Glossary Japonisme

A term coined by the French in 1872 -- by the art critic Philippe Burty-- to designate a new field of study: -- artistic, historic and ethnographic. Subsequently, appropriated by British artist designers like Edward William Godwin to describe 19th-century European artists' interest in Japanese art, culture, and aesthetics.

How Did Europe Find Out About Japan? Or, Good-Bye Neo-Gothic! Good-Bye Queen Anne! Hello Japonisme!

Or, From Overwrought to Simplicity and Serenity

In 1862, the International Exhibition in London presented the West's first large display of Japanese decorative art. This exhibition was greeted by the public with great interest.

According to James Laver, 1959:

Nothing is more curious than the spasmodic and almost accidental way in which Europe has been conscious over the centuries of the existence of another world on the other side of the globe. One might say that the connexion between East and West for more than a thousand years was no more than a slender thread of silk. The Romans had imported silk from China over the long caravan routes of Central Asia, and it 'was the Empress-dancing girl Theodora who sent out two monks to steal a few of the precious silkworms and bring them back to Europe hidden in a hollow cane.

The Middle Ages knew Persian silks and Turkish velvets but little that was Chinese, and it was not until the great voyages began that the Far East became a little more accessible. This, indeed, was the motive, even of Columbus. He found a continent; he sought Cathay. By the seventeenth century, Chinese art was beginning to be known and by the eighteenth it had produced in Europe its own chinoiserie. But Japan was still a closed territory, and it was not until the royal revolution of 1868 that it was really opened up to Western trade.

But certain things had filtered through, sometimes in a most surprising manner; and a positive revolution occurred in 1856 when the French dealer Bracquemond stumbled in Paris on some Japanese colour prints that had been used in bundles as packing for Chinese porcelain. The Frenchman was fascinated, as well he might be, for he was gazing for the first time at the work of no less a person than Hokusai.

Bracquemond showed the prints to all his friends and his enthusiasm was infectious. Soon a certain Madame de Soye opened a shop in the Rue de Rivoli for the sale of Chinese and Japanese goods and to this shop came a procession of men famous already or soon to be so; Baudelaire and the Goncourts, Tissot and Fantin-Latour, Degas and Zola, and a young American artist who was then studying in Paris and whose name was Whistler.

All the Impressionists were profoundly influenced by the Oriental revelation and when Whistler settled in London in the early sixties he was known as the Japanese artist. From him, the Rossettis caught the craze and soon, both Dante Gabriel and his brother William, [and Edward William Godwin,] were collecting Asian objects.

[on Godwin, read more here]

Source: James Laver, The Liberty Story London: Percy Lund, Humphries, 1959, pages 5-6.

In this process, explicitly Gothic features were the first to go. At one era, Gothicism' "razor-sharp edges, slashes of electric colour and aggressive swaggering ... conveyed energy and originality"; in the 1870s, when compared to Godwin's mature work, the neo-Gothic designs merely over-wrought. Laced with understated serenity, simplicity, vernacular architecture and design was "fresh", less intense, but obviously having wide appeal. In response to Gothic, numerous new styles emerged: -- in Britain, the Queen Anne, Old English, Ats and Crafts; in America, the Shingle Style and Colonial Revival; but, continues Michael J Lewis, historian of The Gothic Revival, "all shared a common root: an impulse to reconcile Gothic freedom with classical values, to "discipline the picturesque".

Source: Michael J Lewis, The Gothic Revival London: Thames and Hudson, 2002, pages 163-164.

In a chapter entitled, "From 'Nankin' to Bedford Park", the Cambridge-trained art historian and antiques dealer, Jermemy Cooper humorously captures the disputes that raged through architects' circles over the matter of Neo-Gothic style, versus an intruder, "Queen Anne" style.

Sources: This debate has a more fulsome account "-- Chapter 3:-- "In Search of Style" -- in J Mordaunt Crook's William Burges and the High Victorian Dream Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, pages 102-139; as cited by Crook contemporary sources are: Building News 29 1875, page 747; Building News 26 1874, page 690,

At the Third General Conference of Architects' in 1874, J. J. (Jock) Stevenson delivered a lecture where he argues the case for a middle way between the Gothic and the Queen Anne

The Gothic style is, in fact, the artistic expression of an obsolete mode of construction. ... The interest of refined and educated minds for the last thirty years has been directed not to improving the vernacular style, but to the hopeless attempt of supplanting it by another, which appeared at first to flourish, but has not taken roots in the soil of the country .... The [Queen Anne] style in all its forms has the merit of truthfulness; it is the outcome of our common wants picturesquely expressed.... The [very] success of Gothic ... [has been] one cause of this reaction. Its advocates urged that it was good not only for churches, but for every kind of building, that it ought to become again, as it had once been, the vernacular architecture of the country. The wish has been granted. The nineteenth century has expressed itself in Gothic; and, in gin-palaces, rows of houses built to sell, semi-detached villas, chapels and churches, Gothic, which of old was simple and unpretending, by means of its boasted freedom from restraint has lent itself with fatal facility to the expression of loudness, vulgarity, obtrusiveness, and sensationalism more objectionable far than the dreariest Classic of Gower Street or Wimpole Street. That may be very dull prose; the other is screeching, sensational poetry or Daily Telegraphese.

By the mid-1870s the middle way Stevenson recommended had already been branded 'QUEEN ANNE', a style which found its most persuasive expression in Bedford Park, a garden suburb speculation conceived in 1875 by Jonathan Carr, initially with E.W. Godwin as architect but later — from 1877 — with Richard Norman Shaw as its key co-ordinator.

Although the QUEEN ANNE style had, as its name implies, firm roots in European domestic architecture of the early eighteenth century, the impetus towards change in the way of furnishing these comfortable new houses came not from Europe but from JAPAN. Indeed, it could be argued that much of the individual detailing of ' QUEEN ANNE ' buildings also derived directly from a reawakening of interest in oriental art — for example, the stylized sunflowers in the gables of Shaw's Lowther Lodge (now the Royal Geographic Society) in Kensington Gore, designed in 1872.

Source: Jeremy Cooper, Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors: From Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau New York: Abbevelle Press, 1987, page 116;


Note: Godwin's response to a lecture by J. J. (Jock) Stevenson -- on the attributes of "Queen Anne" -- indicates both Godwin's early support and his reservations about the style. (In the the following issue of Building News, Godwin elaborates on this theme.)

I agree with Mr. Stevenson in thinking neither pure Greek nor pure suitable for domestic buildings, but that something more homely be applied in our ordinary buildings. There are some features in the "Queen Anne" (as the woodwork) that may be well adopted;indeed, the [Queen Anne] style have been largely suggested from wooden archetypes. [On the other hand,] Gothic joinery is heavy and thoroughly out of character for modern adaptation, and I no instance where it has been applied. On the other hand, the "Queen Anne" style is wanting in architectural solidity and mass.

A correct masonry ideal is absent. Pilasters springing from keystones, solids other voids, corbelled pilasters, and other decorations, are certainly incorrect and unjustifiable methods of obtaining effect. With certain reservations, there are certain features well worth study in some of the early forms of Renaissance; freshness and vigour about them. and the details are more in consonance with our modern uses than the Gothic.

Source: 'The claims of the "Queen Anne" style' Building News 12 March 1875, pages 304-305; reprinted in Juliet Kinchin and Paul Stirton, Is Mr Ruskin Living Too Long Oxford, England: White Cockade Publishing, 2005, page 91. (Anyone deeply interested in Godwin will be happy to know that the latter book collects, annotates and makes available Godwin's numerous writings. It can be ordered on for under $50 American)

In the 1860s, for the cognoscenti of the day, "pots" was a slang term that identified the blue and white Nanking porcelain that rapidly became popular (and, broadly among a wide range of the population, is still popular today).

Not long after the first penetration of the Far East by Europeans, Asian wares began to appear in western markets. As noted above, attention first occurred in France, not much later in Britain, especially to a wider public by the 1862 Exhibition.

Late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, Japanese design continued its popularity, ; it particularly in products of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. In American and British decorative arts Japonisme appears in works produced by the Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, OH, which employed Japanese craftsmen; in archiitecture and designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, in the designs of the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge.

Previously, Godwin had followed the prevailing theme, Neo-Gothic, seen in two significant designs, the Venetian-style Northampton Town Hall and Dromore Castle. But increasingly disenchanted with the idea of choosing a style and a century to work in, his inclinations shifted toward the vernacular:

'Nothing but the vernacular, the builder's work, naked of ornament, void of style, and answering only to one name: Utility'.

godwin hanging cabinet 1885

Given his creative talents, his discovery of the Japanese motifs was quickly integrated into his own designs. In effect, we can say that, broadly, Godwin shifted his aesthetic values from style to utility.

He especially admired the way that Japanese art juxtaposed discrete passages of ornament against flat, unadorned planes; areas of 'spatial silence', or, following the words of the architectural historian, Alan Colquhoun, just as Japanese calligraphy exploits the empty space on a page, architect designers like Godwin substituted the over-wroughtness of Gothic for the simplictity and serenity of the Japaneses style.

From Japanese art Godwin recognized that the display of construction -- for some in the Arts and Crafts movement, this is called "revealed construction" -- of a piece of furniture need not exhibit too much embellishment; instead, revealed construction might even be, in appearance, graceful. By applying these priciples discriminately to his architecture, textiles and furniture, Godwin gained a deserved reputation for an exquisiteness, defined by restraint and delicacy.

Some Critics Say That a Downside Was an Incomplete Understanding of Japanese Culture

Many critics argue that, given the incomplete understanding of Japanese cutlure by the British and other Europeans in the 1860s, inevitably a breach occurred in the nature of the manner in which Japanese material culture was interpreted then. Remember that Japanese culture -- like any human culture -- has many dimensions, including religious and spritiual, besides so-called material ones, which can lead to the misunderstanding often explained as a lack of a appropriate sensitivity needed comprehend a culture in all of its dimensions. In this sense, some critics might claim that, in Godwin's case with his famous sideboard, he translated Japanese pieces in a "two-dimensional" fashion, but never captured a third dimension, which means that his pieces betray a lack of an "insider's" "soul", "heart", or "spirit" that, in constructing a piece, something that, as an "insider", a Japanese artisan would inject naturally.

As explained ed by the South Korean scholar, KO Young-lan,

"Kami", or "essence" in the Shinto, is the Japanese word referring to gods, deities or the Supreme Being. Kami may, at its root, simply mean spirit, as noted above. In Shinto, it refers as well to the spirits of nature or natural forces, so-called, the organic elements.

KO Young-lan elaborates:

"A mere morphological grasp of the formal appearances of 'Japonisme'" such as Edward William Godwin's 1867 sideboard, does not necessarily produce an authentic comprehension on the correlation of Aestheticism and Japanese design, if there is any.

To rediscover, if we would like, the true spirit of Anglo-Japaneses Aestheticism, it is essential to understand the non-morphological side of any design concept that is shared, say like an amalgam, whether by an Aestheticism integrated into the traditional philosophy and culture of East Asia. Such a union is, to a greater or lesser degree, latent in the Gestalt of a Buddhist concept of kami.

Sources: Edward William Godwin, "The Ex-Classic Style Called 'Queen Anne", Building News April 16 1875, page 441; Reprinted in Juliet Kinchin and Paul Stirton, eds., Is Mr Ruskin Living Too Long?: Selected Writings of E.W. Godwin on Victorian Architecture, Design and Culture Oxford, England: White Cockade Publishing, 2005, pages 91-92; see also Alison Adburgham, Liberty's: A Biography of a Shop London: Allen and Unwin, 1975, pages 21 and following; Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, page 17; KO Young-lan, The Cult of Kansei Represented in the Aesthetics of Art Nouveau and Japanese Design (pdf).