Enamel’s golden age in Sheffield

Rowena Hamilton, Museums Sheffield's exhibition and display curator, helps set up the Japanese treasures, which on loan from the V&A, and are being exhibited at Weston Park Museum.
Rowena Hamilton, Museums Sheffield's exhibition and display curator, helps set up the Japanese treasures, which on loan from the V&A, and are being exhibited at Weston Park Museum.

SUCH disparate personalities as two female Sheffield silversmiths, a samurai swordmaker and the owner of Bolton Wanderers football club have left their mark on a new exhibition opening at Weston Park Museum.

Bringing one of the world’s finest collections of decorative art to Sheffield, The Seven Treasures: Japanese Enamels from the V&A features ornate examples of remarkable craftsmanship.

Most date from between 1880 and 1910 when the Japanese manufacture of enamels reached a level of exquisite sophistication that would later come to be regarded as a Golden Age.

They were presented to the V&A by Edwin Davies CBE, an engineer, businessman and art collector (and known to football fans as Eddie Davies, owner of Bolton).

The Edwin Davies Gift is made up of nearly 90 examples of Japanese cloisonné and complemented the V&A’s existing collections of earlier works and enamel decorated sword fittings.

Enamel, a form of glass coloured with metallic oxides, is applied to objects as a paste. Once fired in a kiln the enamels melt and fuse to the body. After cooling the surface is polished and this process is repeated, building up many layers of enamel to create the finished object..

In cloisonné enamelling fine wires are used to delineate areas, known as cloisons in French, into which enamel pastes are applied. The wires prevent molten enamels of different colours from flowing together.

“The jewel-like colours of enamels reminded Japanese people of gemstones and so they named the technique Shippo,” explains Rowena Hamilton, Exhibition and Display Curator at Museums Sheffield. The shape of the Japanese letters in the word shippo looked like the figure seven which was interpreted as the seven treasures mentioned in Buddhist texts. These have been interpreted widely to include gold, silver, emerald, coral, agate, lapis lazuli, giant clamshell, glass and pearl – precious materials whose qualities are reflected in the vivid lustre of cloisonné enamels. Hence the title of the exhibition, Seven Treasures.

The V&A treasures will go on show at Weston Park alongside a series of enamels produced in Sheffield illustrating the range of related traditions and techniques which have been used in the city.

One example is a hair ornament from 1930 by Joyce Himsworth, a silversmith and jewellery designer renowned for producing enamel work. Her contemporary, Helen Ibbotson, is represented by a Triptych demonstrating her expertise in the Limoges technique of enameling.

Other items from the Sheffield collection were brought back to the city by people who had visited or worked in the Far East.

The new chair of Museums Sheffield, Gordon Bridge, has lent a Japanese doll and a pair of vases which have been in his family since being sent home as souvenirs by Frank Wilson, an engineer sent to Japan in 1913 by Vickers to work on the manufacture of guns.

“The reason the Sheffield Collection acquired all these things was because it was an industrial city and its engineers travelled the world,” says Hamilton.

“After 1868, people and ideas began to move freely between Europe and Japan in a way they had not been able to for 200 years. Technical experts from Europe advised Japanese manufacturers on development and artistic ideas flowed in both directions.”

The influence of movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco can be detected in some of the works while Europeans were inspired by Japanese artists.

”The exhibition also reflects an interesting period in Japanese history,” continues the curator. “The renaissance of Japanese cloisonné is attributed to Kaji Tsunekichi, a Samurai swordsmith.

“After the Shogun of Japan was overthrown in 1868, Samurai were no longer allowed to carry swords. Those who had made their armour, had to find new ways to make a living. Kaji used his knowledge of metalworking to recreate examples of Chinese cloisonné enameling he had seen, creating new enthusiasm for the craft in Japan.”

The touring exhibition continues the ongoing relationship between the V & A and Museums Sheffield who have added their own touches including an introductory film. “The V&A is a museum of craft and design and this is a museum of history and we felt we needed to put the works in a context,” says Hamilton.

The Seven Treasures: Japanese Enamels from the V&A opens at Weston Park Museum on Saturday and continues until June 2.