Have you heard of Netsuke (根付)? I had, but I didn’t really know much about them until I went along to the Embassy of Japan in London’s current exhibition: In a Nutshell. The exhibition, which features more than 200 netsuke, was fascinating, and I was lucky enough to attend a talk while I was there too. I learnt that netsuke are essentially toggles. Traditional Japanese clothing had no pockets, so items such as seals, tobacco and medicine would have been carried around in pouches or boxes called sagemono (提げ物) or inro (印籠) (‘sagemono’ is the generic term for these pouches or boxes, whereas ‘inro’ are a particular kind, suitable for carrying small items and often beautifully crafted). The sagemono or inro were hung from a cord which passed behind the wide obi (帯 / a kind of belt or sash), and the netsuke were tied to the other end to prevent it from falling off.
Netsuke date back to the 17th century, and production of netsuke was most popular during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Over time, netsuke became artistically crafted objects and, eventually, things to collect. Now, netsuke are collected all over the world. Rosemary Bandini explained at the Embassy that night that netsuke arrived in Europe about 150 years ago, and that German physician and traveller Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796 – 1866) was probably the first collector of netsuke.
Other noteworthy collectors include Charles Ephrussi (1849 – 1905), who bought netsuke from Siebold and owned a particular ivory hare which I shall mention later; Anne Hull Grundy (1926-1984) a partially blind a bed-ridden collector of European jewellery and Japanese ivories; and artist and carver Michael Webb (born 1934), who makes his own netsuke now.
The exhibition at the Embassy includes all sorts of different netsuke, from private collections in Europe and the World Museum in Liverpool. Netsuke come in many different shapes and sizes but, I was told by Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of Decorative Art at the Holburne Museum in Bath, netsuke were meant to be handled and so it’s those that fit nicely into the palm of your hand which really appeal.
Unfortunately nothing in the Embassy’s exhibition can be touched (or photographed!), but at this special event I attended I was allowed to handle a few netsuke while wearing gloves. The ones I held were smooth and had no sharp edges at all – a real pleasure to hold.
Netsuke come in many different kinds of designs, but the most common themes are people, animals, nature, and yokai (妖怪 / Japanese monsters and spirits). The characters often include an element of humour, too.
The most famous piece on display at the Embassy is a tiny ivory hare – the famous Hare with Amber Eyes which gave its name to Edmund de Waal’s family memoir (which is next on my reading list).
The memoir (published in 2010) tells Edmund’s family history through a collection of netsuke. As I mentioned above, Charles Ephrussi (a cousin of Edmund’s great-grandfather) used to own the famous hare netsuke, and this is the story of the Ephrussi family and their collection which was handed down generation after generation. Edmund, a potter and writer, is the fifth generation of the family to inherit this collection, obtaining it from his great-uncle Iggy, who died in 1994 after spending many years living in Tokyo.
Netsuke are easy to collect because they are small, and I can certainly see the appeal. In fact, as I was walking around in Bristol yesterday I stumbled upon a shop selling Japanese antiques (Amelie & Melanie on Perry Road) and noticed that they had some netsuke in the window (labelled as being Chinese, but still very cool). Luckily the shop was closed, else I might have ended up starting my own collection!
The exhibition at the Embassy made reference to phone charms being a kind of ‘modern day netsuke’, and I can certainly see the connection. These days we have no need for netsuke – we have bags and pockets – and yet the desire to decorate things with hanging charms is still there, especially in Japan. In Japan one will often see young people, especially high school girls, with heaps of charms hanging off their phones and bags, and they are highly collectable (I have many of them myself!).
But, as much as I like these modern charms, I don’t think they’re half as cool as netsuke, which I find fascinating in their detail and differences. They really are incredible tiny works of art!
A publication which accompanies the exhibition is available: In a Nutshell: Japanese Netsuke from European Collections by Rosemary Bandini. If you’re interested in learning more about netsuke, check out the International Netsuke Society website. If you’d like to see some netsuke and can’t make it to the Embassy’s exhibition, I recommend visiting the V&A or British Museum in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, or the Holburne Museum in Bath. Many other museums across the world will also have netsuke collections. For more information about Edmund De Waal, visit: www.edmunddewaal.com.
The Embassy of Japan is open Monday to Friday, 9.30 – 17.30 (excluding bank holidays). The exhibition, initially running until 31st May, has been extended until 12th June and is free to enter, but please remember that photo ID is required to get in to the Embassy. For more information, please visit the Embassy of Japan’s website.