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Re-evaluating the Japan mania in Victorian Britain: the agency of Japenese and Anglo-Japanese wares

Universal Publishers
Publication Date
  • W200 Design Studies
  • Design
  • History


Traditionally, historians of nineteenth century art and design have viewed Japanese art as a significant force in the development of Western art and credited artists and designers with disseminating an interest in it to the wider public. They associate the former with innovative creation inspired by Japanese art, and the latter with the indiscriminate consumption of shoddy, mass-produced objects employing superfluous ornament, the products of the so-called Japan mania. This paper challenges these views by considering the complex interactions of a variety of agents, material and social, including Japanese decorative objects, travel writers, designers and retailers, providing an alternative to the notion that popular interest in Japanese art was the result of a trickle-down effect. Focus is given to the agency of Japanese wares imported into and exhibited in Britain. Following the opening of Japan to the West, these objects were vital in the formation of Anglo-Japanese ideas of one another, considering the significant language barrier, geographical distance and scarcity of English written works on the country. Also, it cannot be ignored that those celebrated in the history of Japonisme, for example Christopher Dresser and Arthur Lasenby Liberty, contributed directly to the Japan media. For example, Liberty & Co was patronised by artists as well as middle class consumers in search of Japanese wares. Dresser designed a variety of objects in the Japanese style, many of which, in addition to the Japanese objects imported by Dresser & Holme and advertised in The Furniture Gazette, depict ornamentation that is associated with the Japan mania rather than the proto-modernist design traditionally hailed as the result of Dresser’s interaction with Japan. This paper demonstrates how a wider enquiry into the network of material and social participants in the Japan mania constructed a stereotyped idea of ‘Japan’ and led to the widespread industrial production and consumption of inexpensive wares in the Japanese style.

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