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Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces From Japan

A lecture by Noriko Tsuchiya and Max Rutherston, 3rd July 2014

NetsukeThe Japan Society in association with the British Museum hosted a joint lecture at the Swedenborg Society by Max Rutherston, an Asian Art dealer specialising in netsuke, and Noriko Tsuchiya, the author of the British Museum’s new publication, ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’, a selection from the museum’s 2,300 strong netsuke collection.

Example inrō and netsuke ensemble (from the collection of Trevor Skingle)

Example inrō and netsuke ensemble (from the collection of Trevor Skingle)

Max Rutherston – Chairman of Max Rutherston Ltd., a dealer in Japanese art with an emphasis on netsuke

The earliest datable example of an inrō is from the tomb of Date Masamune (died 1636) although there is one (in the collection of the British Museum) which purportedly belonged to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (died 1598) which would predate this. There are examples of Momoyama Period inrō usually identified by their easily recognisable repeated Momoyama style motifs. The earliest netsuke were most likely found objects, pleasing objects or materials. There are many varieties of netsuke. Kuruma (wheel) types of netsuke dating from the 17th century and an illustration in the book from around 1640 shows a complex ensemble of objects including what may be a tobacco pouch attached to a netsuke-inrō ensemble. Katabori (sculptured) netsuke are contemporaneous with Ming dynasty art and some of these may have been articles from China drilled with two holes to fulfil a function as netsuke. Kagamibuta (disc) netsuke are shallow bowls with metal decorated lids and when carved from ivory are likely to have been made from discs cut from nearer the tip end of the tusk, and Manjū (cake shaped) netsuke. Inaba Tsuryu’s 1781 catalogue of sword fittings, the Sōken Kishō, includes the earliest catalogue of netsuke artists and associated netsuke, 57 in all, 20-30 which would otherwise never have been heard of. There seems that there may have been some sort of standardisation of models of netsuke as artists repeated the same items though there is no extant reference to this. It is possible that one of these is in the collection, a Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance, cast from a Hirado porcelain mould as there are other similar netsuke in other collections.

Noriko Tsuchiya – curator with the British Museum’s Asian Department

The 100 chosen which are shown in the book are the favourites from the British Museum’s collection of 2,300 netsuke. 178 were chosen and then narrowed down to 100. They cover a range of materials and a variety of subjects and are a window on the cultural and everyday life of the Edo Period. During the period of Japanese Isolation (Sakoku) not much was known about netsuke until the 1850s when, after Japan opened up and people began wearing trousers with pockets, netsuke went out of fashion and were sold to foreign traders.

Some of the British Museum’s extensive collection is on display in the Mitsubishi Corporation galleries, Rooms 92-99, which include many of the 870 netsuke donated from his personal collection to the museum by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks who was a curator of a separate department (British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography) at the museum between 1866-1896. Amongst these are a Dutchman holding a cockerel from about 1780. Foreign traders during National Isolation were limited to the Dutch who were confined to Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay who became objects of curiosity and subjects for netsuke carvers. The fingers of the Dutchman have been carved in such a way as to disappear into the cockerel’s feathers showing the affection they had for their animals. Others include a sleeping rat, some say a dead rat, carved by Masanao of Kyōtō, a porcelain Chinese boy holding a lion mask which has a carved porcelain ball inside the mouth which would have moved inside the mouth with the wearer’s movements, and a Lion headed Goldfish, or ranchū, by Masanao I of Ise; it was in the later Edo period that keeping goldfish became a popular hobby. They were kept in bowls so the way of viewing them would have been from above and not from the side and their resemblance to a koban (gold coin) would have been appreciated as auspicious.

Lion headed Goldfish, or ranchū, by Masanao I of Ise, boxwood with inlaid eyes of light and dark horn, 1800s (photograph by kind permission of the British Museum)

Lion headed Goldfish, or ranchū, by Masanao I of Ise, boxwood with inlaid eyes of light and dark horn, 1800s (photograph by kind permission of the British Museum)

Another 680 netsuke were donated by Constantine Anne Hull Grundy which include an aubergine made of boxwood which when opened shows Mount Fuji and a hawk and refer to a Japanese proverb about the New Year which says ‘Ichi-Fuji, Ni-Taka, San-Nasubi’, that to dream of a hawk, Mt. Fuji and an Aubergine brings good luck for the rest of the year. Others include a meditating skeleton of silver set in stag antler, and a turtle cast in silver which shows the growing popularity of metalwork in the late Edo Period.

Turtle, silver, by Kikugawa, late 1800s (photograph by kind permission of the British Museum)

Turtle, silver, by Kikugawa, late 1800s (photograph by kind permission of the British Museum)

An amusing anecdote is told of the arrival of many of the netsuke she donated at the British Museum in cardboard boxes wrapped in paper and even some sent in envelopes through the post.

170 netsuke were donated to the museum by Oscar Charles Raphael including one of a Chinese couple playing a flute, one of the oldest netsuke in the collection from the 1700s, unattributed, depicts the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong and his beautiful consort Yang Yuhuan who was initially the Emperor’s son later became the Emperor’s concubine. It may have been considered somewhat suggestive. Other netsuke include a head in boxwood of Niō, one of the Buddhist Guardian Kings usually depicted as two statues, and Ubume holding a Jizō, a woman who has died in childbirth who is unable to find peace who is shown rising out of flames holding a statue of Jizō, the patron deity of children. Both were carved in the early 1800s by Naitō Kōseki of Kyōtō.

To coincide with the publication the museum is hosting a special exhibition sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun from 19 June – 17 August 2014, ‘Dressed to Impress: Netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion’ which exhibits the finest pieces from the collection..

Many associated events are taking place one of which was Take Your #Kimono Selfie!, a succesful evening where experts were on hand to show how a kimono is worn.

There is a resurgence of kimono wearing in Japan which, it is hoped, will continue and grow.


‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’


Noriko Tsuchiya talks briefly about netsuke in the collection of the British Museum and the publication ‘Netsuke: 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan’ on YouTube


Author Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Netsuke Exhibitions In London And Budapest

Art Exhibition: Kabuki – Japanese Theatre Prints

Exhibition: Ryo Arai & ITARO – Essence Of Edo (Tokyo) ICN Gallery London


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