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Garden Bequest

Plants from Japan Portrayed in Books, Paintings and Decorative Art of 300 Years
30 January - 23 March 2002

During this exhibition the Gallery will be open 1-5pm on Saturdays & there are free public tours Thursdays and Saturdays at 2pm

A Garden Bequest celebrates the rich legacy of plants introduced from Japan to the West. Maples, cherries, irises and lilies - many plants were unknown to the West until their discovery in Japan by western visitors from the seventeenth century onwards. The exhibition includes more than 135 objects borrowed from leading libraries and museums and private collections in the United Kingdom. An illustrated handbook will accompany the exhibition, containing essays by specialists in the field and a catalogue of the objects of display.

It was during the period of isolation, when Japan was largely closed to foreigners, that the first knowledge of Japanese plants reached the west. The earliest information about Japanese plants consisted of botanical studies brought back to Europe by individuals working for the Dutch East India Company. The physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) resident in Deshima, Nagasaki, between 1690 and 1692, acquired Japanese plant specimens and publications in Japanese on the pharmaceutical use of plants. Kaempfer's subsequent publications of his Amoenitates exoticae (1712) and his History of Japan, published posthumously in 1727, include important documentation on his discoveries relating to Japanese plants. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) returned from Japan to compile the Flora Japonica (1784).

Knowledge of Japanese plants also reached the west through their representation in works of art. They are illustrated in books, decorative papers, paintings, and on textiles, lacquer and porcelain. Engelbert Kaempfer brought stylised representations of flowers in padded silk intended for decoration, back in the 1690s. Genre paintings of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries depict gardens, plum and cherry blossom and other floral shrubs, and the selling of bonsai. Export porcelain shows the stylisation of familiar flowers, the peony, camellia, iris and lily. A fine illustrated book depicting insects and plants by the renowned artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) was acquired by Sir Joseph Banks. From the late nineteenth century large quantities of Japanese decorative arts were exported to Europe, frequently displaying plant themes. Over the last one hundred years, plants have been the subject of botanical illustrators, in for example Raymond Booth's paintings published in the Japonica Magnifica (1992).