Japanese and Chinese antiques and art from B & C
Rare Edo Era Red Cornered Lacquer Document Box

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Directory: Hidden: Viewable: Pre 1800: item # 1182827

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B & C   Antiques
P. O. Box 291
Derby, CT 06418

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Rare Edo Era Red Cornered Lacquer Document Box

This important Japanese “red-cornered” makie lacquer document box (“sumiaka ryoshibako”) dates to the Edo period, ca. 1800. All sides of this large, covered, rectangular box are wrapped in coarse red cloth which had been covered in red lacquer. A high-domed cover and all side panels are decorated with gold lacquer mulberry leaf and falcon feather clan crests (kamon) in gold makie on a black lacquer ground. In ancient times, mulberry leaf paper was used to make offering receptacles or paper clothing offerings to place before the gods at Shinto shrines. The paper gohei strips still hung at shrines today are believed to represent the latter offering. Heian Era nobility used mulberry leaves to write poems, and the Grand Sumo Shrine adopted it as its emblem, with parishioners following suit to obtain its protection. The falcon was esteemed for its fierce, combative spirit not only by the warrior class, but also by the emperors themselves. Even in the Heian period, the court bureaucracy included an office of falconry. Several prestigious shrines, including Higo and Aso used the falcon feather as their emblem, and clans who later adopted it as their family crest benefited from this religious connotation.

Side panels have two heart-shaped boar’s eye apertures (inome) a Buddhist-inspired theme found on samurai armor and invoking unswerving bravery and determination, as it was believed that wild boars could run only in straight lines. The deep, overhanging lid lifts to reveal an interior finished in black roiro lacquer, and the base is also finished in plain black lacquer with a red felt liner. Gilt bronze medallions with bronze rings display the most prestigious of all Japanese clan crests, the 5-3 paulownia (go-san kiri) which, together with the chrysanthemum, are taken as the dual emblems of the emperor’s throne. In the 13th century, emperor Godaigo conferred the paulownia to the Ashikaga clan, one of the first powerful samurai families, and later Toyotomi Hideyoshi emblazoned this emblem on many of his monumental construction projects in the Kyoto and Osaka area, which can still be seen today. The family crest decoration indicates that this was a box originally owned by a prominent family during the Tokugawa reign. Kamon are Japanese emblems or crests used to decorate and identify an individual or a family, similar to badges and coats of arms in European heraldic tradition.

The history of the construction of this type of lacquer is also noteworthy. At about the middle of the sixteenth century, a new style of decorative finish was introduced that incorporated the texture of coarse cloth into lacquers. In this lacquered-cloth technique, which is also known as “pressed-cloth” or “red-cornered” lacquer, a fairly thin, coarse, grill-like cloth is covered with a thin layer of red lacquer, permitting the outlines of the material to be seen in slight relief. The material served two purposes. It reinforced the underlying wooden form and at the same time allowed the artist a contrasting color and texture to complement the smooth and elegant finish on the other surfaces. Lacquer boxes made in this style usually had four fairly large corner areas that revealed this undersurface, lacquered in cinnabar red. Hence this type of box came to be called “red-cornered” (“sumiaka”). This technique changed little for the next two hundred years and was usually reserved for large document boxes because their construction and finish were time-consuming and expensive. Because of the techniques involved, this style of lacquer is almost impossible to reproduce. (This unusual type of lacquer is described on page 142 and illustrated in Figure 43 in “Symbol & Substance in Japanese Lacquer: Lacquer Boxes from the Collection of Elaine Ehrenkranz” by Barbra Okada.)

CONDITION: Remarkably good, considering the box’s age. This box was not a museum piece. It was actually used by a samurai family. There is daily history here. Each tiny dent, scratch, crack or abrasion, and even a slight bit of touch up evokes in your mind the daily rituals and rites of the owner. Keep in mind also, that the high-resolution digital photos tend to exaggerate the actual damage.

This is a most impressive piece of early Japanese lacquer ware. By all means, take a moment to consider the imposing size and presence of this remarkable find. An excellent study in Edo design and culture, this will also be a treasured conversation piece in your collection, and a sound investment.

DIMENSIONS: 14 ¾” (37.3 cm) long, 11 ½” (29.5 cm) wide, 9 ½” (24 cm) high.


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