A pair of large Japanese paintings sent to Queen Victoria that were later patched up with old train timetables are to go on public display for the first time.
The large screens are two survivors from a diplomatic gift from the Japanese shogun (military leader) in 1860 of eight screens, and had been thought to have been lost, however, two screens were recently rediscovered. Following their rediscovery, conservation work has uncovered more details about the screens’ history, including how they were hastily produced after a fire in Tokyo destroyed the original versions, and how wear and tear was patched up at Windsor Castle in the 19th-century using fragments of Victorian railway timetables.
The screens will go on public display at the Queen’s Gallery next month for the first time since they arrived at the British Court over 160 years ago.
The screen paintings, which depict the changing seasons, formed part of a diplomatic gift between Japan and Britain sent shortly after Japan’s reopening to the West. The lavish gift to Queen Victoria marked a landmark treaty that reopened seven Japanese ports and cities to British trade and allowed a British diplomat to reside in Japan for the first time.
Folding screen paintings – a choice Japanese diplomatic gift since the 16th century – were an ideal vehicle for showcasing the painting skills of the finest court artists of the day. Also included in the gift were a set of lacquer furniture, spears inlaid with glittering mother of pearl, and swords by leading court wordsmiths.
Eight pairs of screen paintings were sent to Queen Victoria as part of the gift, but none were thought to have survived to the present day.
However, there were some Japanese screens in the collection, labelled as “Japanese works by an unidentified artist”, and back in 2017, analysis of the signatures on two of them revealed that they were the work of Itaya Hiroharu, one of the artists likely to have worked on the gifts for Queen Victoria. Further research by Royal Collection Trust curators to compare the screen paintings with those received by other European monarchs at this time confirmed that these two screens were indeed part of that original diplomatic gift. Sometime after their arrival in Britain, the screen paintings had been miss-catalogued, and their historical significance had been lost.
Little is known about how the screen paintings were displayed after they arrived in Britain, but evidence of historic repairs found during conservation suggests that they were regularly used and admired at the British Court. Specialist conservators discovered that fragments of a Victorian railway timetable had been used to paper over torn areas – most likely because replacement Japanese paper was not readily available. Stations listed in the timetable begin at Windsor, suggesting that the historic repairs may have taken place at Windsor Castle and that the screens were displayed there.
Conservators also found that the painted silk panels had been mounted on just two to three layers of paper, rather than the usual six to nine, allowing acidic content from the wooden frames to discolour the painted silk over time. This was likely because the paintings had to be mounted very quickly: on 11 November 1859, a huge fire broke out at Edo Castle in what is now Tokyo, destroying the completed paintings. Replacements were hastily commissioned, but just weeks later the screens’ original artist, Itaya Keishu Hironobu, died and the work had to be passed to his pupil, Hiroharu.
The two screens, along with the rest of the original diplomatic gift, and other Japanese items in the Royal Collection will go on display at the Queen’s Gallery in their Japan: Courts and Culture exhibition from next month for the rest of this year.
Rachel Peat, curator of the Japan: Courts and Culture exhibition, said, “After decades of believing these important gifts were lost, this rediscovery is extraordinarily significant. The screen paintings marked a new era of diplomatic engagement between Japan and Britain and brought the vivid beauty of Japan’s changing seasons right to the heart of the British Court. I’m delighted that visitors will see them on display for the first time, just as they might first have been admired by Queen Victoria.”