Britain 1760 – 1900, The Influence Of Japan, The V&A, London.
The Victoria and Albert started its life in 1857, then known to the world as the South Kensington Museum. It was to house many of the objects and artefacts from The Great Exhibition after its six month reign in Hyde Park six years earlier. Henry Cole and Prince Albert set up the Great Exhibition as a vehicle to educate the masses on culture and taste, but not just any kind of taste, “good taste”. It is believed the purpose of this kind gesture of pity towards the lower classes was to distract them from the real matters at hand. Blind them with consumerism and they’ll forget all about the world around them falling into crisis and revolution. Over six million people attended the exhibition, from all classes and from all corners of the country. It housed 100,000 objects from 34 nations, with a heavy majority being mass-produced product. You now had a giant walk-in mail order catalogue for all the latest trends. You could see an item you liked and then you could go and order it via the silk road. The Orient had landed and everybody wanted a piece.
This idea of “good taste” and of the exotic grabs you as you enter the gallery on the fourth floor of the V&A. You get an overwhelming feeling of grandeur and peacefulness, probably brought on by the low lighting and soft colourful landscape, but also the huge open corridors and grandiose displays that seem to whittle on forever ahead of you.
The Influence Of Japan lies about four rooms in, at the turn of 1870. The pieces displayed here are wonderfully presented, arranged on gold and green walls. The prize piece being five beautiful woodblock prints hanging together in a simple and almost quiet formation, to the right in a small alcove. In the centre you have The Fifth Month from the series ‘The Tale of Genji in the Twelve Months’ made in Edo (which we all now know as Tokyo) by Utagawa Kunisada. Presented over three pages it depicts a whole scene of eight people leisurely residing by the water, with intricate detail to the fencing and pattern on their attire. Above you have The Lines of Lovers Umegae and Genta in the Joruri Drama ‘Hiragana Seisuiki’ also by Kunisada. On its right is Saijo, Iyo Province from the series ‘Views of Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces’ by Utagawa Hiroshige. Then below left to right you have The Actors Sawamura Sojuro 1 and Segawa Kikunojo 1 (artist unknown) and Yoshiwara O-Mon Gate from the series ‘Five Seasonal Festivals’ by Kunisada.
Thinking about the process of woodblock printing it’s really interesting looking at these breathtaking pieces. You wonder how they managed to get so much tiny detail and subtlety in colour and texture using a technique such as woodblock printing, considering our western woodblock prints are so vulgar and almost primitive in comparison.
To the right of the prints they have a Japanese screen which emerges from behind a protruding wall to neatly fill the created space; the lighting so moody and soft it’s almost hard to make out the detail. The screen is actually a British-made piece designed by William Eden Nesfield and built by James Forsyth but with real authentic Japanese paper panels decorated with birds and flowers. In the foreground sits a wooden chair by E W Godwin, which although he states was of Greek design, it has very obvious Japanese traits, and by this time Godwin had been designing Japanese inspired furniture for some time, having moved from the Ruskinian Gothic style in the mid 1800s to the Anglo – Japanese Taste of the Aesthetic Movement and Whistler’s circle in the 1870s.
On the aforementioned wall lies one solemnly placed Lithotint print by James Abbott Mcneill Whistler. Born an American, he traveled to Russia and France before he later settled in London in 1859, a young artist ready to make his mark. The piece we see here is called The Thames and was part of a series of twilight views he made of the river. He named them his ‘Nocturnes’ and they reveal his inspiration from Japanese prints and Chinese landscape paintings, although sitting there in its black murky lines and smudges it couldn’t really look more British and Victorian.
Behind us lie two glass cabinets, one against either wall. As we turn to face outward, we find the cabinet on the right is filled with original Japanese objects from the International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Most were modern pieces that were made for the European market, but there are some older genuine objects made for the Japanese tea ceremony, from combs to sword guards, teapots and vases.
In the opposite cabinet you find more of E W Godwin’s work, some silk furnishing fabrics hung behind a design he did for a wallpaper, all with obvious Japanese motifs and an inspired depiction of nature.
As we move forward and out of the small corridor we find ourselves staring at a mock Japanese painting by Frank Dillon, The Stray Shuttlecock 1878, a view of an interior of a room, but seen from a slightly distorted western view, with objects and artefacts jumbled together to create a perfect “eastern” scene, regardless of whether these things would be used together or not. To its left hangs a small framed cover illustration for sheet music for The High Art Maiden. This was a parody of Aestheticism and in other areas of culture at the time they found the whole movement to be laughable, here emphasizing some of the most distinctive properties of the movement: the Chinese pottery, peacock feathers, Japanese fans, and her medieval style dress.
As you stand here and turn your head around this room you find many more Japanese inspired pieces. From Aubrey Beardsley books to set and costume designs for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, you find a well presented glimpse into an important influence and change in British design that all started with The Great Exhibition. Maybe the original Japanese pieces could be displayed separately from the “mock” or “faux” british made pieces so that it is easier to get a grasp on what you’re looking at and not confuse the two. But I would also say that this point in the gallery is one of the most elegant and well brought together areas and is a great insight into the design and culture at this point in British and world history.
Written by Finnian Kidd