Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s palanquin revealed!

Recently, I visited Manchester Art Gallery to see “Eastern Exchanges” exhibition, where old Japanese crafts were displayed together with those of Korea and China. Here’s the video on the visit:

As it shows on the video, I saw a palanquin at the Exhibition. Because of the Tokugawa Shogun’s family crest, I was intrigued about the origin of the palanquin. I asked my friend, Steve Smith, a local historian, about its history. Here’s what he said:

“Two years ago (2013) I was asked to identify some things in the Japanese collection of the Manchester Art Gallery and went along to visit the Curator, who showed me several good things which had been in storage for many years. Because this collection had a rather complicated history of ownership no-one had ever properly catalogued them, so most things had never really been correctly identified in their records. They had plans to create an exhibition called ‘Eastern Exchanges’ to illustrate how ideas in style and fashion can leap from one culture to another, and wanted to include some Japanese objects which showed this influence.

I chose several Tsuba which displayed typical Japanese taste in subject matter, and some which were made including outside influences (like China and Europe). Just nine tsuba were picked for the exhibition but there are at least two hundred more in the collection, and I ended up cataloguing all of them in two days of hard work. While I was there I explained a lot of aspects of Japanese art, the legends and stories behind the figures and things used to decorate the tsuba and other objects which came up during my visit. The tsuba I picked were sent for restoration by a specialist restorer friend of mine and, after that, the Curator sometimes sent me pictures and asked for information on other small things that were to be included in the exhibition (Inro, and the Miochin Okimono of a Dragon). I remember that the Curator had mentioned they had a Norimono, a highly decorated Palanquin used rather like a European Sedan Chair, but I never saw it at that stage, and I did not see any of the other things as most were in the Conservation department, or still in storage. On 1st April this year I was invited to the opening of the gallery and my wife and I went along to see how it had all turned out: the director made the speech of welcome and we all went up to the gallery.

When I entered the gallery I saw the Norimono and immediately recognised the well-known Tokugawa Mon all over it. My next thought was that it had to be the same one that was once owned by James Lord Bowes, the first Japanese Consul in Liverpool, and displayed in his private museum back in the 19th century. I had made a particular mention of this Norimono in my book on his life, The Japanese Consul, which was published in 2012 by the Liverpool History Press, so I was already very familiar with its details- though, of course, I had never actually seen it: it was sold together with most of the rest of Bowes’ collection in 1901 following his death in 1899.
The reason I came to this conclusion was really very simple: Norimono are very big, difficult to store and difficult to display, so how many of them could there be in the North West of England? Well, I already knew that there is one in Liverpool museum which was included in the exhibition I worked on in 1996. Although that one fits the general description it bears the Matsudaira Mon, so I could be certain that was not the Bowes’ piece. But even if there were more than two or even three in the North West, how many of those could there be with the Tokugawa Mon on them?

The other thing which made it likely was the fact that Bowes’ Norimono had been in Liverpool when it was sold at auction in 1901, – and Manchester is only 30 miles from Liverpool!
When I returned home I checked the description in Bowes’ sale catalogue with the photograph I had taken of the Norimono in Manchester, and it corresponded in every way, even the measurements were correct. I immediately sent an email to the Curator in Manchester Art Gallery to tell her I believed Bowes’ Norimono and the Manchester Norimono were one and the same, asking if she had any records of how it was acquired, and if there was a description on file. She got back to me very quickly with a description and acquisition record, both dating from 1901, when it was donated to the Gallery: the year of the Bowes auction.

The description matched the auction description, word for word, and VERY significantly, both descriptions contained the same major mistake in the text: here is the sale description.

The crucial mistake is in the first two lines:
“Formerly in the possession of Noriyoshi,…… the last of the Shoguns”
The last of the Tokugawa Shoguns was in fact Yoshinobu, later Prince Keiki, NOT “Noriyoshi”. This is a mistake that is not only extremely odd but it appears in both the sale catalogue AND in the acquisition records of Manchester Art Gallery when the Norimono was donated: it can therefore only be the same object.

We know from annotated sale catalogues that it was bought at the sale for 10 Guineas, but not by whom: Records in Manchester show that Mr Phillip Whyman, the Manchester City Councillor for Harpurhey, donated it to the Queens Park Museum three or four months after it was sold in Liverpool, from which we can surmise that it was Mr Whyman who bought it at the auction in 1901.
Without any surviving proof of provenance from the Bowes collection (all Bowes’ records have been lost) we cannot be certain that this Norimono ever actually belonged personally to the last Shogun, and there is nothing to properly date its construction. But, because it is in a relatively good state of preservation, we can assume that it most likely dates from the 19th century, when five different Shoguns ruled Japan. Each one would have had several of these extravagant Norimono, based in different locations. After the abdication of Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867 he was held under house arrest at his own estate, the days of Tokugawa power were irreversibly gone, and he was not allowed to travel more than a few miles from his home: it would make sense for the officials of his household to dispose of things like this Norimono which were difficult to store there, and would likely never again see any use. This could explain why it arrived in Bowes’ collection just after 1868.

So, the biggest piece from the ‘lost’ Bowes collection has now been found and identified beyond question. Its history prior to 1867 may not be quite so certain, but after 114 years of being ‘lost’ we now know its story from the time it disappeared from view in 1901.”

So, there you are. I was surprised to learn about the connection to James Lord Bowes! And it was discovered by the very person who researched about and wrote a book on him! I felt that the spirit of James helped him find it.

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