HINTS UPON THE FORMATION OF COLLECTION OF JAPANESE ART.
By Marcus B. Huish
Artistic Japan, which all its readers will hear with regret is shortly to complete its issue, cannot have existed in vain. Some portion of the seed which it has scattered broadcast over the world must have fallen on good ground and brought forth good fruit. In addition to those who, previous to its appearance, affected an interest in Japanese Art, and whose interest it has strengthened, there must be Many who through its teachings have been led, not only to take up its study seriously, but to become collectors of Japanese wares.
It cannot, therefore, be altogether out of place that one of the closing articles should take as its subject some suggestions and advice to those who come under this last-named category.
I am the more emboldened to offer these because I have myself oftentimes suffered from the want of any source to which when commencing to study and collect I could turn for guidance, and also because I feel that the time has come
when all classes of Japanese collectors should regard their possessions in a more serious light than they have hitherto done, and that each and all should endeavour to assist in the elucidation of the vast field which still lies unexplored before them.
The subject divides itself into the following heads: What to collect; How to collect; How to treat a collection when made.
The question, What to collect ? may seem at first sight to carry its answer with it, namely, Anything distinctly Japanese.By no means. If a collection is to have any individuality, any increasing value, any abiding interest for its owner, if he is to become on terms of intimacy with it, and a kinship, as it were, is to exist between himself and each piece of it, it must have strict and abiding limitations which the owner must make up his mind never to depart from.
The first of these limitations is as to the branch or branches of the Art which shall be selected for collection. If there is one thing in Japanese Art which there is no gainsaying, it is its extraordinary variety. To such an extent does this permeate it that if a single branch only be collected, and the collector be endowed with ample means and ample opportunity, he will probably never arrive at a time when he will have to stop for lack of specimens dissimilar to anything that he possesses. If, therefore, he ranges over the varied branches of Art, no house will hold any representative collection of each, and few purses will be deep enough to supply the wherewithal to acquire them.
For this reason, if for no other, a choice should be made at the outset and adhered to.
Amongst the varied branches from which a selection• may be made we may enumerate pictures (on rolls), engravings (coloured and plain), books, pottery and porcelain, silks and stuffs (including costumes), lacquer, metalwork, carvings in wood, ivory, etc., household wares, or even articles made of particular materials, as for instance, bamboo. Or the collection may be formed independently of
the object, as for instance, representations of the flora, the zoology, the religions, the history, the manners and customs, the myths and folklore of the country. There is much to be said for this method. Professor Church, for instance, has a quite representative collection of Japanese flora depicted on sword-guards, in that most difficult of mediums, wrought and chiselled iron.
Or, again, the collection may be made according to the occupation or tastes of the collector. As regards this, opinions differ. For instance, one would imagine that the sculptor would be attracted towards the bronzes with their marvellous patina’s, netsukes ; the silk merchant towards old dresses,
or even towards the tiny and the goldsmith towards metalwork. But this is not by any means always or usually the case, and the reason is not far to seek ; half the delight of collecting is the relaxation which it affords from the cares and troubles of business, and this can certainly best be done by ‘something which is as entire a diversion from the day’s work as possible ; this will not be altogether the case if the thing collected is at all akin to the profession of the collector.
But there are other considerations besides these which should influence the choice. And the first is the capacity for storage at one’s disposal. A bachelor, especially a confirmed one, may indulge in fragile china, whilst a man with children and careless housemaids may find it necessary to confine himself to substantial bronze. One who lives in a mansion may buy colossal Buddhas, while he who can only spare a corner of his dwelling-room must acquire nothing which will not go into a drawer. But Japanese Art adapts itself to everybody’s requirements. A museum is not too large to adequately represent one phase of it; a couple of thousand examples of its finest art may be so stored away in a room that no one need be aware of their presence, as is the case with the writer’s collection.
Then, again, there is the consideration of the length of one’s purse ; a very serious one, for it is astonishing how much money may be invested in a tiny drawer full of objects ; and nothing is more disheartening than to find oneself face to face with an object absolutely essential to the completion of a link in one’s collection, and no sufficient balance at the bank with which to acquire it So then it is no use for one who has not a large margin on the right side between income and expenditure to embark upon costly pieces of lacquer, or he may find himself at the end of his tether before he has half-a-dozen pieces ; and, on the other hand, he who is in that enviable position should confine himself to the finest pieces, not only because in the long run they are the best investments, but naturally, the acquirers being limited, they are usually comparatively the cheapest.
There is yet a further. matter to which I attach considerable importance, namely, that the collector should not collect one, but two branches, and these should, so far as they fall in with the conditions of space and purse, be as unlike one another as possible. I advise this for more than one reason. First of all I do not think I am singular in feeling that one is apt at times to tire even of one’s bibelots, even when they are not confined to a single class of objects. I find that, as the year goes on and one gets jaded and fagged with work, a nausea springs up even for the most dearly beloved acquisitions, and that the key is turned upon them when the summer holiday commences without any parting pang. Fortunately in such a case absence makes the heart grow fonder, and one looks forward to seeing them again as for the friend from whom one has been long parted. Not only to mitigate, and possibly to avoid this, is it advisable to divide one’s attention between two branches, but also because a collection is in this case much more likely to interest outsiders.
This may perhaps be a convenient place for noting a word of warning. All ugly things should be avoided, for nothing will so soon induce a distaste for Japanese Art. Compared with other kindred countries, Japanese art is remarkably free from monstrosities and hideosities. Instead of, as in Indian and Burmese art, a great portion of it being composed of hideous representations of deities, and demons which have not even grotesqueness to recommend them, it has, apart from its illustrations of religious personages, little that is ugly. Curiously enough up to a certain period, the older the art the freer it is from this, and it is a remarkable fact that just now the Japanese artificer’s mind seems to be imbued with an idea that what the foreigner likes is ugliness, and in every way he shapes his wares accordingly. Only a few days ago I came across a quantity of newly-made sword-guards upon which every form of ugliness had been perpetrated.
Most people will prefer to collect objects which have a flavour of antiquity to those of more modern aspect, although in the one case there is a great chance of deception, and in the other none. But there are few modern wares which are now well enough made to be worthy of collection. One class of objects must certainly be avoided, and that is those which have the slightest western influence apparent in either their shape, decoration, or material. But interesting collections might be formed easily and very cheaply of the household wares which in a very few years European and American importations will have driven out of use. My own collection is composed of articles which have fallen into this category. It consists of swords and sword furniture, the use of which has been forbidden by imperial edict; medicine cases, and the beads and netsukes attached to them ; writing and perfume cases ; pipe cases and the ornaments which adorned them ; all of which, if not already disused, are rapidly becoming so.
These have three very special attributes, which entitle them to consideration by collectors. In the first place, they have the personality of the owner attaching to them, and which it is not difficult to arrive at when examining them ; in the second place, they have for the most part received much consideration at the hands both of their maker and their owner, for they were the only .articles of attire (except garments) which could be lavishly decorated; and lastly, they have not as yet been sufficiently collected over here to warrant modern reproductions of them being made. Additional reasons are their compactness ; their comparative cheapness ; in the case of medicine cases—their illustrating in the finest way every phase of lacquer manufacture ; and in that of sword furniture every phase of metalwork ; besides this they are exceptionally strong in illustrations of folklore, history, religion, and the flora and zoology of the country.
An advantage of confining oneself to the collection of certain specialities is this, and it is by no means an insignificant one, especially if the collector does not inhabit the metropolis, that the dealers get to know what he wants and what he does not, with the result that when anything likely to suit comes to them they will buy it with a view to his needs, and he will in this way have as good opportunities, if he be a liberal buyer, that is one not given to haggling and beating down, as if .he lived in town.
The second section of my hints, namely—How to collect—may be dealt with more cursorily.
First of all, do not begin without previous study. Time, money, and the accumulation of much which it will be troublesome afterwards to be rid of will then be saved. It is true that opportunities for this study are rather difficult to obtain. Not only the English but the French museums still put off the acquisition of what they will one day have to pay very dearly for, and when they do buy do not always exercise discrimination. To private collectors, therefore, the student will have to turn for information, but my own experience of them is that they are not only too ready to show their treasures, but to impart all their knowledge. Reliable text-books on the subject are few and for the most part expensive, two of the best being, for Pictorial Art, Mr. Anderson’s work, and for all the decorative arts, except lacquer, Gonse’s L’ Art foponais. A reliable text-book has still to be written upon lacquer, and in fact upon almost every branch of the industrial arts. Much can be learnt from photographs, and collectors would earn the gratitude of their brethren if they would, as Mr. Gilbertson has done, photograph and circulate impressions of their most noteworthy pieces.
Do not buy too quickly. Know every piece in your collection by careful examination and comparison. This it is impossible to do if you buy a score of pieces every week. Duplicates do not often occur in Japanese Art, but you should know your collection so well as never to commit such an error as to acquire unwittingly two similar objects.
Never buy in lots. It is only natural that dealers should try to avoid being left with the indifferent pieces of a lot, but pay more rather than be saddled with what will only cumber and degrade your collection.
Never beat down the wares with a dealer you know. It not only results in his raising the price of the next article which he offers you, but if it is a question between yourself and another customer as to which shall have the first sight of new things, you will not be the fortunate one.
Have a few -things and good rather than many and second-rate, and consequently never hesitate to turn out and sell for anything it will fetch a doubtful piece.
Never lose an opportunity of acquiring a piece which constitutes a missing link in your collection : in Japanese Art so rare is the chance of obtaining a duplicate that in one branch of my collection I have retained two almost similar pieces merely as a curiosity.
Never think it too much trouble to look through what may appear to be rubbish—one not only gains experience, but there is always the chance of a find. Few collectors but have had more than one pleasant experience in this way.
And now, lastly, for a few hints as to the collection when started. There are few pieces which do not improve by being carefully cleaned when they get home. Wood-carvings and lacquer should be rubbed with fine cotton wool upon which a little siccative linseed oil has been placed, and afterwards polished with a fine silk handkerchief, great care being taken that there is no dust or grit in either wool or handkerchief. Metalwork, especially if rusty, should be treated by the following process, which has the high authority of Professor Church to recommend it : Dissolve about an inch of stick potash in a quarter of a pint of warm water, then totally immerse the object for about five minutes, after which rinse in hot water until the latter is no longer discoloured by rust .or dirt. If the articles should unfortunately have been coated with vaseline or paraffin oil, they must be previously rubbed with oil. When dry the specimens should receive a light coating of siccative linseed oil ; after this has been rubbed in with a plate brush, any excess producing a gloss must be removed with a cloth or with pads of carded cotton. Neither shibuichi, shakudo, or incrustations of gold and silver will be harmed by this process.
Metalwork is often defaced by the labels having been affixed with injuriously-compounded gum, containing sulphuric or nitric acid, which has almost removed the delicate patina. Nothink remains in this case but to ease away the edges of the mark with oil and fine cigar-ash very delicately applied, and so render it less noticeable. A note of warning must be sounded against keeping metalwork with delicate patinas wrapped up in newspaper, the ink from which will oftentimes indelibly imprint itself upon the surface.
Having cleaned the objects, the next thing should be their cataloguing and numbering. This should not be neglected for any length of time, or difficulties will certainly ensue. A separate drawer should be reserved for uncatalogued pieces. It is not necessary for me to speak of how articles should be catalogued, but I have found it convenient to have different books for different articles, such as netsukes, inros, and sword-guards. Do not affix huge unsightly tickets to the articles themselves. A very small one will suffice for the number, the maker’s name, and the price paid (in private hieroglyphics); if the owner prefers to paint the catalogue numbers on the article itself it should be done with artist’s white oil paint toned with raw sienna and thinned with turpentine, so that it can be used with a pen, and strengthened with a little copal or amber varnish.
Finally, let everything look cared-for and precious. A Japanese, we know, bestows infinite care upon his treasures, not only wrapping them in the finest silks, but encasing each one in its own special box. French collectors often imitate him, and always tend their treasures more artistically than Englishmen. Not only do they place them in cabinets which are of themselves objects of art, but they dispose them therein upon rich stuffs and in an artistic manner. No doubt this may be carried too far and the objects themselves may suffer from too costly and elaborated settings, but this is a fault on the right side. I have tried various colours and have come to the conclusion that for everything (except silver and gold, for which royal blue is the best) there is nothing like pure white, dove colour, or a blue-grey, the first for ,choice. What is known as swansdown serves very well, in fact almost better than velvet.
The collector may wish to keep his various objects apart, but they certainly improve by being mixed in a legitimate manner; medicine cases, for instance, with netsukes and beads, and sword-guards with fuchi-kashira and kozukas.
MARCUS B. HUISH.
You may find the entire Volume VI of this Artistic Japan, from which this article is taken, by following this link.Artistic Japan – Le Japon Artistique