Japan: Courts and Culture, Queen’s Gallery, London

Susan Tailby
5 min readFeb 18


The Royal Collection has many marvels in it — including the royal fascination with collecting beautiful art objects from Japan (or being gifted them or awkwardly handed across during political negotiations)… But thankfully there weren’t too many of these here — I wasn’t expecting stunning boxes patterned with powdered gold! or amazing Samurai armour (from the 17th century) gifted to James I!!!! Still extant.

While England might be an island, (whilst it likes to pretend otherwise), socially, culturally, spiritually and politically, it never has been. And the Japan exhibition showed this — there was the kind meeting between the Japanese royal family and British royals, even wearing matching golf wear to honour their guest (and forcefully pushing ‘modernity’ in French fashions). George V I think is an underrated monarch — here the exhibition restored things — he is the only European to have a prestigious Japanese honour and to be awarded an exquisitely crafted sword. Watch out for his wife though, Queen Mary, avariciously collecting porcelain when she comes to your home! But I do wonder what Edward VIII did with all his letter boxes (fubako)! (Exquisite though they are). (His bowl with jolly leaping rabbits all over it is something though!)

George IV was easier to read. A keen connoisseur and bon ton taste influencer, he blinged them up — adding more gold, more gilt, just more! to porcelain. He also had conspicuous consumption overload with many lacquered cabinets on display — 12 I think (all at once). He even chopped things up to bling up other things — such as the lacquered roll top part of a cabinet. An early up-cycler or cultural vandal — you decide? The other Queen Mary (as in William and Mary) avidly collected porcelain and displayed in in a blaze of colour against dark wood — a display mimicked some of this, and you can see why — it’s light and beautiful and vivid. Not to mention the lacquered plates — 17th century pewter style…

There are sake bottles (still with some sake in them!) Best of all are the information cards which use ‘probably’ quite a lot — I love that the royal family doesn’t quite know how a lot of stuff got there. The empty photos of Prince Alfred are hauntingly sad, where are the people? There are the hilarious souvenirs — clearly Western orientated ‘tea pots’ and cups and saucers. Whilst the photograph of Prince Alfred’s family tableaux-ing away Japanese-style is cringeworthy by today’s views and makes us want to shout cultural appropriation and cancel them, I’m not sure this is the case. It is cringe and funny, because they are very clearly British people dressed up. Instead I think it’s more serious fan-girling and boying — they love the people and the culture and are (in a clumsy way) trying to celebrate all the good things they’ve seen and experienced in this amazing culture and society. Although this isn’t the whole truth and very narrow and privileged, there is a celebration here rather than ‘we’re just stealing your stuff’. And who can not smile at a slightly tubby prince offering tea? I’m sure the open minded Queen Victoria was amused. Perhaps not so much by Princess Alexandra of Edinburgh in ‘Japanese’ dress up.

The symbolism within the art, even the materials, was tremendous — screens depicting the seasons and wheeling cranes; a flurry of birds (just like St James’s Park) on another and most wonderfully, a textile peacock which glimmered in the light, constantly changing colour and focus. A Faberge like pheasant ink well utilised the ‘seven colours’ technique included the well hidden in its glittering back. The fans were wonderful too — as beautiful on the back as on the front. Gilded too were the shodana (which should be heaving with boxes of make-up — we saw artistic shelving units) and exquisite collection of ever decreasing in size boxes — for an incense game (and showing off your high classness in doing so).

Most wondrous was the porcelain though. Huge vases resplendent with detailed decorations, including a variety of birds and floral motifs; a vase with a carp swimming triumphantly up it; a vase which simply reflects the wisdom of ageing.

Most of all — I was here for the unexpected Samurai armour (some with shoulder hinges like wings), incredible detailing on every part — even on the inside of the leg coverings, and the arrow quivers. Plus the learning — they rode into battle on horseback, standing up in the stirrups! (and the beard on the helmet is to keep the sweat off). One suit had a space to attach a flag to the wearer — literally wearing your colours and avoiding death by ‘friendly fire’. And the gold powered boxes… And this — it has clockwork and will bring you sweets. Really want to see this in action! Does it trundle or glide?

The photographs from the Collection don’t do the objects justice. The exhibition itself is wonderfully displayed — there aren’t too many items crowded together so that you can have space to look, enjoy and reflect.

And finally, Makino Yoshio, a celebrated artist, celebrating foggy London for Queen Mary in 1928, and ensuring that art works had authenticity. It’s extraordinary modern!

@ Objects are from the Royal Collection, property of His Majesty King Charles III and the Royal Collection, and used purely to illustrate the author’s very enjoyable visit to Japan: Court and Culture at the Queen’s Gallery



Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....