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Telling the story of 400 years of British royal contact with Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Mounted Vessel vase: 1700-1775, mounts: 1750-1775

Buff stoneware, overglaze enamel with gold, gilt bronze mounts | 29.9 x 14.4 x 10.2 cm (whole object) | RCIN 100937

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This is an exceptional piece for which there is no known equivalent. It was made in Kyoto, where stoneware with a restrained enamel palette was produced during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Kyoto was the Japanese capital at that time, and so these pieces are known as Kyōyaki (‘capital wares’). Enamellers there developed techniques independently of the porcelain kilns of Arita and Ōkawachi (Nabeshima), creating elegant, subdued colours which appealed to the refined taste of their courtly patrons. Blue, green and purple enamels were common, but red was used sparingly and mostly only from the nineteenth century. The vivid red blooms seen here are therefore a striking example of the very early use of red overglaze enamel on Kyōyaki.

The piece is also unusual for its shape. Delicate, stylised latticework was one of the hallmarks of Kyōyaki from the Kyoto kilns, but the small size and vase-like form of this piece have no known parallels. Early Kyoto wares were seldom exported from Japan and few are found in European collections today. Rare examples include two tiered boxes at Burghley House and several hanging vases at Dresden, which may possibly have belonged to Augustus II. A section from a Kyoto tiered box with similar hexagonal fretwork is in the Freer Sackler Collection. The present piece is possibly modelled on metalwork braziers used to hold burning coals. The sides are panelled with pierced 'honeycomb' pattern in blue and on two of them are a pair of blue elephant-head handles joining the shoulder and panel below. Painted in blue, green and gilt round the panels and shoulder are fretwork patterns with red blooms in reserve, with a chevron border on the neck, and on the foot paulownia sprays in blue and green. On two sides the openwork was badly broken and the vase has lately been thoroughly restored. Entwined round the side handles are branches of berried laurel rising to form loops on either side and falling to meet the top rim. The vase sits on a square gilt-bronze base with beaded rim and eight corner panels with acanthus sprays on a blue ground, above four spirally fluted inverted ogee vase feet at the corners, the aprons with blue backgrounds enclosing female masks between scrolled swags with pendants.

When the vessel was inventoried at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in 1829, the intricate meshwork sides were described as ‘honeycomb panells’. Each section is so delicate that the French mounts are draped around the neck and shoulders so as not to pierce the vase itself. The piece was first recorded in the Royal Collection in 1815, when George IV had it sent to Brighton on 4 September.

Text adapted from Chinese and Japanese Works of Art in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen: Volume II and Japan: Courts and Culture (2020)