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Japanese Furniture

Of the very early history of Japanese industrial arts we know but little. We have no record of the kind of furniture which Marco Polo found when he travelled in Japan in the thirteenth century; and until the Jesuit missionaries obtained a footing in the sixteenth century, and sent home specimens of native work, there was probably very little of Japanese manufacture which found its way to Europe. The beautiful lacquer work of Japan, which dates from the end of the sixteenth and the following century, leads us to suppose that a long period of probation must have occurred before these processes, which were probably learned from the Chinese, could have been so thoroughly mastered.

Of furniture - with the exception of the cabinets, chests, and boxes, large and small - of this famous lac, there appears to have been little. Until the Japanese developed a taste for copying European customs and manners, the habit seems to have been to sit on mats and to use small tables raised a few inches from the ground. Even the bedrooms contained no bedsteads, but a light mattress served for bed and bedstead.

The process of lacquering has already been described, and in the chapter on French furniture of the eighteenth century it will be seen how specimens of this decorative material reached France by way of Holland, and were mounted into the "meubles de luxe" of that time. With this exception, and that of the famous collection of porcelain in the Japan Palace at Dresden, probably but little of the Art products of this artistic people had been exported until the country was opened up by the expedition of Lord Elgin and Commodore Perry, in 1858-9, and subsequently by the antiquarian knowledge and research of Sir Rutherford Alcock, who has contributed so much to our knowledge of Japanese Industrial Art; indeed, it is scarcely too much to say, that so far as England is concerned, he was the first to introduce the products of the Empire of Japan.

The Revolution, and the break up of the feudal system which had existed in that country for some eight hundred years, ended by placing the Mikado on the throne. There was a sale in Paris, in 1867, of the famous collection of the Shogun, who had sent his treasures there to raise funds for the civil war in which he was then engaged with the Daimio. This was followed by the exportation of other fine native productions to Paris and London; but the supply of old and really fine specimens has, since about 1874, almost ceased, and, in default, the European markets have become flooded with articles of cheap and inferior workmanship, imported to meet the modern demand. The present Government of Japan, anxious to recover many of the masterpieces which were produced in the best time, under the patronage of the native princes of the old regime, have established a museum at Tokio, where many examples of fine lacquer work, which had been sent to Europe for sale, have been placed after repurchase, to serve as examples for native artists to copy, and to assist in the restoration of the ancient reputation of Japan.

There is in the South Kensington Museum a very beautiful Japanese chest of lacquer work made about the beginning of the seventeenth century, the best time for Japanese Art; it formerly belonged to Napoleon L, and was purchased at the Hamilton Palace Sale for £722: it is some 3ft. 3in. long and 2ft. 1in. high, and was intended originally as a receptacle for sacred' Buddhist books. There are, most delicately worked on to its surface, views of the interior of one of the Imperial Palaces of Japan, and a hunting scene. Mother-of-pearl, gold, silver, and avanturine, are all used in the enrichment of this beautiful specimen of inlaid work, and the lock plate is a representative example of the best kind of metal work as applied to this purpose.

H.R.H. the Duke of Saxe-Coburg has several fine specimens of Chinese and Japanese lacquer work in his collection, about the arrangement of which the writer had the honour of advising His Royal Highness, when it arrived some years ago at Clarence House. The earliest specimen is a reading desk, presented to him by the Mikado, with a slope for a book, much resembling an ordinary bookrest, but charmingly decorated with lacquer in landscape subjects on the flat surfaces, while the smaller parts are diapered with flowers and quatrefoils in relief of lac and gold. This is of the sixteenth century. The collections of the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Sir Rutherford Alcock, K.C.B., Mr. Salting, Viscount Gough, and other well-known amateurs, contain some excellent examples of the best periods of Japanese Art work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The grotesque carving of the wonderful dragons and marvellous monsters introduced into furniture made by the Chinese and Japanese, and especially in the ornamental woodwork of the Old Temples, is thoroughly peculiar to those masters of elaborate design and skilful manipulation: and the low rate of remuneration, compared with our European notions of wages, enables work to be produced that would be impracticable under any other conditions. In comparing the ornamentation on Chinese with that on Japanese furniture, it may be said that more eccentricity is effected by the latter than by the former in their designs and general decoration. The Japanese joiner is unsurpassed, and much of the lattice work, admirable in design and workmanship, is so quaint and intricate that only by close examination can it be distinguished from finely cut fret work.

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