26 March 2015

Condition checking abroad – the ‘English Garden’ in Japan

Eleanor Hasler, LAA’s Collections Conservator, travelled to Kagawa in Japan last month to check the condition of a touring exhibition of Kew’s artworks.

By Eleanor Hasler

The Rock Garden

Kew on tour

In March 2014, we were very busy in the conservation studio preparing artworks and books for the ‘English Garden’ exhibition: a touring retrospective of Kew’s diverse art collections that was going on display in Japan. The exhibition was probably the first time that such a large collection of Kew’s paintings has been loaned internationally, and the content had been expertly curated to showcase botanical art and illustrate the voyages of discovery made throughout Kew’s history.

Condition checking

The ‘English Garden’ has been in Japan for a year now and has been a very successful attraction in a number of city museums. Last month, it was installed in the Kagawa Museum in the city of Takamatsu and I was present for the installation of the exhibition. I was there to see how the artworks were responding to the environment and whether any changes had occurred to them. As with any condition check, I was equipped with the reports we had created back in the studio, a camera, various light sources, and my tools should any of the artworks have needed conservation treatment.

I was very impressed with how the stores are kept as clean and clear as possible - shoes had to be changed before entering, and the art handlers worked very carefully and efficiently. As I checked each artwork and frame, the curators organised them into hanging order so that the content of the exhibition flowed from theme to theme. After I had examined everything, the exhibition was hung and light levels for each painting were set so as not to cause any deterioration or accelerated fading.

Japanese botanical illustrations

On display in the adjacent gallery to the ‘English Garden’ was a fascinating collection of Japanese botanical illustrations which allowed for a very interesting comparison within the genre of scientific illustration in Europe and Japan during the mid-eighteenth century (Edo period). The Japanese illustrations had been mounted into folding books and were from a collection of 13 volumes which had been passed down through the Matsudaira family. The volumes on display show illustrations of medicinal, flowering and fruiting plants as well as vegetables, grasses, trees and shrubs. They were all painted on kozo (mulberry fibre) paper using natural or mineral pigments, with mica being used in some cases for highlights. The books are believed to have been commissioned by Matsudaira Yoritaka (1711–71), the fifth Domain Lord of Takamatsu, and were produced with the participation of Hiraga Gennai, a renowned natural historian who was in the service of the family. One of the volumes comprising paintings of vegetables was the result of research into a replacement to rice in the diet of the Kagawan people due to the high probability of famine in the area at the time. 

Exhibition opening

On the day of opening, there was a huge amount of excitement about the ‘English Garden’ exhibition and the gallery rooms were full of visitors during the curator lead tour. Interestingly, the curator had discovered that a Kagawan botanist, Kan Yashiroda, had spent a year at Kew from May 1925 to 1926, and went on to write books about Japanese bonsai trees while continuing to collect seeds for Kew, after leaving the UK.

RBG Kew is celebrated in Japan as being a world-class institution and I was so pleased to see such enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the ‘English Garden’ exhibition. The range of artworks in the exhibition appeals to a very wide range of people, and the corresponding exhibition of 18th century Japanese illustrations means that visitors to the museum come away with a much broader understanding of the history and relevance of botanic art. 

- Eleanor Hasler -

Collections Conservator

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