A few weeks ago I visited the Holburne Museum in Bath.
I first heard about the Holburne Museum at a netsuke exhibition at the Embassy of Japan earlier this year, just before I moved to Bristol. I noted down that the museum had a small collection of netsuke, and decided I must make time to visit. Coincidentally, they recently had an exhibition of work by a Japanese artist (Junko Mori – see my review here), so I used that as the perfect excuse to have a day out in Bath.
The Holburne Museum first opened its doors over a hundred years ago as Bath’s first art museum. The main collection is actually the personal collection of Sir William Holburne (1793 – 1874), but the museum also houses other artefacts and temporary exhibitions. Naturally, I went there looking for Japan…
Although my mind was set on netsuke (根付), the first Japanese objects I found were actually examples of Imari porcelain. ‘Imari‘ (伊万里焼) is actually the European name for Japanese porcelain wares made in the town of Arita (有田) in Saga, and exported from the port of Imari (伊万里) in Western Japan. These plates and pots were made only for export to the West between the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, and the style was often imitated by Chinese and European potters.
Next, I found some more porcelain – this time Kakiemon (柿右衛門). Kakiemon was traditionally produced in Arita (just like Imari) from the mid-17th century onwards.
Near the Kakiemon display was a rather curious cupboard, which I was just dying to open (but sadly wasn’t to be touched). This cupboard it not Japanese, but it has been ‘Japanned‘. Real Japanese cabinets were a great status symbol in the late seventeenth century, but the secret of making these Japanese lacquer cupboards was unknown in England. So, in order to imitate what they saw, English craftsmen used varnish and shellac in a technique known as ‘Japanning’ to create an effect like this:
This cabinet was made for Sir Michael Hickes (1645 – 1710) of Witcombe Park in Gloucestershire and remained in Witcombe Park for over three hundred years.
Finally, after a lot of searching through the many bizarre and wonderful knickknacks on display in the museum, I found what I had been looking for – netsuke.
In case you don’t remember from my previous posts, netsuke are small creatures and figurines, usually carved from wood or ivory, which men in Japan used to wear as a kind of toggle to keep their small pouches attached to their belts. These tiny, intricate objects have been collectors’ items for a long time now, and are still being produced today.
I’ve had a bit of a thing for netsuke this year, after seeing the exhibition at the Embassy of Japan and then reading Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes. The netsuke on display at The Holburne Museum were quite fascinating. They were hidden away in a drawer:
The museum apparently has occasional netsuke handling sessions for partially sighted visitors with curator Matthew Winterbottom, which must be a real treat! Even though you’d have to wear gloves to touch the netsuke, I would love to have that experience and feel them in my hand. Netsuke are made to be held, and to fit smoothly in the palm of your hand.
In the museum’s gift shop I was delighted to find this:
Although I really shouldn’t be spending any money at the moment, I knew this was my chance to start my netsuke collection and I couldn’t resist… meet The Monkey with Black Eyes!
Will he be the first of many?
So, a great day out at The Holburne Museum and the start of a new collection! I’ll be keeping an eye on the temporary exhibitions at the museum and will certainly be going back there next time they have something of interest. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend visiting, too!