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A Domed Export Lacquer Casket
A Domed Export Lacquer Casket


A Domed Export Lacquer Casket
Edo Period (mid-17th century)
The rectangular coffer with a wide range of techniques including hiramaki-e, usu-niku-takamaki-e, heidatsu, tsukemaki, nashiji and a variety of gold and silver kirikane on a kuro-nuri ground, the intricate and complex decoration of court nobles on a balcony, a scene from the Genji Monogatari, over a stream watching girls with insect cages in the garden below, hillocks and a garden wall with pine trees, flowering wisteria, cherry and chrysanthemums beside a stream, a cockerel and hen under bands of cloud, with bamboo shoots and grasses, the underside of the hinged cover decorated with flowering plants, including Chinese bellflowers, on a kuro-nuri ground surrounded by formalized clouds in nashiji, edged with a double line of gold hiramaki-e, with an inscription MOROCAUA LUIS, the interior of the box also with clouds, edged with a single line of gold hiramaki-e, the edges of the box and cover are in nashiji
22.3cm. wide

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Lot Essay

1) The scene featured in the decoration is from Genji Monogatari, written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early part of the 11th century. In this scene, from the 28th chapter, 'Nowaki', Yugiri, Prince Genji's son, catches his first glimpse of Murasaki, his father's lover, who has been sent by the empress Akikonomu into the garden of the Rokujo mansion in Kyoto after a typhoon, to lay out some insect cages in the damp garden.

2) The earliest coffers of this shape were made to the order of Jesuit priests for use in the many Christian churches they had established in Japan by the end of the 16th century. Between 1553 and 1620, 86 daimyo had been baptized. By 1614 there were about 300,000 Japanese Catholic converts in Japan. Known as Namban lacquer - that is lacquer made for the use of 'Southern Barbarians' (Westerners), the quality and style of this coffer marks a very rare bridge between the relatively crude and expeditious quality of these early works and the superlative quality and more detailed designs carried out on a group of export pieces made for the Dutch around the time of the expulsion of the Portuguese and Spanish from Japan. This expulsion was the delayed result of the 'San Philipe Incident' of 1596, in which a Spanish galleon on route from Manila to Acapulco was driven ashore and shipwrecked in Urado Bay, Shikoku. Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered the ship destroyed and its cargo divided between himself and the local daimyo. The captain and/or navigator went to Osaka to demand compensation of Hideyoshi for the loss of the ship and its cargo. He is to alleged to have told the Japanese that it was the Spanish habit to send missionaries to a newly discovered country, convert the population to Christianity and follow this by military conquest. Formerly well-disposed towards the foreigners, this incident turned the Japanese rulers against them. Various edicts expelling foreigners from Japan were issued from 1597 onwards. None of these was particularly energetically enforced, until in 1639 the final expulsion (or, failing that, execution) of all Westerners was successful, with the exception a handful of Dutch traders allowed to remain on the minute artificial fan-shaped island of Deshima (or Dejima) in Nagasaki Bay. Being Protestants (not Catholics), the Dutch were still trusted to a certain extent and this tiny enclave provided the Japanese with an ear to the outside world and maintained some valued trading activity. Their exclusion policy was maintained until the reopening of the country, under the threat of the guns of Commodore Perry's 'Black Ships', in 1854. This particular coffer must have been made for the Portuguese around 1630, just before the expulsion. The shape and the shippo borders, which are in hiramaki-e and raden (shell) inlay, are in the style of the early pieces made for the Jesuits in the 16th/early 17th century, but the techniques and the quality of the work are similar to the small group of pieces represented by the van Diemen and Buys boxes and the Mazarin chest, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This rare example was clearly made for a Portuguese. The name 'MOROCAUA LUIS' spelled out in lacquer on the underside of the cover, has so far proved impossible to identify but Luis is a common Portuguese forename.
Two further examples of export lacquer of this period, of Portuguese design which are decorated with subjects from Genji Monogatari are:

a) An oval host box in the collection of the Namban Bunkakan collection in Osaka, decorated with a scene from Genji Monogatari, of priests being entertained after the death of Lady Murasaki, see Yoshimura Motoo, Beauty of Lacquer, Momoyama to Edo, 1987, no.54.

b) And a larger domed coffer, in the collection of the same museum, see Namban Shikki - East-West Exchange in Lacquer Craft, Sakai Museum, 1983, no.40.

c) The two pieces referenced above are illustrated, in colour, see Gorgeous Lacquer from the Edo Period, Tokyo National Museum, 20th August-6th October 2002, p.135, nos. 120 and 121.

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