Lacquer writing box

Maker unknown, unsigned
Japanese, early 18th century
Lacquerware with gold and silver powder and foil, shell, bronze, stone, and lead

This Japanese lacquer writing box is one of a number in the collection here at the Castle. The lid depicts a pair of old huts surrounded by bamboo, autumn and winter plants, and a type of gourd vine known in Japanese as yugao, or ‘evening faces’. The gold and silver design stands out against the plain black lacquer background. Designs of seasonal plants and scenes were popular on lacquerware, and are perfect for this time of year.
The rustic huts surrounded by the yugao vine refer to a chapter of the classical Japanese story the Tale oGenji. It was written in the 11th century by a lady of the imperial court, known as Murasaki Shikibu. Whilst the men of the court were expected to write official documents and papers in Chinese, court ladies developed a new way of writing in an easier, simpler style. This way of writing made it possible for women to freely write poetry, stories and tales. They were shared around at court and became very popular.

Due to its popularity, once each chapter of the Tale of Genji was written it was passed around and copied many times by other court ladies. Today it is recognised as the first ‘novel’ in the world – it is an in-depth study of the life and inner feelings of a fictional ‘Prince Genji’. In total there are 54 chapters. The scene on this box refers to Chapter 4, Yugao. In this chapter, Prince Genji is walking to visit his old nurse, when he comes across a rundown hut covered in yugao vine. The lady who lives in the house sends her serving girl out to give him a flower, resting on a perfumed fan. Prince Genji falls in love with the lady, nicknamed Yugao after the flowering vine which covers her house. Later on in the story, she sadly dies after being possessed by an evil spirit.

The ghost of Yugao, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, woodblock print, 1886,

Scenes from the Tale of Genji were very popular for lacquerware. The imagery was associated with the imperial court during the Heian period (794 – 1185 AD), considered a golden age of art, poetry, and literature. Educated people from the upper classes, in particular women, were expected to know the Tale of Genji inside-out. Owning a lacquer box with a scene from the Tale of Genji on it was a way for a merchant or wealthy townsperson (chonin) to show off their literary knowledge and fashionable taste.

The Tale of Genji is also a perfect choice for decoration for a writing box. Writing boxes, or suzuribako, contain a tray for brushes, a ‘water dropper’ or a small metal water container with a hole for adding drops of water to ink, and an inkstone. The water would be dropped onto the inkstone and a stick of dry ink rubbed against it to make a dark enough ink to paint Japanese characters. Japanese calligraphy with brushes and ink has always been considered both a way of writing and an art form. Upper class members of society, from high-ranking samurai warriors to aristocratic ladies, were expected to be skilled in calligraphy.

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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