Jan 07 2013
Our Exhibitions and Display Curator, Rowena Hamilton, on our new exhibition, The Seven Treasures: Japanese Enamels from the V&A, which goes on show at Weston Park later this month:
Recently, the engineer and businessman Edwin Davies CBE donated his impressive collection of Japanese cloisonné enamels to the V&A for the benefit of the nation. The V&A had a modest existing collection of cloisonné enamels (those bought at the Paris Exposition of 1867 and a handful of other pieces), however these remarkable additions mean that Britain now has a world-class collection of this beautiful and unique artform.
Edwin Davies studied art in addition to engineering, but it was as an engineer that he was drawn to cloisonné enamels. He speaks passionately about how they attracted him because of their polished beauty, but it’s the ingenious craft processes used to make them that he found most fascinating.
In enameling makers use coloured, powdered glass as a paste applied to a heat proof base object and fired to very high temperatures to fuse the glass. Once cooled, the enameller polishes the glass and repeats the process, building up many layers of enamel to create the finished object. In cloisonné enamelling fine metal wires divide the surface into enclosed areas called cloisons. These are filled in with different coloured enamels to create the design and often the metal wires shine through in the finished surface. The jewel-like colours of enamels reminded Japanese people of gemstones and so they named the technique Shippo. The name refers to seven treasures mentioned in Buddhist texts, which included brightly coloured gems; hence the exhibition title.
Most of the enamels in the exhibition were made between 1880 and 1910, a ‘Golden Age’ of cloisonné enameling in Japan. After 1868, people and ideas began to move freely between Europe and Japan in a way they had not been able to for 200 years. Technical experts from Europe advised Japanese manufacturers on development and artistic ideas flowed in both directions; Japanese art had a huge influence on movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, but Japanese artists subsequently found their own inspiration in these new European styles.
The exhibition also reflects an interesting period in Japanese history. The renaissance of Japanese cloisonné is attributed to Kaji Tsunekichi (1803–1883), a Samurai sword smith. After the Shogun of Japan was overthrown in 1868, Samurai were no longer allowed to carry swords. Those who had made their armour, had to find new ways to make a living. Kaji used his knowledge of metalworking to recreate examples of Chinese cloisonné enameling he had seen, creating new enthusiasm for the craft in Japan.
Edwin Davies’ generosity has enabled the V&A to research and create an exhibition to share these remarkable works throughout the UK, and we’re thrilled to be able to show the collection here in Sheffield. The exhibition has also provided the opportunity to conserve, research and display some wonderful examples from Sheffield’s own collections, which illustrate the process and give a glimpse of how amazing the construction of these objects really is.
The Seven Treasures: Japanese Enamels from the V&A opens at Weston Park on 26 January and continues until 2 June 2013.
Bowl, Unsigned; Nagoya,1912-26, cloisonné enamel. V&A: FE.22:1-2011 Gift of Edwin Davies © Victoria and Albert Museum, London