazzi Collection, buy them.” He also added that “I will send a cheque up to this amount” and would suggested a figure. In more recent times, however, demand and, as a result, prices for old maps have climbed. It became increasingly difficult to find good maps for the amount Sir Hugh kindly suggested. When I did find one, but for twice the amount suggested, I sheepishly asked Sir Hugh for his thoughts. He wrote back immediately saying, “all I need to do is to write another cheque for the remaining amount. In the meantime, swiftly confirm the purchase with the seller”. When the map finally arrived at the Library, I took it to London to show it to Sir Hugh. Naturally, his wife Lady Cortazzi would also be there to welcome me. It soon became apparent that Lady Cortazzi did not know about the purchase. When she cottoned on, Lady Cortazzi sighed with a familiar acquiescence while Sir Hugh managed to draw a grin of embarrassment. Trapped in the middle, I had to draw on every idea to explain to Lady Cortazzi the value and importance of the map as a primary research material.

Through repeating such exchanges for many years, the Cortazzi Collection of the Lisa Sainsbury Library grew to become a significant collection. We currently house around 2000 titles of books and published materials, 99 old maps and 47 woodblock prints.

One warm summer’s day, thoughts of Sir Hugh crossed my mind as I realised that I haven’t written to him recently and that I should give him a call or send an email. I think this was around 11 o’clock on the morning of 14 August 2018. As I made a mental plan of getting in touch with him, little did I realise that around the same time was when Sir Hugh Cortazzi drew his last breath on earth.

His passing marks end of a remarkable chapter of the Lisa Sainsbury Library. As the librarian, I feel privileged to have worked with Sir Hugh for so many years to build the Cortazzi collection. Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi’s generosity has transformed the collection and firmly situated the significance of the Library in the area of Japanese cultural studies.

Akira Hirano
Librarian, Lisa Sainsbury Library

Note 1: There are three major donations made to the library. In addition to those from Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi are: Japanese art exhibition catalogues from Japan collected by Professor Kawai Masatomo (then Professor at Keio University); and Japanese books on Japanese art and culture from the widow of Yamaguchi Yukio, a prominent Asahi Newspaper journalist.

*Full title: Montanus A., Ambassades Mémorables de la compagnie des indes orientales des provinces unies vers les empereurs du Japon.