Osaki Collection 4

Wonderment and Change
The variety of designs of lids and bowls held in the Osaki collection is considerable and covers a period of about one-hundred years from the end of the 19th century.  Many of the pieces were made as samples to be offered to potential customers.  Generally speaking the wooden core material is Zelkova (Zelkova serrata )—a type of elm.  The decorative technique employed on many of the pieces is called makie.  This can simply be painting with coloured true lacquer or involves the use of powered gold or silver and sometimes gold or silver leaf or chips.  The decorations are mostly traditional in character, meaning that they are variants of motifs derived from nature, mild abstractions of nature and geometric pattern pure and simple.  Some auspicious motifs are also use.

Almost with out exception these lids and bowls were made and decorated for sale to established markets—high class restaurants, inns and for domestic use—and were therefore not expected to be “pieces of art”.  In some cases hundreds were made where as others were only made to order for a favoured clientele.  Nevertheless they do represent in a limited way how fashion and taste has changed over the course of one-hundred years up until the late 1940s.

The lids and bowls shown above span the period from the latter part of the 19th century to the middle of the 1920s and were made as samples to be offered to restaurants and inns or ryokan, which are similar to a hotel but breakfast and dinner would usually be served in a guest’s room after futon have been tidied away.

This elegant lid and bowl date from 1861, the first year of the Bunkyu period as it says on the box.  It was made for domestic use and is known as the Bunkyu bowl.  Its form is unusual and appealing.  Would it sell today?  Who knows.

This is the first of three lids and bowls dating from the latter part of the 1920s.  The design of this particular bowl is said to be in the style of Art Deco.  It was made as a sample for exclusive restaurant use.  Both gold and silver have been used in its decoration but over the years the silver has tarnished.

This late 1920s lid and bowl has an interesting form, the result of a piece of joinery.  The wispy ethereal clouds and bird motifs contribute to its distinctive character.  It is a sample made with the exclusive restaurant and inn market in mind.

This is a very unusual piece.  Fish are seldom seen on a lid or bowl.  This could be a giant catfish.  Once again it is a sample for exclusive restaurant and inn use made in the late 1920s.

Made either in the 1930s or 40s or even a little later, the simple decoration on the lid and bowl is understated and yet elegance personified.  The design of all of the lids and bowls shown here must be seen in the light of being one piece in an ensemble of plates, dishes and bowls, which would make up a place setting for one person.  A restaurant or indeed a host entertaining at home would carefully plan not only the food to be served but also tableware in keeping with the food, occasion and season.  The aim would be to create a composition not only to stimulate the mind and the palate but also to delight the eye.

Although it is not clear exactly when this lid and bowl were made it seems likely to have been sometime during the last 40 to 80 years.  Neither is it known who the customer was but it may have been made for use at an exclusive restaurant.  Three years ago, however, a true lacquerware collector placed an order for this design.  Given the complexity of the design it is hardly surprising that it took a year to fulfil the order.  Yes, the pattern is on the inside of the bowl and the lid—the epitome of chic in Japan.

Given the advances in contemporary machine technology, we are perhaps more likely to associate such delicacy and complexity in a design with a computer generated pattern.  Knowing that it was hand painted only serves to increase our sense of wonderment at what a skilled person is actually capable of doing.  It is beyond civilisation and worthy of every superlative in the dictionary.

Both of these examples were made with top-notch restaurants and inns in mind.  Dating from the late 1950s or early 1960s it was a time of economic growth in Japan and followed a period after the Second World War when those establishments that were able, sought to replace much that had been lost as a result of the war.  The decoration on the black lid and bowl follows a traditional pattern found amongst the treasures in the Shoso-in, the repository associated with Todai-ji temple in Nara.  Taking inspiration from the past is nothing unusual in Japan or anywhere else for that matter.  All designs, after all, need a starting point.  The decoration of the other bowl and lid is, however, much more contemporary and even abstract, although probably based on apricot or plum flowers.

Dating from the late 1940s, this piece was made for exclusive restaurant use or for domestic customers, too, and is finished with silver powder.  Like all the others shown here this lid and bowl are reproducible today.  For most people the cost to reproduce some of these pieces would be prohibitive.  Nevertheless, each combination of lid and bowl is a treasure in its own right and is waiting to grace a table or to be the starting point of something completely new.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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