James Lord Bowes

The Glessners and Japonisme, Part I

On Tuesday May 14, 2013 at 7:00pm, Glessner House Museum will host a lecture by Rolf Achilles entitled “The Glessners’ Kutani ware bowl and Chicago’s take on Japonisme.”  The event celebrates the restoration of the Glessners’ Kutani bowl, funded by a generous gift from the Chicago Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, The First Chapter and restored by the talented craftsmen at The Conservation Center.  For further information on the lecture or to make reservations, call 312.326.1480.  Tickets are $10 per person.

The Glessners had a strong interest in Japanese design, as evidenced by the numerous Japanese made items in the collection, as well as a significant number of books and publications on Japanese art and design.  In this article, we will examine a few of the books found in their library; in the next blog posting, we’ll feature some of the beautiful items on display in the house.

Artistic Japan was one of the most successful publications of the late 19th century aimed at educating the European and American public about the art and culture of Japan.  A total of 36 issues were produced in French, English, and German between May 1888 and 1891.  The audience for the magazine included knowledgeable collectors as well as individuals such as the Glessners who were eager to collect Japanese objects as part of defining their home environment.  Each issue was lavishly illustrated with full-color plates featuring Japanese art from leading collections as well as details of textiles and other objects.  The articles were penned by the leading European writers and collectors of Japanese art, including Edmond de Goncourt and Philippe Burty, both of who had helped initiate the Japonisme movement in the mid-1860s.  The publisher of Artistic Japan was Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), a progressive art dealer who was extremely influential in introducing Japanese art to the West.  In 1894, his Paris gallery was redesigned as the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, with windows by Toulouse-Lautrec and Tiffany.  The shop sold “contemporary” art objects with a Japanese influence in what came to be known as the Art Nouveau style (named after Bing’s gallery).  The museum archives contains the first 24 issues of the publication, including the first issue which is stamped “Sample Copy.” 

Edward Greey (1835-1888) was an English officer, diplomat and art dealer.  He became enchanted by everything Japanese after being sent as an attaché to the British Legation in Japan in the 1860s.  By 1868, he moved to New York City where he imported and dealt in Asian ceramics, textiles, and art objects, specializing in Japonica.  He also authored numerous books, most of which were Japanese-themed.  The Glessners visited Greey’s shop in New York in April 1884 purchasing a vase and receiving a signed copy of his book The Bear Worshipers of Yezo and the Island of Karafuto (Saghalin) or The Adventures of the Jewett Family and their Friend Oto Nambo.  He was one of the first westerners to write about the light-skinned, bearded Ainu people of Yezo (Hokkaido).  Six months earlier, Greey and his wife presented Frances Glessner with a signed copy of another of his books, The Wonderful City of Tokio or Further Adventures of the Jewett Family and their Friend Oto Nambo while he was exhibiting in Chicago.

The Glessners owned another volume by Greey entitled A Brief History of Japanese Bronze, published in 1888, the year that Greey died.  Tragically, Greey committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a pistol, the result of ill health and financial difficulties.  Little remembered today, clearly Greey was a significant influence in the Glessners’ understanding and appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

The great English designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was the author of another important book on Japan in the Glessner library, Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures, published in 1882.  Dresser was a pivotal figure in the Aesthetic movement, and a major contributor to the allied Anglo-Japanese branch of the movement.  He wrote several books on design and by 1865 was called the “most active revolutionizer in the decorative arts of the day.”  In 1876-1877, he traveled throughout Japan as a guest of the nation by order of the Emperor.  His design work, much of which looks strikingly modern even today, included carpets, ceramics, furniture, glass, graphics, metalwork, and textiles.

James Lord Bowes (1834-1899) was a wealthy Liverpool wool broker, art collector and patron of the arts, an author and authority on Japan and its art.  He began actively collecting Japanese art works of all kinds in the 1860s, sharing his passion for the subject with architect George Ashdown Audsley, who designed his Liverpool home Streatlam Tower in 1872.  He was appointed the Honorary Japanese Consul at Liverpool 1888, a position he held until his death eleven years later.  In 1890 on the grounds of his Liverpool home, he opened to the public the first museum dedicated to Japanese art in the western world.  He published several works on Japanese art and design, including Japanese Marks and Seals in 1882, a copy of which the Glessners owned.  After his death, the Bowes Museum of Japanese Art closed, and its contents were sold at auction. 

British architect James Conder (1852-1920) worked as a foreign advisor to the government of Japan during the Meiji period.  He designed numerous buildings in Tokyo, and educated many Japanese architects earning him the designation of the “father of Japanese modern architecture.”  Invited by the Japanese government, Conder taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo beginning in 1877.  He helped transform the Marunouchi area of Tokyo into a London-style business district, and several of his students became prominent architects, building western-style buildings in Japan.  He developed a strong interest in Japanese arts and studied painting with a prominent Japanese artist.  His studies led to a number of publications including The Flowers of Japan and the Art of Floral Arrangement published in 1891, a copy of which the Glessners owned.  It was the first book in English on ikebana (the art of Japanese floral arranging).  He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tokyo Imperial University in 1915 and remained in Japan for the remainder of his life.