The Japanese clouds-and-sky Wisteria floribunda macrobotrys which clothes the pergola on two sides of our sitting room would find its way inside if only we’d let it. A glorious sight in spring, its long bunches of white-and-blue flowers hang below the window frames.
But in these dark days of autumn 2020 the generosity of friends moving house has enabled an exceptional artistic expression of it to succeed where, in nature, it has not. A fine example of shishū byobū (embroidered goods) – gold and silver thread on a field of silk the colour of well-tilled earth framed in four panels – has made its way into our house.
It’s a beautiful form of japonisme, a word the French coined in the 1870s when Japanese decorative arts created for western markets began to arrive in Paris, London, Vienna and New York. These pieces were made as the Meiji emperor opened Japan to trade with the west after more than two centuries. Between 1880 and 1910 drapers and embroiderers in the silk workshops of Kyoto produced these luxury goods for world fairs, international customers and the new Imperial Household in Tokyo. Research by Hiroko McDermott shows it took small groups of artists two to three years to make one of these screens yet, as export goods, they typically never carried the name of the makers or designer, and rarely a commissioning company label.
But as works of art these were collaborative and enlivened three Kyoto textile firms, all silk draperies, including Takashimaya, which evolved into Japan’s leading department store. The reverse sides of the screen’s panels are painted with a scene of Japan, stylised to appeal to western taste. And between the silk front and painted back pages of Japanese newspapers were pasted.