The 1880s have frequently been described as the time during which the Japan mania reached its height in Britain. 1885 was a particularly eventful year. During this year Whistler proclaimed in his Ten O’Clock Lecture that ‘the story of the beautiful is already complete – hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon, and broidered... upon the fan of Hokusai’. The Japanese Village at Knightsbridge opened its gates on 10 January and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 14 March. Both events received much publicity and generated great interest. The ladies’ newspaper The Queen featured a full-page illustration of the Japanese Village depicting the buildings, people and activities that one was likely to find therein, including embroidery work. An excerpt from the journal describes all the sights to be seen: ‘the most attractive occupation carried on in several of the workrooms is embroidery of large and small pieces of silk satin, and crepe’. A second article singled out embroidery as of primary interest to women, stating that ‘the shop for embroidery is besieged by ladies while that in which the ivory, mother-of-pearl, and wood is carved and the metal chased for inlaying cabinets, &c., is chiefly affected by the men’. Both articles assume a strong and natural feminine interest in Japanese embroidery. This paper examines the exemplary role of Japanese embroidery to women’s art embroidery in late 19th-century Britain with regard to material, technique and style. Those involved in art and design were turning to Japanese examples for artistic inspiration, and embroidery was no exception. This paper also demonstrates the diverse ways in which women came into contact with Japanese art, such as at Japanese villages, international and national exhibitions, warehouses and department stores and charity bazaars, their own work sometimes being displayed alongside Japanese examples. It is important to emphasise such points of contact because of traditional ideas concerning the Japan mania. The material culture of the Japan mania has been linked with shoddy, mass-produced or amateurish goods employing superfluous ornament rather than the creative production of unique, singular art objects. Traditional art and design history further argues that the wider interest in and consumption of Japanese art wares trickled down from tastemakers such as artists, designers, critics and collectors. Although books such as Mary Eliza Haweis’s Beautiful Houses (1882) offered their readers a glimpse of the Japanese objects employed in household and studio interiors by artists and other celebrities, there were many places where these objects could be experienced more directly, mediated instead by retailers or even peers. While Victorian commentators assumed an affinity between women and Japanese embroiderers in their ‘natural’ capacity for detailed, patient, decorative work, reinforcing particular gender and racial stereotypes, they also expressed unease in the blurring of boundaries relating to race, gender and fine and decorative art in this artistic interaction. This paper will argue that the relationship between women’s art embroidery and Japanese art challenges both Victorian and contemporary perceptions of women’s art needlework in the Japanese style during the Japan mania (1875-1900).
|Published - 2009