“Not enough netsuke,” was my first thought, going around Japan: Courts and Culture at the Queen’s Gallery. Not only was there just one of those carved, decorative toggles, but there wasn’t a single kimono on show.
“Not fair,” was my second thought. This exhibition isn’t a comprehensive survey of Japanese art through the ages, the sort of thing you might expect from the Royal Academy or the V&A. It is, instead, a charmingly idiosyncratic rifle through the attics of the Royal palaces for 350 years of assorted treasures, official presents and (perhaps ill-advised) souvenirs from Japan. The show is beautifully presented – black lacquer cabinets, red lacquer benches – with unfailingly interesting captions. Japan is still closed to tourists; the catalog is the next best thing to a turn.
When Crown Prince Hirohito visited Britain in 1921, George V raised a toast to “our two island empires”. The special island relationship goes back to the 17th century. The oldest Japanese artefact in the Royal Collection is a suit of samurai armor – fearsome and fabulous – sent to James I in 1613, while the newest object on display is a persimmon stoneware vase by the potter Hamada Shoji, given to the Queen on her state visit to Japan in 1975.
“Intricate” is the word that comes up most in the curator’s notes, followed by “exquisite”. The perfection, precision and miniaturism made this gallery visitor, at 5ft 3in, feel positively galumphing. I longed to play with the tiny tokens of an incense game (essentially “guess that smell”) and hide my answers in the palm-sized envelopes. The glittering yari (spears) inlaid with mother-of-pearl seem too refined for a battlefield.
Those who discovered Japanese art through Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes may be disappointed to find only the one netsuke on display. It is threaded through an intro – a tiny case worn on the obi (sash) of a kimono – and takes the shape of a rat nibbling a giant mushroom. Has rat? For the future Queen Elizabeth? On the occasion of her marriage to the future George VI? Yes: the rat is the first animal in the East Asian zodiac, and is considered auspicious.