The Children, a hand coloured glass lantern slide 1903
A Japanese-themed exhibition in Warwickshire takes a look at life in the country more than a century ago.
It does though seem a bit confusing. Journey Through Japan is a touring exhibition on loan from Horniman Museum & Gardens in London, complemented with some work from Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum’s own collection, for the show at the gallery.
It is described in the press release as a selection of “intricate and beautiful lantern slide photographs taken in the early 1900s which allow you to experience the stunning landscape of Japan during that era”, taken by Marjorie Bell and her cousin Leslie, when they travelled around the country in 1903 for two months. They had left Marjorie’s home on a sheep station in Victoria, Australia, to travel with her mother Hester.
The information in the gallery said Marjorie, who was only 13 at the time, had her photos processed in Japanese studios. She wrote a detailed diary, and the pictures in the exhibition have her interesting descriptive captions alongside them relating to the image.
What causes confusion however is that some of the photos were clearly not taken by Marjorie and her cousin, which raises the question of whether any of them were, and why this isn’t specified. (See bottom and the helpful comment below). There is even one illustrating people in Japanese costume of the day in snow, when Marjorie wasn’t there.
There is one attractive picture of a young family, the oldest child carrying a baby on her back, and Marjorie’s comment is that this was something they saw frequently amongst young children. Some other young children are featured and after Marjorie’s diary quote about children, there is a comment that she may not have seen children this poor which raises the issue that she couldn’t have taken that photo.
She travelled to the popular island of Miyajima and there is a photograph of people at work, with hand-pulled carts, big straw hats to keep off the sun, and young children accompanying them. The famous entrance gate to the Itsu-kushima shrine, which appears to float on the water when the tide is in also featured.
Some dancers in a hotel are shown, and there are a number of attractive countryside photographs; a huge lake, and some gushing waterfalls in very green and tree-filled countryside, a part of Japan not so often pictured. An avenue of enormously-high bamboo trees has a couple of people wandering down the middle to show the scale, and in Nara small deer wander around waiting to be fed, the same as today. In this image a brightly-coloured patch of orange leaves on a tree catches the eye. Nagoya Castle stands proud and attractive, five storeys high, and some streets capture people, shops (with huge signs outside showing what they sold) at this period.
A photo of Tokyo is very different from today, with lots of low-level buildings and fields, but a sumo wrestling match looks similar.
In Nikko, Marjorie’s diary commented that she wished she’d been able to see the attractive red bridge which had been washed away in high waters – so the picture of the red bridge intact was clearly taken by someone else.
In one of the last ones, Mount Fuji is artistically reflected in a lake where there is a solitary fisherman.
The confusion over how many or whether any of these photos are taken by the young Marjorie detracts from simply being able to enjoy these attractive moments from this period in the country’s history.
The gallery has added some of its own Japanese-related items to the exhibition too. These include some dolls, an Oriental-building shaped box, and a Satsuma jar, with an attractive picture on top of a bird taking flight.
There are also a number of woodblock prints, including several by Kikugawa Eizan, on showing what is described as a tipsy girl dropping her drinking cup, and also a couple by Kitagawa Utamomo II depicting a high-class courtesan being escorted through a crowd by a servant and her apprentices. They are all worth seeing and it’s good they have been given a chance to come out of the stores.
*It has since become clear none of the photographs were by Marjorie but from the Horniman Museum’s own collection of lantern slides, taken by Frederick Horniman himself.