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Suzuribako (writing box)

Japanese, mid-17th century
Urushi lacquerware with inlaid shell

Our Object of the Month for March was chosen to welcome in Spring. It is a suzuribako, or Japanese writing box, made to hold the utensils needed to write Japanese characters with ink and brush. The lid has a design of an arrangement of spring flowers in a basket. The underside of the lid shows a pair of daidaiko – drums used to accompany traditional dances at the Imperial Court. Inside the box is a water dropper in the shape of a melon. It has a small hole which allows water to be carefully dripped onto the ink stone, which is now missing. An ink stick would then been rubbed onto the stone with the water to make ink. Brushes would have been kept on either side of the ink stone. As can be seen in the example of a writing box from the V&A Museum collection below, a full writing box set would have included two brushes, a knife, an ink stick, an ink stick holder, and a paperweight.

Japanese writing box with gold and silver lacquer with a design of pine and cherry trees by a lake, with brushes and other tools, ca. 1850 – 1900, © Victoria & Albert Museum London, accession number W.27-1938

The design on the lid of our object of the month has a three-dimensional quality, created by the carved inlaid shell used for the flowers. Flower arranging was considered an important accomplishment for women. Dating back to the Heian period (794 – 1185), it has developed into an art form with different schools passing down the techniques through generations. Seasonal flowers are usually used and the vessels, such as the basket depicted on the lid of our object of the month, were carefully chosen.

Ikebana (flower arranging), Utagawa Kunisada, 1854, woodblock print, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/wbp/862666320

The lid of the box can be opened, revealing the design of the court drums in red and gold lacquer with inlaid shell details. A dragon and a phoenix, symbols of the Emperor and Empress, can be seen decorating the large drum. The interior of the writing box is decorated with sprinkled gold flakes using a technique known as nashiji, or pear skin. The design of daidaiko drums is very similar to one on the lid of a lacquer box in the Nezu Museum in Japan, designated an Important Cultural Property.

A suzuribako writing box known as Sagayama, with a design of large drums in maki-e, Muromachi period, 15th – 16th century, Important Cultural Property, Nezu Museum Tokyo, accession number 50002

Writing boxes decorated with Japanese urushi lacquer would have been used by the upper classes and the wealthiest in Japanese society. Considerable time, skill, and expensive materials went into making an urushi lacquer writing box. Thin layers of a certain type of Japanese tree sap were applied to a wooden base and each layer was allowed to harden. Gold or silver powders were then sprinkled into the final layer to create intricate designs. Pieces of carved and cut shell were also added. The underside of the lid of a writing box was also decorated, both for the enjoyment of the person using it and to show off to guests. The woodblock print below shows us that the lid of a writing box was sometimes turned over and used to serve snacks. The base of the box with its inkstone can be seen in the bottom right corner, and the lid with snacks is visible in the top right corner next to a sake pourer and cup on a stand.

A letter writer, 1733, Okumura Masanobu, woodblock print, Library of Congress

When the Castle re-opens on Sunday the 2nd of April, our March Object of the Month will be on display in the Japanese Room. The writing box has been brought out of storage, as have a number of other objects from the Japanese collection. Urushi lacquer is sensitive to light exposure. In order to limit the damaging effects of UV rays on the collection, some of the objects in the Japanese Room have been temporarily stored. This has given us an opportunity to display other highlights from the Japanese collection for our 2023 open season.

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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