These vases were sent by the Emperor Meiji in 1884 to Thomas Archer-Hirst, then having just retired from his post as Director of Studies at of the Greenwich Naval College in Greenwich, as a token of appreciation for his kindness to Prince Takehito of Arisugawa (1862-1913) who had studied at the College between 1880 and 1883. The Prince was later to command a cruiser in the Sino-Japanese war, eventually becoming a full Admiral (posthumously Marshal Admiral).
As the inscription states the vases were made in the Kanazawa Doki Kaisha [Kanazawa Bronze Company] of Kanazawa prefecture which had been established in 1877 in order to produce art objects for export. Ishikawa Ken was the new prefecture formed under the Meiji government from the old Maeda Han which comprised Kaga and the Noto peninsula, with Kanazawa as the main city.
After the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu at Sekigahara in 1604, the second Daimyo of Kaga, Maeda Toshinaga (1562-1614) is said to have brought the metalworker Goto Chikujo from Kyoto to supervise metalwork. During the Edo period Kaga became a centre for the production of iron guns, armour, and horse accoutrements, together with small metal sword fittings. These objects were decorated with silver, gold, or other in hirazogan [level inlay - or Kaga Zogan], to become popular throughout Japan until rendered obsolete at the time of the Meiji Restoration. But the bronze artists in particular continued with their work making decorative objects such as the present vases under the auspices of the new company.
Following the succession of the Emperor Meiji the collection of objects belonging to the Emperor Shomu, which had been sealed away in the eighth century known as the Shosoin, were made available for study by craftsmen for the first time. They included Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Middle-Eastern objects of all kind. The designs on those objects became popular particularly among textile specialists, lacquerers, and metal workers, and the Kanazawa bronze makers used motifs inspired by this source.
The present vases are decorated in a hybrid archaic quasi-Chinese style, with handles made in the form of phoenixes, inlaid stylized animals in procession, and motifs based on the leaf-shaped cicada-wing designs found on ancient Chinese bronzes. The cicada wing shapes contain somewhat disconcerting exotic faces originating from the Chinese taotie beast cast on bronzes, but with a then modern approach. The upper band has regular stylized floral designs, and the middle band is devoted to the gold-inlaid sixteen-petal Imperial Chrysanthemum mon indicating that the vases were commissioned by the Emperor.
The bronze varies in colour and texture due to subtle treatments which bring components of the alloy to the surface in various micro-structures. One of the vases has apparently been kept packed away and remains in pristine condition, while the other has developed the patina of a hundred years on display. The vases are accompanied by their original Japanese paulownia wood box whose condition shows much sign of many movements of the Hirst family from home to home.
THOMAS ARCHER HIRST (1830-1892)
Professor Wilson, Pembroke College, Oxford
Thomas Archer Hirst was one of the most important scientists of his day, although he is little remembered today. He is best known for the extensive diaries that he kept over 45 years: extending over 3000 pages they vividly describe the scientific world in which he moved and the many distinguished scientists (Darwin, Faraday, Gauss, Kirchhoff, etc.) that he met, while also chronicling the major events of the day.
His parents were in the wool trade in Yorkshire, and as a teenager Hirst trained as a surveyor for the West Yorkshire Railway in Halifax. Increasingly involved with education and self-improvement, he eventually gave up his surveying and travelled to Germany to work for a Ph.D. degree in mathematics at the University of Marburg. This was followed by extended periods collaborating with colleagues in France and Italy. On returning to England he entered school teaching for a while, before attaining various university posts.
Once established, he became President of the London Mathematical Society, a Vice-President of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, a member of the influential X-club which aimed to dissociate science from religion, and Professor (of Physics, and then Mathematics) at University College, London, and Registrar of the London University.
His final employment was as the first Director of Studies at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, a prestigious post that he held for ten years, from 1873 to 1883. Hirst was responsible for the supervision of naval cadets, including a number from abroad. In 1880 Prince Arisugawa Takehito of Japan became a cadet at the College, receiving his military training there for three years. Shortly afterwards, Hirst was presented with a magnificent pair of Japanese bronze vases in recognition of his services to the Japanese students at the College.