Given there are such a variety of Chinese and Japanese artefacts in the large display cabinet in the Stewart Museum, it comes as rather a surprise to discover that Major Percy Stewart and his wife were not overly impressed by either country when they visited them as part of their first world tour in the early years of the 20th century.
Of course, Percy’s opinions might have been influenced by the fact that his sister Flora had been murdered in China in 1895, as his judgements of both countries do seem somewhat arbitrary and rather harsh.
Nevertheless, he brought back some interesting and unusual Chinese and Japanese artefacts for the Stewart Collection which I’d like to share with you this week.
The Chinese and Japanese cabinet holds a variety of curiosities, ranging from miniature hand-painted bottles to musical instruments, weapons, an opium pipe and a pair of women’s boots for someone with bound feet.
Readers may remember that in the early 1890’s Percy’s sister Flora had been very pleased when the Chinese village women she had encountered on her missionary work unbound their feet as a sign of personal liberation on being converted to Christianity.
The pair of tiny boots from the 19th century displayed in the museum is leather-soled with embroidered uppers and, unusually, two heels on each one. The ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding was discouraged under the Manchu dynasty, outlawed after 1911 in the Republic, and finally disappeared under communism after World War Two. These examples were purchased by Percy Stewart either between 1906 and 1914 in China, or in Bhana, Burma.
The largest item in this cabinet is a Chinese box from the early 20th century. It has a hinged lid of black lacquered wood, is inlaid with mother of pearl decorations of floral designs and two pictures of rural scenes. It has an inner tray and a brass lock cover with two Chinese pictograms on it and was purchased in China between 1906 and 1914.
My personal favourite from this section is a beautiful Japanese dragon from about 1900 that Percy and Katharine collected in Japan in 1906. It is articulated wood with holes in the head for josticks and would have been made as a guardian for a shrine.
Whilst in Japan, a rather amusing incident occurred which Percy recalls in his travel memoir ‘Tales of Travel and Sport’ published in 1938:
“We made an awkward faux pas at Nagasaki, for I took my wife to a restaurant for five o’clock tea, during which geisha appeared. We were at first the only visitors, but the nature of the place became apparent when some of our fellow–passengers arrived. Their consternation on seeing us innocently drinking tea, but now divining for what purpose they had come, was sublime.”
So, even if they didn’t enjoy their Chinese and Japanese adventures, they had at least one humorous tale to tell from their visit!
• Photographs and exhibits courtesy of the Stewart Museum.