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Exquisite craftsmanship showcased in Japan: Courts and Culture from Royal Collection Trust

by Matilda Hickson

One of the things I enjoy most in the world is an informative catalogue, and this recent publication from the Royal Collection Trust, is not only that, but it is also filled with exquisite pictures of objects from the collection that have never been seen in public before, together with a very comprehensive description.

The publication was produced to accompany an exhibition at the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which has currently been postponed due to the Coronavirus. However, if one wanted to look on the bright side of this situation, it means that you can become familiar with chosen exhibits before seeing the real things. And of course, the book includes many close-up details of the works of art, which might not be so easy to see in person.

The Royal Collection contains one of the finest holdings of Japanese works of art in the western world, which is significant for both the unique provenance and the exceptional quality of the objects. This is the first time that highlights from across the collection have been brought together to tell the story of three centuries of diplomatic, artistic and cultural exchange between Britain and Japan.

A good catalogue for me will also include articles on background history and research on the objects on display, and this publication includes exactly that, including new research on previously unpublished works. The book also showcases the unparalleled craftsmanship behind rare examples of porcelain, lacquer, armour, embroidery, metalwork and works on paper, and explores the local materials, techniques and traditions involved in their creation.

Stunning photography illustrates a royal narrative never before documented in a publication, as the relationship between the two ‘island nations’ develops from first encounters and early trade to diplomatic engagement and modern partnership.

Highlights include one of the first two samurai armours to arrive on British soil, sent by Shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada to James I in 1613, and the future King George V’s first-hand account of having his arms tattooed with a dragon and a tiger on a visit to Japan as a teenager in 1881.

Exquisite imperial gifts depicted in the book range from an embroidered folding screen sent to Queen Victoria by the Emperor Meiji to mark her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, to a cosmetic box by the great lacquer artist Shirayama Shōsai, presented to Queen Elizabeth II by the Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) on the occasion of her Coronation in 1953.

The chosen objects are obviously limited to those that were part of an exchange of royal gifts and souvenirs, and so they do not represent the full breadth and complexity of Japanese art. However, they do represent some of the most stunning and beautiful objects to come out of Japan between 1613 and 1955.

This is a fascinating account of the history of royal relations between the two countries, and includes both a narrative and commentary on specific aspects of Japanese art and culture too. As such, it would be of interest to those who know little of Japanese art and wish to learn more, as well as being an important addition to the library of those who are already interested in the subject. Highly recommended.


Japan: Courts and Culture

Hardback: ISBN 978 1 909741 68 3. 270 x 235 mm, 320 pages, approx. 340 colour illustrations. Available at £35.00 from Royal Collection Trust shops and, and at £49.95 from all good bookshops.

Japan: Courts and Culture accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which will open at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, at a date to be confirmed.


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