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Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper

Mark Nesbitt
1 March 2013
Blog team: 
Kew's world-class collection of Japanese art papers goes on display for the first time in Britain.

Among the many unexpected treasures in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection are 111 sheets and 17 objects made from Japanese paper (known in Japan as washi). These were collected between 1869-70 by Sir Harry Parkes, British Minister to Japan, at the request of William Gladstone, British Prime Minister. This was not a frivolous request: the advent of wider literacy had led to serious paper shortages in Europe, hence Kew's interest in papers from other regions.

Hair ornaments made from paper


Parkes sent the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Word reached Kew of its arrival and the director, Sir Joseph Hooker, requested material for Kew. The three-dimensional objects – hats, clothes, boxes, a telescope – were exhibited in Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, but the paper sheets were rolled into glass jars and remained invisible (and protected from light and pollution) for over a century.

The Parkes collection, now divided between Kew and the V&A, was rediscovered by the book designer Hans Schmoller. In the story well told in his handsome book Mr Gladstone’s washi (1984), Schmoller was visiting paper makers’ workshops in Japan and was shown a tattered photocopy of Parkes’s Report, printed by Parliament to accompany the paper samples. This led him to the portion preserved in the V&A stores, and then to Kew. The rediscovery of such a large and well-preserved collection of historical washi caused much excitement, and led to a major loan exhibition visiting Kyoto and Tokyo in 1994.


It has been my ambition to exhibit the papers in Britain since I first saw them a decade ago. As well as the fascinating story of their collecting, they are artefacts of great and subtle beauty. The karakami, thin paper used on sliding partitions, are decorated with natural pigments such as indigo blue, and materials such as mica. The gikakuji and kinkarakawakami (paper treated to look like leather) are sumptuous, with dark colours, high relief and gilding, and the objects such as hats and slippers are simply unexpected in western culture. All these repay hours of close viewing.

Paper hat from the Parkes collection

A series of three fortunate events has led to this hoped for exhibition. Firstly, Nancy Casserley, a History of Design MA student at the Royal College of Art, completed a brilliant dissertation on the reception (lukewarm!) accorded to washi in Britain. As part of her project, the papers were photographed and fully catalogued for the first time. Next, the “Washi: The Soul of Japan committee”, based in Kyoto, issued a 12 volume set of 800 Japanese papers representing the current state of paper making in Japan (which we have just acquired for the Kew Library). This comes at a timely moment when hand paper making is both highly valued in Japan, but under threat from modernisation. The third happy event was that a good friend, at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures in Norwich, became aware of both collections, and saw how 19th and 21st century washi side-by-side could make a fascinating exhibition. Through support from the Sainsbury Institute, Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) and many Japanese colleagues and institutions, the exhibition Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper has come to be, and will run at The Gallery at NUA from 12 March – 20 April 2013.

Recent paper from the "Washi: Soul of Japan" collection

What's on in Norwich

Exhibiting coloured papers presents some challenges, particularly as they are very sensitive to light. Over 100 pieces of washi are on show, and this exhibition is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. I would warmly urge readers to make the journey to Norwich. There is a lot to see, as the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA) has also organised three exhibitions of paper art, inspired by washi, held in nearby galleries at the same time, the "Art and Soul of Paper". There is also an extensive programme of talks and workshops on washi old and new, including an all-day conference and private view of the exhibitions on Saturday 16 March. Nancy Casserley is curator of the exhibition and author of the associated book to be published by Kew, Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper, which will be launched in London on 19 March – a highly satisfactory outcome from a MA dissertation!

- Mark -

Related Links

Main web site for Exhibition, Conference and Events

Art and Soul of Paper

The Gallery at NUA

Paper at Kew

Buy 'Washi: The Art of Japanese Paper' online

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