Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum

A catalogue of the Ashmolean's collection of Japanese paintings by Janice Katz (published Oxford, 2003).

Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum by Janice Katz

Introduction: the formation of the collection of Japanese painting in the Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean Museum holds the collections of art and archaeology of Oxford University. The Museum was originally founded to house the Cabinet of Curiosities of the two John Tradescants, father and son, acquired by and given to the University by Elias Ashmole. A building was erected in Broad Street and opened to the public in May 1683, probably the first public museum in Europe. It functioned as an all-purpose ‘musaeum’, used for teaching within and without the University, with a varying degree of usefulness to the University, for some two hundred years. The University Galleries, a neo-Grecian building by C. R. Cockerell, was built in Beaumont Street in 1851-4 to hold the growing art collections of the University. In 1894, the collections of the Ashmolean were subsumed into the University Galleries, the building enlarged for the purpose, losing in the process the collections of naturalia to the University Museum (of Natural History) and the collections of ethnographica to the Pitt-Rivers Museum. The name Ashmolean Museum was retained for the art and archaeology, as it is today. The old Ashmolean building in Broad Street eventually became the Museum of the History of Science.

The new Museum was at first operated as two Departments, Antiquities and Fine Art. In 1961, a separate Department was set up for the Heberden Coin Room, and a new Department of Eastern Art was created. This new Department took the collections that had formerly been housed in the Museum of Eastern Art, itself set up in 1946 in the old Indian Institute building in Broad Street by William Cohn, while absorbing some material held in the Department of Fine Art (now renamed Western Art) and some from the Bodleian Library. The move was partly stimulated by the great gift of Sir Herbert Ingram of his vast collection of Chinese ceramics in 1956.

The move to the Ashmolean Museum meant that Eastern Art was to be taken seriously as a discipline by the University, and the collections properly regarded. Housed on the ground floor immediately opposite the entrance, the collections now hold a prominent position within the Ashmolean building. The Department has four sub-departments: China and Korea; Japan; the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia; and the Islamic world, and the displays within the Department reflect this as far as is possible in a listed building.

Before the move the Japanese collection had been small, and the pride of the collection was perhaps the collection of sword-guards (tsuba) formed by the eminent scientist Sir Arthur Church, transferred from the Bodleian Library; but Ingram had collected Japanese objects, mostly the small netsuke, inro and sword-furniture and other things, including contemporary crafts, some purchased on his travels in Japan in 1908, which also came to us in 1956. The collectors seem to have bought no painting.

This was entirely in accordance with British collecting of Japanese Art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in general. There was almost no serious collecting of either early Japanese fine art, such as sculpture or painting, or, indeed of the minor arts of any period before the Edo period. The only exception to this rule was the collecting of Ukiyo-e prints, available in Europe since the early nineteenth century. Only those who lived in Japan for any length of time, such as Arthur Morrison [1], formed collections of anything but these small and exquisite arts of the Edo and early Meiji periods. One of those who knew Japan well was the great historian of Japan, Sir George Sansom, who in 1956 gave the museum a group of reproductions of classic paintings, an early painting of a thousand Benten [EA1956.537] and a hanging scroll of Mount Fuji, signed Sakai Hōitsu [EA1956.541], apparently the first proper paintings to be acquired.

Within Britain, Japanese art was generally considered as vastly inferior to Chinese art, derivative and of poor quality And in this there was some justification, for the vast flood of inferior goods, mass- produced to satisfy western demand, swamped the high quality of those goods made for the International Expositions that were such a feature of the time. Few collectors looked carefully enough. Those that did were those to whom craftsmanship appealed, for the craftsmanship of the late Edo period, passed on in different formats into the Meiji, was unsurpassed anywhere. It is a measure of European taste that even after the banning of the wearing of swords in 1876, tsuba were being made especially for the international market, as were netsuke.

The collections thus formed were of variable quality. The best, including that of Sir Arthur Church, were catalogued by Henri Joly [2], just as the best contemporary collections of Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain were being catalogued by R. L. Hobson. Unfortunately, Ingram did not have his fine collection of kozuka, knife-handles for the sword, catalogued by Joly, for the standard is very high. Ingram also gave netsuke, inrō and ojime, as well as some other lacquer, metalwork (including the superb box by Kajima Ikkoku II. bought as 'after Seitei’ [Watanabe Seitei; see e.g., EA1996.130 and EA1993.13]) and even needlework, all the sort of thing available either from dealers in Japan who specialised in the upper end of the tourist trade or in London.

Two exceptions to the ‘unseeing tourist' view, that reflection of the lack of interest in painting, were to benefit the Department; the first was C. W. Christie-Miller, in Japan in 1906, who bought contempo­rary ceramics and cloisonné, but also, from the dealer Nomura in Shinmonzen, a pair of very good screens of the Taishokan story (that did not, alas, come to the Museum) and an equally good Ukiyo-e painting, then attributed to Miyagawa Choshun, which did [EA1959.87]. He also bought the series of seventeenth-century albums, of good but not fine quality, that form a guide to the Tokaido Road, then attributed to Tosa Mitsuoki and considered of more interest than the ‘Choshun’ and so more expensive [EA1959.85] [3]. The gift of these marked the second serious acquisitions of Japanese painting by the Department. Another tourist to buy screens in Japan, a few decades later, was Gerald Reitlinger, in Japan in the 1930s, who left us several screens, and of whom more later.

A sketchbook of an Utagawa artist (EA1961.126) and a book of shita-e (preliminary drawings for prints), mostly by Kunisada (EA1961.127) were among gifts from Georges van Houten in 1971. He was to give more the next year, two good sketchbooks, one by Mori Tetsuzan [EA1962.209] and another attributed to KatsushikaTaito II [EA1962.208], the first such things in the collection. The founder and first Keeper of the Museum of Eastern Art was William Cohn, an authority on Chinese painting; in 1962 he bequeathed two parts of an ink triptych. Kanzan and Jittoku [EA1962.114 and EA1962.115], then attributed to Doan, to be followed by the bequest from his widow of the centre picture, Daruma [EA1972.39], ambitiously attributed to Sesshū.

One of our finest paintings is by the great Meiji period artist Yokoyama Taikan [EA1964.196], given by the artist to the poet and writer on Japanese painting, Laurence Binyon, probably in 1929; this was presented by his daughter, Helen Binyon [4]. In view of the fact that Taikan is so much forged, this is good provenance. Also in 1964 was our first purchase (from an unrecorded source) of a group of paintings, including several albums, notably one by Yamamoto Baiitsu [EA1964.89] featured by Janice Katz in this catalogue, and some other paintings, including a painting by Oda Kaisen [EA1964.92], and a handscroll, also by Baiitsu [EA1964.87]; another album in this group is by a series of mostly Osaka artists collected in 1799-1805 [EA1964.95].

The album of paintings of the Tale of Genji, by an unknown artist working on the edge of the Tosa tradition [EA1965.69] was presented by R. Somervell, of Kendal; this, a very fine work, is discussed in this catalogue by Janice Katz. In the same year, a group of paintings were bought at Sotheby’s (sale 14.6.1965), including paintings of cherry-blossom viewing by Miyake Gogyō [EA1965.127], a heron by Morikawa Sobun [EA1965.131], Bon-odori by Kawanabe Kyosai [EA1965.130] and a landscape by Suzuki Shōnen [EA1965.133]. Another purchase was of the possibly dubious Nagasawa Rosetsu screen of cranes (EA1965.259). Screens are specifically excluded from consideration in this catalogue as they have been catalogued elsewhere (Impey, 1997) [5]; they are, however, included in this introduction as an essential part of the painting collection.

1966 was to prove a most important year for the Department’s collection of Japanese paintings, for it was then that we acquired the first part of Jack Hillier’s collection, the Nanga paintings (the Maruyama and Shijō school paintings were to be bought in 1973) [6]. The 1966 purchase was made possible by friends of Peter Swann, as a tribute to his Keepership, with the assistance of the Higher Studies Fund and the Fund administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum. But before that purchase, a hanging scroll of mynah birds fighting, a picture of great interest, by Kumashiro Yūhi [EA1966.4] had been purchased from a Japanese dealer in England.

Hillier’s collection had been built up over many years, with a body of knowledge of Japanese painting hitherto unavailable in Britain; he, and a group of other collectors (including Ralph Harari, see below) found many of their paintings at the dealer Kegan Paul, to whom most had been sent from Japan by the Ukiijo-e specialist Richard Lane. Hillier’s was avowedly a study collection; he was learning by buying and studying what he had bought. He must have decided early to concentrate on the Nanga and Maruyama school artists, who appealed less to the more affluent collectors. His many books demonstrate his learning, and his collection has stood up remarkably well to later, more informed, criticism and connoisseurship. In the first Hillier collection purchase, we list fifty-six accession numbers.

No further paintings of note were acquired until 1969 when a pair of two-fold screens, formerly four sliding doors, by the late Nanga artist Tanomura Chokunyū (EA1969.13), dated 1865, were purchased in London. In 1970 we bought the magnificent pair of six-fold screens firmly attributed to Watanabe Shikō (EA1970.174 and EA1970.175), of Flowers of the Four Seasons, our first purchase of paintings in Japan and perhaps the finest paintings in our collection. In the same year Prince Paul of Yugoslavia presented the fine Tosa school album leaf of a scene from The Tale of Genji [EA1970.94]. In 1971, with the Derick Grigs collection of Japanese prints, came the extraordinary coloured drawings of Hekirekka Shimmei attributed to Utagawa Kuniyoshi [EA1971.45], in the format of his Suikoden series of 1827-30; and in 1972 Mrs Cohn bequeathed not only the Daruma figure from the triptych [EA1972.39], but also some fan paintings including two by Takenouchi Garyū [EA1972.33 and EA1972.34].

The Maruyama/Shijō collection formed by Jack Hillier, much of it featuring in his The Uninhibited Brush of 1974 [7], was the second part of his collection acquired by the Museum; his collection of printed books eventually went to the British Library. We bought these paintings in 1973, with the aid of the Friends of the Ashmolean, for such a generous price that we list Mr and Mrs J. Hillier as donors. These paintings had been acquired concurrently with his Nanga collection, but he had continued to collect after 1966. Again, a wide ranging collection, it is primarily a study collection, wholly suitable for a university museum, containing some very fine works, notably paintings by Goshun, Rosetsu, Nanrei, Chinnen and Zeshin.

Acquisitions in the later 1970s were of screens; the ink landscapes after Kano Tanyū (EA1977.24) and the Tosa screens of the Tales of Ise, the latter with a spurious attribution to Mitsuoki, but of very fine quality, were purchases. Gerald Reitlinger, among his vast collection of ceramics from Japan, China, Islam and Europe gave us several screens that he had acquired on his travels in Japan; of these, the finest are the Acrobats screen (EA1978.2532) and the small-size pair, the Thirty-six poets (EA1978.2533).

The Museum had held on loan the collection of Japanese paintings formed by Ralph Harari, much of it on the advice of Jack Hillier, for some years [8]. When the collection was dispersed (much of it going to the British Museum) we were generously offered, by Dr Michael Harari, our choice of two things. We chose the great Hokusai painting Pilgrims at the Kasuga Taisha Shrine [EAX.5361] and the albums of fans [EAX.5362 to EAX.5461] that comprise such an important addition to our collection. We were later able to purchase from the estate, under generous terms, the screen of the Dog-chasing game [EA1983.25] a very fine example of this well-known subject, the right-hand screen of a pair where the left-hand screen is lost.

Since then we have thought it appropriate to acquire more screens than other formats of painting, awaiting the chance that we now have to have a specialist catalogue the collection, now of considerable size, and second in importance in Britain only to that of the British Museum. In this we have been fortunate to acquire the expertise of Janice Katz on a two-year Fellowship, generously sponsored by the Sackler Foundation, through Worcester College. In the intervening years, we have bought screens by Kano Jōshin [EA1988.2], Yokoyama Seiki [EA1991.123], Hasegawa Shiei [EA1996.131 and EA2000.178], Kishi Ganku [EA2002.61] and Komai Genki [EA2002.62]. In the case of the Shiei, we were fortunate enough to find the second of the pair some time after purchasing the first. We have also bought some westernising works; an album leaf attributed to Kawahara Keiga [EA2002.55], of potters, very like his work of the 1820s for Franz von Siebold, and some paintings by the Edo-Meiji transition artist Watanabe Seitei [EA1996.130, EA1993.13, and EA2000.113], well known for his collaboration with the shippō maker, Namikawa Sosuke.

This catalogue raisonné of the collection of paintings of the Department of Eastern Art in the Ashmolean Museum conforms to the University’s programme of specialist catalogues of the Museum’s collections. After presenting what we consider the finest sixty paintings (not including any screens, most of which are published elsewhere) [9], Janice Katz has most adventurously chosen about one hundred further paintings which in her opinion may arouse interest of controversy, rather than playing safe and choosing only those whose authenticity is sure. Thus, in this catalogue, while there may be paintings that will prove on further examination to be false of misattributed, so there are certainly a considerable number of perfectly genuine but relatively unimportant works in the collection that are not here included. And, of course, the Department intends to acquire further examples of Japanese painting, to reinforce its position as the holder of the second collection in Britain.


[1] Arthur Morrison, The Painters of Japan (London and Edingburgh, 1911).

[2] [Henri Joly], Japanese Sword Guards, Some Tsuba in the Collection of Sir Arthur H. Church (Reading, 1924). A complete catalogue of the collection in typscript, unpublished, by Henri Joly, is held by the Department.

[3] Photocopies of some of the invoices are held by the Department.

[4] Laurence Binyon was Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, and author of Painting in the Far East (London 1908). He was in Japan in 1911.

[5] Oliver Impey, The Art of the Japanese Folding Screen (Oxford, 1997).

[6] See Jack Hillier, 'Japanese Nanga paintings at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford', Oriental Art XIII, no. 3, 1967, 161-9.

[7] Jack Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush (London, 1974).

[8] Jack Hillier, The Harari Collection of Japanese Paintings and Drawings (London, 1970-73), 3 vols.

[9] Impey 1997, see note 5.


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