Since early times, bronze objects---holy images, temple bells and altar paraphernalia---were made for Buddhist temples and to some extent for Shinto shrines. This bronze industry flourished during the Edo period (1615-1868) under the shogun's support for the construction of new temples. But with the imperial restoration came legislation against Buddhism and in favor of the Shinto religion, the basis of a state with a divine emperor as the hereditary ruler of the nation.
A major use of the temple bell had been to signify the time of day. With the introduction of Western clocks with winding mechanisms, the traditional Japanese bell fell almost completely out of use. Similarly, bronze mirrors with the obverse sculpted with auspicious emblems and other motifs were replaced by glass ones. The resulting obsolescence of temple objects paved the way for the bronze founders to manufacture new types of objects as a part of Japan's export drive. Bronze flower vases served not just as Buddhist altar pieces, but for use in the tea ceremony and for flower arrangements within the tokonoma alcoves of wooden houses. Many were of archaic designs derived from Chinese originals introduced during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). But by the late Edo and Meiji periods, some purely decorative bronze vessels were made that were never intended for practical use. These include the pair of monumental incense burners (lot 110) in which ancient motifs such as the dragon amongst waves, phoenixes, and bands of "cicada-wing" shapes share space with later bird-and-flower motifs in high relief, the triple-comma design often found associated with the Shinto religion and the triple hollyhock-leaf badge of the Tokugawa family.
The leading bronze artist Suzuki Chokichi (1848-1919) is known as the greatest bronze sculptor of the Meiji period, being skilled in both casting and inlay sculpture. His most famous pieces include the series of twelve hawks on perches in bronze with gold and silver inlay made for the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (now in the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo); the eagle on a rock, which earned great acclaim at the Nuremberg Exposition of 1883; the two great incense burners, each surmounted with an eagle, shown in Paris in 1869 (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Khalili Collection). Chokichi is said to have obtained an eagle from Hokkaido and to have used it as a model for his great sculpture of the subject. But an extraordinary forerunner of Chokichi's work is the model of an eagle on a perch made by his teacher, Okano Toryusai (lot 111), signed Toryusai and dated in accordance with 1845, just shortly before Chokichi was born.
An earlier artist, Murata Seimin (1761-1837), also closely studied his subjects and is believed to have made castings from the bodies of crustaceans, especially tortoises and turtles, one of the best examples of which is a tortoise in the collection of the British Museum (1954,0417.6; see Lawrence Smith, Victor Harris and Timothy Clark, Japanese Art: Masterpieces in the British Museum [London: The British Museum Publications for Trustees of The British Museum, 1990], no. 151). Seimin inspired both contemporary and later bronze artists, so the name Seimin, albeit written with different characters, is found on work up to and including the Meiji period. An impressive example is the standing figure of a Chinese elder in the Khalili Collection (see Smith, Harris and Clark, Japanese Art: Masterpieces in the British Museum, no. 41) dating from around 1900 and signed Seimin, by Watanabe Seimin, a member of the Tokyo Sculpture Association. The flower vase signed Seimin (lot 107) in the form of opposed lotus leaves, with terrapin similar to that in the British Museum collection clambering on the lower leaf that forms the base, was likely made for use in the tea ceremony. Many descendants of Murata Seimin flourished with the export trade, and his name was adopted by several great artists of the time.
In 1882, as part of the public educational program advanced by the Meiji government, a zoo was built in Ueno close to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and the Imperial Museum (now Tokyo National Museum). The public now had access to a range of imported animals that had rarely been seen before in Japan, including tigers, lions and elephants. Genryusai Seiya was the most prominent of a number of artists who came to specialize in animal subjects. The dynamism of Seiya's work is well displayed in the study of a boy riding an ox (lot 135). The subject probably depicts the fourth of the series of Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, based on twelfth-century Chinese drawings of the stages towards Buddhist enlightenment; here, the ox (enlightenment) is finally caught but cannot yet be controlled. The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures were popular during the Meiji period, especially beloved by the enlightened swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), a close confidant of the Meiji emperor. The images were an apt statement of Japanese spiritual aspiration at a time when the nation was emerging into the turmoil of a large and relatively unstable society of nations.
The Hammerers, Engravers and Inlayers
The machibori, or independent "town carvers," who emerged during the seventeenth century, might be considered the originators of decorative metalwork. They took the standard sculpture and high-relief inlay of colored metals on a shakudo (black alloy of copper with a little gold) to new heights, introducing further alloys such as shibuichi (literally, "one part in four"), an alloy of copper and silver that patinated to a range of colors from silver, gray and brown. Yokoya Somin brought to the attention of the world the technique of katakiri-bori, whereby oblique cuts with a chisel on a flat surface could be made to simulate the strokes of a brush in ink painting (lot 115 for katakiri-bori). He and other "town carvers" worked together with painters, using their designs on metal. That kind of joint enterprise typifies the later activities of Meiji craftsmen: designer, hammerer or caster, inlayer and engraver all working on a single object.
Prominent among inlayers and engravers were Unno Shomin (1844-1915) and Tsukada Shukyo (1848-1915), pupils of the great Kano Natsuo. Shomin, together with his father Yoshimori, studied under Hagiya Katsuhira (Shohei) (1904-1886), regarded as the founder of the late Edo-period school of metalworkers in Mito province. Shomin became a lecturer in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and five years later was named an Imperial Craftsman. His many pupils formed the Mito school in Tokyo. Among them, his son Bisei (Yoshimori II; 1864-1919) became a prominent maker of fine-quality export ornaments (lot 115). Unno Kiyoshi (1884-1956), the third son of Shomin, was designated a "Living National Treasure" in 1955. Kiyoshi made the pair of copper plaques decorated in high-relief, colored-metal inlay and katakiri-bori depicting the immortals Gama Sennin, with his companion three-legged toad, and Tekkai Sennin, who had the power to transport himself along his own exhalation of breath (lot 112). The plaques are not dated but they compare stylistically with similar pieces made by Shomin, notably Shoki, the Demon Queller in the Khalili Collection (see Victor Harris, Japanese Imperial Craftsmen: Meiji Art from the Khalili Collection, exh. cat. [London: British Museum Press for Trustees of The British Museum, 1994], cat. no. 2), suggesting that they may have been made under the guidance of Shomin. Another fine Mito work shown here is lot 128, a box with peonies inlaid in high-relief colored metals signed Bikyo, an apparently unrecorded member of the group whose name contains characters from the names of both Bisei and Shukyo, thus indicating his relationship with them.
A most impressive pair of inlaid bronze vases (lot 116) exemplifies the very best of mid-Meiji-period joint work between a bronze founder and two great metal sculptors. The gorgeous, high-relief gold, silver and colored inlays have the signatures of Sato Kazuhide (1855-1925) and Kagawa Katsuhiro (1853-1917) on silver cartouches, with their seals in gold. The necks of the vases are designed with bands of phoenixes and scrolling paulownia, perhaps suggesting the imperial connection of both artists.
The vases are richly worked with bird-and-flower motifs signifying spring and autumn. They were made in 1885, the year Katsuhiro entered a work in the Nuremberg Exposition, and it is possible that these magnificent vases were in that very exhibition. Both Kazuhide and Katsuhiro rose to become prominent in their field, and Katsuhiro was appointed an Imperial Craftsman in 1906.
The Iron Hammerers
The demand for new armor gradually decreased in the Edo period. One of the larger groups of iron-armor component makers, the Myochin, whose branches were spread throughout Japan, took to making articulated iron models of animals with the hammering and riveting techniques used in the manufacture of plate components of helmets and body armor. The model of a mythical "dragon-fish" (shachihoko) presented here (lot 109) is a fine example. The signature, Myochin Shikibu Sosuke, is found on various iron objects dating from the Edo period. The majority of the articulated iron models known today date from the late Edo and Meiji periods, but a model iron dragon dated 1713 in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum signed Myochin Muneaki was identified by Harada Kazutoshi and exhibited in "Jizai okimono" at the Tokyo National Museum in 2009 together with this dragon-fish. The name Shikibu no jo Sosuke is also found on later objects; there is a record of a nineteenth-century sword-guard maker signing Myochin Shikibu no jo, who had the honorific title of Osumi no kami.