Japanese Cloisonné Enamels: An Expression of Endless Patience

Japanese Cloisonné Enamels: An Expression of Endless Patience

There are two distinct qualities or types expressed in Japanese art: one suggesting endless patience in the execution of minute detail, the other denoting a momentary conception of some fleeting idea carried out with boldness and freedom of expression in form and line – profuse complexity and extreme simplicity… the work on Japanese cloisonné ware generally exhibits the quality suggestive of unwearying labour and patience. i


S o wrote the art historian Professor Harada Jirō of the Imperial Household Museum in ‘Japanese Art and Artists of Today – VI. Cloisonné Enamels’ in The Studio, June 1911.

Although Chinese enamels had been imported and highly valued in Japan since at least the seventeenth century, there was apparently no production of three-dimensional cloisonné-enamel objects in Japan until the early nineteenth century.

The renaissance of Japanese cloisonné manufacture is credited to one Kaji Tsunekichi (1803–83) of Nagoya in Owari province, a former samurai turned metal-gilder. Like many samurai of the early nineteenth century, he was forced to find ways to supplement his meagre official stipend. The story is that around 1838 Kaji acquired a piece of Chinese cloisonné enamel and, by deconstructing it eventually produced a small cloisonné-enamel dish. Then, according to a summary of Kaji’s own account of his career, ‘He now applied himself with patient assiduity to work of this kind, and succeeded, in 1839, in making a plate six inches in diameter’.ii Kaji produced other small items, such as brush-rests and cups, and soon ‘had the honour of seeing his productions presented to the Tokugawa Court in Yedo by the feudal chief [daimyō] of Owari’. iii

By the mid-1850s Kaji was sufficiently confident to start taking on pupils, these included Hayashi Shogorō (d.1896), a craftsman mainly celebrated for the fact that his own pupils were teachers of many of the later masters of cloisonné enamelling. The most significant of Hayashi’s pupils was Tsukamoto Kaisuke (1828–87), who studied under him from 1860–61. Tsukamoto Kaisuke in turn taught Hayashi Kodenji (1831–1915), a craftsman who was to become one of the most influential cloisonné makers of his time. Hayashi set up an independent cloisonné workshop in Nagoya in 1862 and, like his teacher, began to train other craftsmen. He remained at the forefront of cloisonné manufacturing in the Nagoya region throughout his career.

Left: A large cloisonné enamel tripod koro [incense burner], Attributed to Hayashi Kodenji (1831-1915), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £10,000 – 15,000

Right: A cloisonné enamel vase, Signed Dai Nihon Hayashi Kodenji zo (made by Hayashi Kodenji of Great Japan), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £10,000 – 15,000

In 1871 the Nagoya Cloisonné Company was established at Toshima, just outside Nagoya, by Muramatsu Hikoshichi and Tsukamoto Jine’mon, the elder brother of Tsukamoto Kaisuke. The technological advances they made resulted in the company winning a first prize at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873. Many cloisonné-manufacturing companies sprang up in and around Toshima and the area rapidly became Japan’s main centre of cloisonné production and became known as Shippō-chō (Cloisonné town). It has been estimated that at their peak the cloisonné manufactories of Toshima were producing ‘no less than seventy percent of the total cloisonné enamels produced in Japan’.iv

Cloisonne maker at the Japanese Village, from Illustrated London News, Feb 21, 1885

From tentative beginnings in the 1830s, cloisonné enamels grew by the end of the nineteenth century into one of Japan’s most successful forms of manufacture and export. The peak of cloisonné enamel production followed the ‘reopening’ of Japan in the 1850s and the ensuing obsession in the West for all forms of Japanese art.

A cloisonné enamel vase and cover. Signed on the silver tablet Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £20,000–30,000

With the introduction of more advanced enamelling techniques from Europe, notably those introduced by Gottfried Wagener, the previous reliance on background wires to retain the enamels was removed and the way was open for the possibility of using larger areas of clear bright enamels. These innovations took time to perfect, and the use of decorative wires remained integral to the cloisonné enamels of artists such as Namikawa Yasuyuki (1845-1927).

A magnificent cloisonné enamel moon flask. Signed Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £150,000–180,000

Yasuyuki is believed to have started his career around 1868 and worked with the Kinunken group of the Kyoto Shippō Kaisha from 1871: he left them in 1874 and set up own his studio. By 1875, he was exhibiting his work at national and international expositions including Philadelphia 1876, the First National Industrial Exposition Tokyo 1877, and Paris 1878 and may have exhibited at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893.

A cloisonné enamel vase and cover, Signed on a silver tablet Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £40,000–60,000

Yasuyuki’s enamels are characterised by the skilful use of fine wirework and superb attention to detail both being greatly admired by the many western travellers and collectors of the late nineteenth century who also visited Yasuyuki's studio and whose names are recorded in the two extant Visitor’s Books. These travellers included the writer Rudyard Kipling and although Kipling does not mention Yasuyuki by name it is obvious that it his workshop he is visiting.

Left: A fine cloisonné enamel vase, Signed on a silver tablet Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £150,000-180,000

Right: A cloisonné enamel scent bottle, Signed Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £6,000-8,000

‘It is one thing to read of cloisonné making, but quite another to watch it being made… With the finest silver ribbon wire, set on edge, less than a sixteenth of an inch high, he followed the lines of the drawing at his side, pinching the wires into tendrils and the serrated outlines of leaves with infinite patience… With a tiny pair of chopsticks, they filled from bowls at their sides each compartment of the pattern with its proper hue of paste… I saw a man who had only been a
month over the polishing of one little vase five inches high. “There is also cheap cloisonné to be bought,” said the manager with a smile. “We cannot make that. The vase will be seventy dollars.” I respected him for saying ‘cannot’ instead of ‘do not.’ There spoke the artist.’ v

Perhaps the most extensive descriptions of Yasuyuki and his workshop are to be found in the writing of Herbert Ponting. He devotes an entire chapter to Yasuyuki and creates a somewhat romantic view of the conditions of cloisonné production. He begins ‘It was here I met Mr Namikawa. A man of quiet speech and courteous manner, whose refined classical features betrayed in every line the gentle, sympathetic nature of the artist.’ He then describes the view from Namikawa’s house ‘Outside was a narrow veranda fronted with sliding windows of glass, and beyond was the essence of all that is aesthetic and refined in a Japanese garden. There was a little lake with rustic bridges, and miniature islands clad with dwarf pine trees of that rugged, crawling kind that one sees only in Japan…’. vi

Namikawa Yasuyuki's garden: V&A E.71-1993, Credit: V&A

By all accounts Yasuyuki was much more easy-going than other producers and was more than happy to entertain the steady stream of western visitors who called on him. The environment of his studio, which survives today as the Namikawa Museum – its garden largely unchanged since Ponting’s time – was, and still is, both relaxing and serene.

Ponting gives his impression of how Yasuyuki’s workshop operated: ‘Each member of staff has absorbed the master’s ideas from his earliest acquaintance with the art; and although Namikawa now does little work himself except designing and firing he closely supervises each piece during its entire execution… His artists do not work by set hours, but only when the mental inspiration is upon them…’ vii

Namikawa Yasuyuki's workshop

Confident of his skills and assured of a market for whatever he could produce, Yasuyuki continued to make cloisonné enamels with designs predominantly defined by wires but also pieces where the pictorial composition was balanced by large areas of pure coloured enamel. Yasuyuki strove to improve both his technical and artistic skills and continued to exhibit his cloisonné wares at the National Industrial Expositions.

A very fine small cloisonné enamel vase, Signed on a silver tablet Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £50,000-70,000

In 1896 he was appointed Imperial Court Artist (Teishitsu Gigei’in) to the court of the Emperor Meiji. This was an important position and guaranteed a domestic market for his work while simultaneously increasing its value and price. Yasuyuki retired in 1915 and his company closed soon afterwards. Many of his designs and preparatory drawings have been recorded in the Kyō Shippō Monyō Shū (Kyoto Cloisonné Pattern Collection).

A cloisonné enamel vase and cover, Signed on a silver tablet Kyoto Namikawa (workshop of Namikawa Yasuyuki, 1845-1927), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £20,000-30,000

The period from around 1880 to about 1910 has been called the ‘Golden Age’ of Japanese enamels and was when production and technical innovation were at their peak. There were hundreds of makers and companies working to satisfy the demand for these wares - mostly for the western market. Writing in 1911, Professor Harada Jirō mentions that ‘It is only in comparatively recent years, most markedly within the last few years, that shippō began to find a place in Japanese homes as an ornament. As is so often the case with arts and crafts, there are two distinct types of enamel-work, one for foreign markets and the other for the home market...’ viii

A cloisonné enamel vase, Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £10,000-15,000

Of the many companies that were producing in Nagoya and the surrounding area, notably at Shippō-chō, none was more influential and productive than the Andō Company. Around 1881, Andō Jūbei employed Kaji Satarō, grandson of Kaji Tsunekichi as foreman of his company until 1897 when he employed Kawade Shibatarō (1856 - 1921?) as his chief technician. It is to Kawade that credit should be given for the many technological innovations that made the Andō Company so successful.

The most important of these innovations, which is sometimes credited to Hattori Tadasaburō, another Nagoya-based maker, and was then copied by many other Nagoya makers, is known as moriage (lit. ‘piling-up’). This painstaking technique, which required extreme care, especially at the polishing stage, involved building up layers of enamel to produce a three-dimensional effect. It was ideally suited to natural subjects such as plants, flowers and very effectively in the depiction of fish in watery ripples.

A moriage cloisonné enamel vase, Attributed to Gonda Hirosuke (1865-1937), Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £8,000-10,000

Harada mentions Kawade in glowing terms: ‘his [Andō’s] reputation was established chiefly by the splendid work turned out by his chief enamel artist and designer, Kawade Shibatarō, who is deservedly considered the greatest enamel expert in the manufacture of shippō at the present time. Perhaps no other living person has done more towards the improvement of Japanese enamels and the invention of new methods of application than Kawade’. ix The Andō Company exhibited at national and international expositions winning its first award at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.

A cloisonné enamel gourd shaped vase, Sealed mark of the Ando Company , Meiji period, late 19th century. Estimate: £2,000-3,000

Around 1900, the company was appointed as an official supplier of cloisonné to the imperial household and although no craftsman was ever given the title of Imperial Court Artist, the Andō Company became the main provider of enamels for imperial gifts. Furthermore, the Andō Company is unique in that it is the only manufacturer with its roots in the Golden Age that is still producing high-quality cloisonné enamels today.

In recent years discerning collectors have established the finest collections of Japanese cloisonné enamels and the impetus to acknowledge and appreciate the artistry and skills of the enamel craftsman has borne fruit. The forming, exhibiting and publishing of these superb collections has led to a significant re-evaluation of Japanese cloisonné and the applied arts of the Meiji period (1868-1912) more generally. In the past few years in Japan itself there have been several important and popular exhibitions which have focussed on this period. Not least the ground-breaking 2017 exhibition Namikawa Yasuyuki and Japanese Cloisonne. The Allure of Meiji Cloisonne: the Aesthetic of Translucent Black at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. These exhibitions have also, significantly, created a greater awareness of the importance of Japan’s contribution at the great world expositions in the late nineteenth century.

The superb collection of cloisonné enamels in the collection offered in this sale truly reflects the peak of the endless patience, workmanship, and skills of the Japanese cloisonné enameller.

i Harada, Jirō, ‘Japanese Art and Artists of Today – VI. Cloisonné Enamels’ in The Studio, June 1911, p.271
ii ibid. p.334
iii ibid. p.334
iv Ibid. p.278
v Kipling, Rudyard: ‘From Sea to Sea and other sketches’, MacMillan & Co., London, 1904, pp.387-9
vi Ponting, Herbert: ‘In Lotus Land Japan’, London 1910, p.59
vii ibid. pp.65-7
viii Harada, p.276
ix Harada, pp.282-3

Japanese Art

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