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

Japan [Asia]

Pair of bronze vases late nineteenth century

Bronze inlaid with gold and silver | 55.5 x 27.5 x 26.5 cm (whole object) | RCIN 7798

Royal Dining Room, Sandringham House

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These vases use the full array of metalworking techniques and a palette of subtly coloured inlays to present four dramatic scenes from the legend of Prince Yamato (Yamato Takeru No Mikoto). Each vase has been cast in deep relief, then chased and inlaid with gold, silver and copper alloys to produce minute details, including patterned textiles and individual pine cones, as well as broader areas such as snow on the peak of Mount Fuji.

The legend of Yamato Takeru describes the hero as a youth, ‘great of stature, strong and fearless and skillful in the use of arms’, who determines to kill the demon boar rampaging through the forest of Hakone. Accompanied by huntsmen who help him to flush out the beast, startling hares as they do so, Yamato attacks the boar. Warned by a high priestess that the demon’s only vulnerable spot is its tail, he manages to leap on its back and slice off its tail with a sacred sword. Maddened by pain, the boar demon plunges into an abyss.

One vase shows huntsmen beating the ground with bamboo canes and hares running into the undergrowth; the reverse shows Yamato riding backwards on the boar, his hand grasping its tail as he raises the sword to strike. The other vase shows warriors in forest landscapes, with trails of smoke rising. These may also relate to the story of Yamato, who, after defeating the boar, is invited to hunt deer in Sagami (modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture), where a fire overtakes his party. The hero saves the day by cutting the surrounding grasses and kindling a counter fire to draw the flames away. The mythical quality of the vases is enhanced by the handles and decorative heads around the bases, which are cast in the form of phoenixes.

The imprortant metalwork artist Kanamori Soshichi (1821-92) is known to have produced a vase with an almost identical design of Yamato on the boar. However, that piece bears his signature in a prominent position on the body, while this example is unsigned. 

Full description: Pair of vases with straight sides rounded below and stepped pedestal foot, rounded shoulder, broad, spreading neck and upright rim, having on either side of the body a pair of handles in the form of phoenixes perched on upright branches, their heads turned back and their long tail feathers hanging down. The vase decorated in moulded relief with gilt details: on one side, a mounted huntsman on a wild boar, with followers by a pine tree pursuing a hare, with Mount Fuji and clouds above; and on the other, mounted warriors in combat. Round the neck, inlaid in gold and silver outline, a band of pointed leaves, and on the rim, one of dragon-like scrolls. Below, the pedestal foot supported on a spreading base of darker bronze, with six projecting cockerels' heads with curving legs and clawed feet, the apron between inlaid in linear style with paulownia spray motifs below a raised border with swimming fish. The base fixed to a spreading, three-stepped bronze plinth, its top moulded with dragons, with six low trefoil feet.

Text adapted from Japan: Courts and Culture (2020) and Chinese and Japanese Works of Art in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen: Volume III (2016)