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A Coronation Gift

Coronation Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

Coronation Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II ©

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, relations between Britain and Japan had only recently been restored following the Second World War. The Coronation gift was therefore of great significance as the first post-war exchange between the two Courts. The Imperial Household sought a piece of the highest calibre.

The Emperor Shōwa selected this exceptional cosmetic box by Shirayama Shōsai, one of the most prestigious lacquerers of the early twentieth century. Shōsai had been instrumental in the re-establishment of lacquer (urushi) as a revered art form during the Meiji period (1868–1912). In 1890 he was a founder-member of the Japan Lacquer Society (Nihon shikkōkai), and he did much to promote recognition of lacquerers as individual artists. In 1906, he was appointed an Imperial Household Artist (Teishitsu Gigei’in).

Today, fewer than 70 examples of Shōsai’s work are known in Japan, Europe and the United States. Here, he presents one of his favourite subjects – a heron – with a combination of exceptional boldness and delicacy. Soft white feathers are carefully rendered in silver lacquer, accented with minuscule gold lacquer streaks and contrasting dramatically with Shōsai’s trademark ground of lustrous black. The black lacquer has been highly polished to achieve a deep, mirror-like finish.

The dazzling gift was presented on the emperor’s behalf by his son, Crown Prince Akihito, who travelled to Britain for the Coronation. It was his first overseas visit. The Emperor Shōwa subsequently made a State Visit to the United Kingdom in 1971, the first reigning emperor to do so. Queen Elizabeth II reciprocated in 1975, becoming the first reigning monarch of the United Kingdom to visit Japan. On each occasion, gifts were exchanged and the royal visitors sought to learn more of the culture and society of the host nation.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remarked at the State Banquet for the Emperor Shōwa in 1971: ‘People can be fascinated by things which are remote and mysterious, but they can only like and admire things which they know and understand. That is why I believe every contact between our two peoples is to be fostered and encouraged.’

In 2019 The King, then the Prince of Wales, attended the Ceremony of Enthronement (Sokuirei-Seiden-no-gi) for the new Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Three years later, in 2022, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Platinum Jubilee year, marking 70 years since her accession to the throne.