Like all Japanese cloisonné of the early Meiji period, Namikawa Yasuyuki's first work owed much to Chinese decoration. Illustrations were generally of standard motifs set in panels, each thus forming a two-dimensional image, with the space between filled with scrolling or geometric designs. The feet and shoulders of vases and such vessels would be decorated with bands of regular lappets reminiscent of ancient Chinese bronzes, and the early enamels had the colour and consistency of Chinese cloisonné. But this was to change with the rapid development of Japanese cloisonné in the 1870s and 80s, and the work of Namikawa Yasuyuki (1845-1927) in particular exemplifies its highest artistic and technical development. Around 1878 or 1879 Namikawa met the German chemist Gottfried Wagener (1831-1892) with whose knowledge of ceramic pigmentation he was able to develop and refine his glazes in colour and texture to make both transparent and opaque glazes of faultless clarity. He took great care over his compositions and varied the standard motifs so that each piece was unique and with its own charm and character. Many of his early designs were drawn by the designer Nakahara Tessen, who recorded them in his Kyo Shippo Monyo Shu [Kyoto Cloisonné Pattern Collection].
Namikawa won prizes at the Philadelphia World Fair of 1876, and then at the Paris World Fair of 1878, and later at the 1889 Paris Fair. He was also honoured at the series of National Industrial Expositions which was instituted in 1877. He won altogether 31 prizes at expositions both at home and abroad. In 1896 together with the unrelated Namikawa Sosuke, Yasuyuki was appointed as a Teishitsu Gigeiin, or 'Imperial Artist', the only two cloisonné makers to be so honoured.
This pair of Imperial Presentation Vases represent the finest work of the artist, and are rare examples bearing the Imperial mon, indicating that they were commissioned by the Imperial Household for presentation to a Japanese or foreign dignitary. The subject matter of dragons and phoenixes are Chinese auspicious emblems which were fashionable in Japan from the Nara Period (1710-1784) when Chinese philosophies, fashions, and government systems were being assimilated under the rule of Emperor ancestors of the Emperor Meiji.
Although Yasuyuki's style was to become more pictorial, for which he was praised by the judges at the 4th National Industrial Exhibition of 1895, and to develop further (see Lot 151) after the Paris exhibition of 1900 when the traditional Japanese designs were condemned as unimaginative, he seems to have maintained the use of formal panels with classic designs for some of his most monumental work, especially the Imperial Presentation pieces. But there is nothing unimaginative about his formal work. The profiles of the panels and lappets on these vases, while retaining something of the archaic Chinese style, are in fact quite gentle and sit well with the overall shape of the vessels. The scrolling with chrysanthemums, quite fitting on Imperial pieces, seems to dance around and over the edges of the panels adding a further dimension and softening any impression that the phoenixes and dragons are imprisoned. It is interesting to compare this pair of vases with the well-documented pieces in the Khalili Collection1 which is illustrated with free bird and flower designs and chrysanthemums as if floating on stylized water between the panels, in intimation of Yasuyuki's Imperial connection. One can imagine Yasuyuki, as an Imperial Artist, smarting under the slight of the foreign criticism and determining to preserve the integrity of his well-established style. Of course this is just conjecture, and we cannot be absolutely sure of the dates of the vases, and must be content with recognizing their timeless beauty in an age when such work seems far beyond human capacity.
Although much of Yasuyuki's work is small and delicately worked with silver wires, pieces commissioned by the Imperial Household like this magnificent pair of flower vases were usually around 30cm or so in height.
An inscription on the box states that they are flower vases, which is why there are no lids, and that they were for presentation. The vases are accompanied by a letter dated 1974 and written by a lady, Morimoto Fumiko, indicating that they were presented by the Imperial Household to the house of Okuma Shigenobu (1838-1922), and then given to the house of a Morimoto Mitsuo. Although to date it has not been possible to substantiate this provenance further, the history is interesting. Recent information from the Imperial Household Agency confirms that the Emperor did indeed give Okuma a pair of cloisonné vases, although there is no record of the maker nor any description of the actual pieces. Okuma had lost a leg as the result of an assassin's bomb in 1889, and the Emperor Meiji visited him during his convalescence in May of the following year. It was then that the presentation was made. Later to be ennobled as a Marquis, Okuma was prominent in the negotiations leading to the Imperial Restoration of 1868. He was made Head of Foreign Affairs in that year, Minister of Finance between 1870 and 1881, then Prime Minister briefly during 1908 and again between 1914 and 1916. He is particularly venerated as the founder of Waseda University in Tokyo. At the time of the Vienna Exposition in 1873 Okuma was overseer for the Japanese exhibit when Gottfried Wagener was a special advisor. In view of the later relationship between Yasuyuki and Wagener it is not improbable that Okuma would have met the cloisonné artist Namikawa at some time. As perhaps the most revered public figure of his time Marquis Okuma would have been an obvious recipient of an Imperial Gift. There can be little doubt that these are the very cloisonné vases which the Emperor presented to the national hero Okuma Shigenobu in 1889.
1(published Treasures of Imperial Japan etc etc….., and 'Japanese Imperial Craftsmen, British Musuem Publications 1994)