'Pictures (the most part bawdy)': the Anglo-Japanese painting trade in the early 1600s.

Author:Screech, Timon
Position:East India Company

A most curious experiment was undertaken in the early seventeenth century by the English East India Company: it decided to deal in pictures through some of its Asian factories (or trading stations). The company, founded in 1600, was anxious to find appropriate items for sale in its newly acquired outlets. Pictures appeared to be a propitious commodity. This paper can examine the case of only one factory in detail, that in Japan, although, as will be proven below, the largest shipment taken there went via India, and the reverberations in that country's station must also be addressed.

The English East India Company had received its trading rights to India in 1612 and to Japan in 1613. The arrival of pictures from England did not mark the first Japanese encounter with European art. Portuguese and Spanish missionaries, and accompanying traders, had come in the 1540s; the Dutch had followed in 1600, their presence formalized nine years later after the creation of the United (or Dutch) East India Company, known from its Dutch acronym as the VOC. The Iberians imported religious works for proselytizing purposes and also established a Western-style studio, grandly named the Academy of St. Luke, run by a Venetian, Giovanni di Niccolo. (1) In addition, a Jesuit press in Japan turned out books and prints. But these would have had little function beyond the spaces of public and private piety, and few nondevotional paintings or prints were imported or produced locally. Hybrid forms evolved (known today as nanban art), often secular, but these shared little with actual imports. The VOC did not deal in art at this point in its history. Thus, the pictures from England were the first items of their kind to be seen in Japan.

The company's flirtation with pictures may seem perverse, and it proved to be unprofitable. However, if the story that follows would not merit telling under the rubric of England's rise to mercantile supremacy--in which the whole Japan episode, though not, of course, the Indian one, was negligible--it is nevertheless fascinating when viewed from other standpoints, notably that of the history of art. Nevertheless, the experiment has not been comprehensively discussed until now--indeed, it has been totally forgotten. That pictures from England were in India is better known, and this has been referred to as "one of the most intriguing artistic exchanges of early modern history," yet the case of Japan has been utterly excluded. (2)

This paper retrieves a lost moment in the history of art exchange. But it seeks to go beyond the merely archival. Our larger theme is the meaning and serviceability of visual representations across cultures, in an early period of international awareness. Relevant questions include how consciously the English were presenting themselves via their exports,

and what visual or political points they were trying to achieve. Conversely, on what grounds were Japanese pieces selected for import? Beyond the commodity items, several pictures privately owned by company staff were taken to Japan and shown there. And Japanese potentates, responding to presents, sent gifts of paintings to English nobles, too. It is by laying out this evidence, and by broaching issues of representation and self-representation, that the painting-trade experiment, despite its swift abandonment, can lay claim to importance within the current discipline of art history.

The Company

The English East India Company's stock-in-trade was broadcloth, that is, thick, lower-grade woolens; to a lesser extent, in Japan at least, it also purveyed military supplies. Given the severity of Japanese winters, the wool ought to have sold, and the company officers were perplexed that it did not. Perhaps the quality was poor; perhaps the colors were wrong; perhaps the problem lay in fashion (a concept the English were little prepared for), as things might sell one year but languish the next. (3)

Warfare had been endemic in Japan since the close of the fifteenth century, which allowed for trading opportunities in armaments. In 1603, the Tokugawa family succeeded to the defunct title of shogun, under their patriarch Ieyasu, although they remained no more than primus inter pares of competing daimyo (warlords) when the English arrived. Just two years later, in 1615, the Tokugawa destroyed their principal rivals, the Toyotomi. This rout was achieved in large measure with gunpowder and lead shot sold them by the English, and the company records become briefly elated at the filling up of its coffers. (4) Peace killed off the other half of the English trade, though, and further importation of weaponry was discouraged as destabilizing. Both mainstays of business fell into the doldrums.

However buoyant the painting market had been, it could never have carried the whole factory. After a decade of struggle, the station closed. Its head factor, as he pulled out in 1623, wrote optimistically, "if the next years shall produce any better encouragement, maybe then [we will] returne againe." (5) But Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War interposed, precluding further efforts.

In London, the English East India Company was based in Philpot Lane, off Fenchurch Street. A sailing to Japan had been first proposed at a meeting of its governing body, called its Court, in 1611. This was to be part of the eighth company expedition eastward, then being prepared, in three vessels, under the lead of the brand-new, eighty-one-man Clove. Little of the shogun's realm was known in London, and not much more in the company's intervening Asian factories. The Court, however, had in its hands a memorandum entitled "Observations of Commodities to be Bought and Sold in Japan," written by John Saris (pronounced sair'iss), an agent recently returned from four years' residence at Bantam, on Java, the company's chief overseas base. It is uncertain how he came by his opinions, but Saris recommended an array of items, from the wool and lead without which no English enterprise could function to velvet, gilded leather, women's makeup, tapestries, and "painted pictures." (6) With this information, the company felt emboldened to enter into competition with the Iberians and with the VOC, and thus make its first sailing to Japan.

It so happened that a top VOC merchant in Japan was English. Formerly of the London Levant Company, William Adams had relocated to Amsterdam, where skilled English mariners were in demand, and arrived in Japan on the first Dutch ship, the Liefde (Charity), which entered (in wrecked condition), in 1600. Adams never returned to Europe. His story has often been told and is famously fictionalized in the novel, film, and video game Shogun. (7) As a Dutch employee, he could not be overly enthusiastic toward his compatriots, but in January 1613, already an old Japan hand, and even on terms of some friendship with Ieyasu, Adams wrote to Bantam to encourage the English to come: "I boldly say our countrymen shalbe so welcom and free in comparissonn as in the river of London." (8) Welcomed by the Japanese that is, not by the Dutch or Iberians. When the letter arrived, the Clove had already left Bantam and was speeding to Japan. It docked in mid-June 1613, crew and cargo safe and sound. That the Clove came on alone of the three ships, notwithstanding fables of mountains of Japanese gold, reveals that expectations were none too high. In fact, the real objective was to find a foothold to trade with the Great Ming (China). Until such time, there was hope that a Japan factory might pay its way.

The Clove's captain was James Fister. Its cape-merchant, or head of expedition, was none other than Saris, who had positioned himself in the running with his "Observations." Saris had been directed by the Court to investigate Japanese market conditions for wool, lead, "and such other of our native commodities as by your observacion you shall finde most vendible there." (9) The Clove's cargo invoice does not survive, but it appears the company officers played safe in what they took out, bringing wool and lead, but little more. They wanted confirmation before dispatching value-added items of the kind that Saris had recommended.

Fister and Saris stayed five months before leaving for England again. They docked back in Plymouth, in September 1615, leaving behind a team of some dozen men under Richard Cocks, as chief factor, described (to James I, no less) as "though not lettered yet a man of honesty, years and judgment." (10) The evaluation turned out to be wide of the mark, but Cocks controlled the show for the entire period of the factory's existence. Business had been set up on Hirado, a small island off the coast of Kyushu, in southern Japan. This was far from Edo (modern Tokyo), the Tokugawa base, or Osaka, the base of the Toyotomi. Hirado was chosen on the curious grounds that the VOC was already there. The Dutch were doing well enough, and far-from-home mutual assistance was expected among reformed Christians. Adams, however, had argued for a location closer to the center of shogunal power. For a period of months the cheek-by-jowl companies amalgamated and worked as one. (11) Mostly, though, they were rivals, their countries intermittently at war. (12)

Goods for Japan

Back in England, Saris was not permitted to disembark at once, having been indicted on charges of tyrannical behavior toward subordinates and excessive private trade, or, to give it its rightful name, smuggling. Cocks was to be arraigned for the latter, too, a charge often leveled at men in their positions. As he lay in Plymouth Sound, Saris wrote up his suggested goods "vendible" in Japan. He had evidently not used his time there very investigatively, for mostly he just repeated what he had listed in the "Observations," although there is one notable addition: delftware (then called gallipots); its production had only just begun in England, at the Pickleherring Pottery in Southwark. On arrival in London, Saris went...

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