Skip to main content

Japan: Courts and Culture – Exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Frances has many years' experience writing about exhibitions in art galleries and museums.

Hexagonal Jars and Lids

Hexagonal Jars and Lids. 1670-1690. – Image by Frances Spiegel (2022) with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Hexagonal Jars and Lids. 1670-1690. – Image by Frances Spiegel (2022) with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

World-Class Collection of Japanese Works

The Royal Collection Trust (RCT) includes several hundred remarkable examples of Japanese art, many received as gifts from the Japanese imperial family. The collection, one of the finest in the western world, is important because of the unique provenance and outstanding quality of the items. It is the result of the fascinating diplomatic, artistic and cultural relationship between Japan and Britain over a period of more than 300 years.

Japan: Courts and Culture explores that relationship from first contact in 1613 to Japan’s very modern diplomatic relationship in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Rare Surviving Examples of Japanese Craftsmanship

The exhibition features fine examples of porcelain, woodcut prints, exquisite fans, painted and embroidered screens and lacquer as well as samurai armour and weaponry. Speaking recently, Rachel Peat, curator of the exhibition, said: “It’s a real opportunity to see first-hand the precious materials and intricate techniques which have so profoundly shaped British taste and which helped forge a lasting relationship between the two nations. We hope visitors will enjoy discovering the worlds of ritual, honour and artistry that link the courts and cultures of Britain and Japan to this day.”

Highlights of the Exhibition

In a display of so many treasures it’s extremely difficult to choose “the highlights”, but the hexagonal Kakiemon-style jars and Lids from Arita, Hizen Province (shown above), really stand out.

In the late seventeenth century Queen Mary II acquired many jars like these and displayed them at Hampton Court Palace. As a result, they are known as ‘Hampton Court vases’.

The jars have rounded shoulders, straight neck and six curved sides tapering to the foot. They are decorated with birds and women in Kakiemon-style with glazed enamels of blue, red, green and yellow. It’s unusual to get a matching pair where the designs are symmetrical when displayed side-by-side.

The vases were not made on a potter’s wheel. Instead, they were made in separate panels and then carefully assembled. This was a labour-intensive process and luxury items like these were not made after the eighteenth century.

Embroidered Folding Screen 1880-1897

Embroidered Folding Screen 1880-1897. Image by Frances Spiegel (2022) with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Embroidered Folding Screen 1880-1897. Image by Frances Spiegel (2022) with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Scroll to Continue

Embroidered Folding Screen

Another piece that really impresses is this embroidered screen. Presented to Queen Victoria for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the four-leaf folding screen was a gift from the Emperor Meiji.

From the 1800s screens like this were used to furnish the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers and sovereigns. The screen dates from 1880-1897 and shows the mountainous landscape of Arashiyama near Kyoto which rocks and trees and a foaming river. The brightly coloured silk used for the river stands out among mainly muted colours, making the water appear to gush out of the frame.

The name of the actual artist is not known but the screen probably came from one of the three most important Kyoto firms of Nishimura, Iida and Kawashima, all used by the Japanese imperial family from the 1880s.

Below each of the four panels is a smaller panel embroidered on a black background in silk with green and cream leaves and red berries. On the back of the screen is a silk painted scene of ducks in flight.

Chinese Junk

Chinese Junk – Model Boat. Image by Frances Spiegel (2022) with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Chinese Junk – Model Boat. Image by Frances Spiegel (2022) with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Chinese Junk - Model Boat

This piece is a table caster which may have been purchased by King George IV. It was originally one of a pair but the second no longer exists.

The boat combines Chinese and Japanese elements. It is based on a Chinese boat called a junk but is decorated with Japanese gold lacquer. The junk has a clockwork mechanism that allowed the mobile display of condiments at the dinner table. Originally, the junk would have had wheels. The sides of the caster are decorated with gold lacquer showing sprays of peonies, chrysanthemums and camellias. Below the flowers two dragons face each other.

Japan: Courts and Culture is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 8 April 2022 – 12 March 2023.

Further information about the exhibition can be obtained from Royal Collection Trust. There is also a fully illustrated book published by the RCT to support the exhibition.

© 2022 Frances Spiegel

Related Articles