The Japanese art of a Scottish engineer
As Asia Scotland Institute’s contribution to the Japan400 celebrations marking the start of relations between Britain and Japan in 1613, Dr. Rosina Buckland, senior curator responsible for the Japanese collections at the National Museum of Scotland, gave a vivid, fascinating multimedia presentation on the Scottish engineer Henry Dyer’s love affair with Japanese art, in particular the recently rediscovered masterpiece ‘Pleasures of the East’ held by Edinburgh City Libraries.
Dr. Buckland began by describing the extraordinary contributions made to Japanese modernization in the late 19th century by Scots Thomas Blake Glover, Richard Henry Brunton, William Kinnimond Burton, and Henry Dyer. Japan in the late nineteenth century undertook a large-scale programme of modernization, for which purpose it retained many foreign experts, these men included.
Glover in particular was “something of a maverick”, at one point running guns for Japanese rebels then going on to establish Japanese coal mining and brewing companies and founding a company that in time became Mitsubishi. Brunton, a member of the Stevenson lighthouse firm, became the “father of Japanese lighthouses” building 30 lighthouses around the country over 8 years. Burton built Japan’s first skyscraper and introduced modern sanitation engineering to the country, while Dyer was just 25 years old when he was appointed head of the new college of engineering in Tokyo.
Dr. Buckland then focussed on the Japanese art collection of Dyer, in particular an exceptionally large handscroll painting on paper (58cm x 1356cm), entitled ‘Pleasures of the East’, created by Furuyama Moromasa who was active in the early 18th century. The painting depicts a rich and diverse extended street scene in Edo (today’s Tokyo), depicting numerous businesses and activity along the way, and culminates in a scene of a bathhouse at the end.
Dr Buckland then gave a brief description of Kabuki theatre, before explaining the structure of the current special exhibition of woodblock prints at the National Museum of Scotland, Kabuki: Japanese Theatre Prints. She then introduced a video excerpt of the ‘Village School’ (Terakoya) scene from the play ‘Sugawara’s Secrets of Calligraphy’ (Sugawara denju tenarai kagami), a fascinating taste of a genuine Kabuki performance, illuminated by her expert commentary on the action taking place.
Dr Buckland finished by showing comparable examples of handscroll paintings depicting extended street scenes from the 17th to 19th centuries, including a work by Moromasa’s forebear, Hishikawa Moronobu, and speculated on the reasons behind the commission of this spectacular work.
We are extremely grateful to Dovecot Studios for hosting the event and drinks reception afterwards and to Dr. Buckland for contributing her insight and expertise.
(Photos: Copyright Edinburgh City Libraries)