On the eleventh day of April


What is so special about the eleventh day of April? A hint. It’s not the eleventh of April this year I’m referring to.

It’s the eleventh day of April 1868. Ring any bells? Probably not — unless you live in Japan. For on the eleventh of April 1868 the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate was brought to a close with the restoration of the Emperor Meiji.

Now, before you hit the delete button and move on to another email, consider this. The Meiji restoration opened Japan up to the west after nearly 300 years of isolation, and made all things Japanese soar in popularity. Japanese design, arts and crafts swept away traditional ideas and thoughts, becoming highly influential on the French Impressionists, and through that artists from around the world who flocked to study in Paris were swept along on the crest of the new wave too.


Posters in the style of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

Artists such as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Van Gogh (who even drew with a reed pen and who amassed a collection of over 200 Japanese prints, making numerous copies after the Japanese artist Hiroshige), Beardsley, Klimt and many others were inspired by Japanese art, including some of the painters who became known as the Glasgow Boys, and Alexander Reid.


A photographic print on canvas of Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of Alexander Reid — larger than actual size as the portrait is quite small, but nonetheless powerful. For years this painting was considered a Van Gogh self-portrait as the two men were very alike.

The American artist James McNeill Whistler was obsessed by blue and white china and by the art of Japan.

Whistler 2 copy

A Whistler self-portrait. Whistler was never good at hands — see his effort here. See also above his hand one of his trademark butterfly logos.

Some of his earlier paintings included Japanese props such as fans, vases and kimonos, but the influence of Japanese prints by Hiroshige and other Japanese artists is most apparent in the paintings known as his Nocturnes, which incorporate elements of Japanese spatial design, asymmetrical balance and a harmony of colour and form. In his desire to rid his art of narrative content, formal design took precedence over subject matter, his painting in close subtle tones, pared back until almost abstract, rendered the works almost incomprehensible to a public used to detailed Victorian paintings.


Whistler’s Old Battersea Bridge (photograph).

Louis Comfort Tiffany, glassmaker amongst other things, couldn’t wait to get his hands on samples of Japanese goods from Christopher Dresser, a lecturer in botany and art botany and one of the first independent industrial designers. He championed design reform while embracing modern manufacturing in the development of wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, glass, furniture and metalware. He was the first European designer to be commissioned to visit Japan, exploring craft and manufacturing techniques for the UK government. Dresser’s fascinating little book, Japan: It’s architecture, art, and art manufactures, published in 1882, can be downloaded from Amazon and other sites and is well worth a browse. Gardeners especially may glean ideas for new attractions in their gardens.

Japan : its architecture, art, and art manufactures

Christopher Dresser’s book on Japan.

Japan : its architecture, art, and art manufactures

Bridges in Japan. Ideas for a garden with a water feature perhaps?

My fascination with this event came through research I did on Alexander Reid, the Scottish art dealer who was friendly with Vincent van Gogh, worked in Goupil’s gallery beside his brother Theo, and lodged for a while with both in Rue Lepic, Montmartre, in Paris. Vincent’s brother Theo had represented the art dealer Goupil at the 1878 Worlds Fair at which there was an explosion of works from Japan.


The apartment block in the Rue Lepic, Montmartre (not far from where Whistler stayed) where Alexander Reid stayed with the Van Gogh brothers.

Siegfried Bing, French print seller, dealer, art patron, avid collector of all things Japanese was said to have exquisite taste and beautiful manners, though he obsessively shunned publicity. His first shop opened in time for the World’s Fair, with a second opening in 1880 on his return from a visit to Japan, selling old as well as contemporary Japanese objects. ‘Le japon artistique’ the revolutionary magazine on Japanese art was published by him monthly in France, America and the UK between 1888 and 1891 and was avidly read by Vincent van Gogh.


The front cover of a copy of Artistic Japan that I picked up in a second hand book and print shop.


Front cover of another edition. Bing seems to have liked birds. Don’t have the actual magazine so no idea why birds feature on the covers.

During the 1880s Bing vigorously promoted Japanese art in Europe and America. Alex Reid bought prints from his Paris shop, which by 1895 had been transformed into the first of his Salons de L’Art Nouveau, indicative of a fusion of Japanese and Western art that heralded a new artistic vision (and name) in the decorative arts. Bing was on a mission to banish ugliness in people’s surroundings, advocating that even everyday, utilitarian objects should have beauty and charm.

Scottish shipbuilders built vessels for Japan, Robert Louis Stevenson’s family firm built navigation lights for their island shores, and Thomas Blake Glover became known as the Scottish Samurai. Glover arrived in Nagasaki in 1859, as Japan was beginning to open up to the west, ordered ships from Scottish shipyards, traded with those he later advised, many of those who in 1868 brought about the end of the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Meiji.


The original wooden Imperial Hotel  is where Alexander Reid stayed on his trip to Japan in 1909. The hotel was rebuilt in 1923, designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Glover went on to become pivotal in the growth of Mitsubishi as an international conglomerate, founding shipyards, coal mines and breweries, becoming an adviser to the Japanese Government, viewed as one of those who laid the basis for Japan’s modern industrialisation.


Fatsia Japonica. Many of the plant we love in our gardens come from Japan so the effects of 1868 were far reaching.

Glover House in Nagasaki, with its stunning garden, attracts over two million visitors a year, Japan’s largest tourist attraction, perhaps because his affair with one of his mistresses is said to have inspired Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.

Alex Reid’s brother worked in Nagasaki shipyard on the reconstruction of the Japanese navy. This was the yard in which Glover had an interest, and which was then leased by Mitsubishi. The surviving correspondence between James and members of his family provides a fascinating insight into a country coming to terms with the modern world and with the West.


Japanese maples in Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyll.





About jingsandthings

I am me. What do I like? Colour Shapes Textures Paintings, photographs, sculptures, woven tapestries, wonderful materials. The love of materials probably comes from my father who was a textile buyer, and I grew up hearing the names of mills and manufacturers which sounded magical and enticing. Glass in all its soft and vibrant colours and flowing shapes, even sixties glass which makes its own proud statement. A book I can immerse myself in. Meals with family or friends with lots of chat and laughter (and probably a bottle or two of wine). The occasional trip abroad to experience the sights, sounds, food, conversation, quality of light and warmth of other countries. To revel in differences and be amazed by similarities. I like to create and to experience, to try and to achieve. And then there are words – read, heard, written at my keyboard, or scrawled on sticky notes, or along the edges of dog-eared supermarket receipts excavated from the unexplored nooks of my handbag. What do I dislike? Cold Snow Bad design Fast food Condescension
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6 Responses to On the eleventh day of April

  1. Pat Mosel says:

    As far as I know, Dorothy, there is still a Japanese garden at Stobo Health Spa in the Borders. I rather liked it, in my spa days.

    • Didn’t know about that one, Pat, have never been spaing, but there’s a beautifully laid out one in the gardens of Lauriston Castle near Crammond. And Benmore in Cowal is planted with many Japanese plants which grow well in the moist, warm climate. Many of the West coast gardens such as Crarae are awash at this time of year with Japanese azaleas, and have various species of Japanese trees including conifers.

      I found it fascinating that when a country suddenly opened up to the world its art and design, plants etc had such an impact that it brought about seismic changes.

  2. mybrightlife says:

    Really interesting. Had know idea about the influence of Japanese art/culture on some of what we consider the great artists of modern times.

  3. I knew Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese art but didn’t know it was so widespread. There was Japanese mania although very few people had ever been to the country. Perhaps that was the attraction — something totally new and different. Picasso was also influenced by African sculpture and that’s where cubism is said to have originated. Just shows, doesn’t it, that very little is actually new and much is adapted and drawn on to create different artworks and designs.

  4. lenathehyena says:

    Super piece and wonderful pictures. There is the issue of Blake Glover being a gun runner too – in fact he’d tackle anything to earn a crust. It’s taken a long time for me to appreciate Japanese art, there’s a sweeping statement, but love it now.

    • Thank you, Lena. Yes, he armed those wanting to overthrow the Shogunate. He must have been pretty astute as Japan at that time was full of little warlord dictators who thought little of doing away with enemies or those perceived to be in their way. Somewhere on my archive hard drive I have photographs from a friend of Glover’s house in Fraserburgh (?) and his fathers shop. What fascinates me with this period is how all the movers and shakers in art, theatre, literature, business and politics are all known to one another, friends. Perhaps it’s the same today. Wouldn’t be surprised.

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