The Meiji Period – Exploring Antiques From This Era

What was the Meiji period?

Emperor Meiji

The Meiji period was an era of Japanese history ranging from 1868 to 1912. During this time, Japan transformed itself from an isolated feudal nation to an industrialised world power.

Japan was in the Edo Period when Emperor Meiji was born in 1852. It was a closed off, pre-industrial country, dominated Samurai class, Tokugawa Shogunate and Daimyos. The Samurai were mostly warriors and were the top of the social class system, they had been the ruling military class for nearly 700 years.

When Emperor Meiji came to power, military rulers gave up their control and the country returned to being ruled by an Emperor. A new representational government formed, which led to a series of changes in the Japanese political system. This included the beginning of engagement with other nations, something very limited prior to this era. After almost 300 years closed to trade, Japan began to trade openly with Europe and the West, and modernisation came to the country.

This brought Western culture, goods and people to Japan and meant Japanese culture travelled overseas. Japanese goods were sold in Western markets for the first time and became highly fashionable. Modern Western practices and traditional Japanese methods interlinked, with demand for Japanese-made objects in the West having a strong influence on Japanese art and antiques. The impact of this engagement with new cultures is evident in much Meiji-period art, which reflected a new era for the nation and its developing relationship with the wider world.

By the time of Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912, Japan had been through widespread political, economic, and social shifts and emerged as a great world power.

How did the Meiji period change Japanese art and antiques?

During the 40-year Meiji period, Japan went through a huge amount of change. Before this, craftsmen mostly produced decorative works for Samurai patrons. The Samurai were warriors, so many pieces took the form of weaponry and armour. Under the new system, craftsmen were granted more freedom. The government encouraged them to make more high quality, fashionable works of art, embracing innovation. There was a rapid expansion of artistic forms, subjects and styles and objects were crafted for display – with new pieces going to the market. The quality of this art greatly appealed to overseas markets and demand rapidly grew. New styles and techniques resulted, artists from previously separate crafts collaborated and production expanded on an extreme scale. There was a huge Western influence on Japanese art as, for the first time in the nation’s history, art was no longer only being made just for Japanese consumers.

The Meiji period’s dramatic cultural changes provided new topics to capture, including foreign customs and styles, global warfare, and the transformation of Japan itself. Chinese art also influenced production, with some Meiji antiques reflecting traditionally Chinese techniques. This included more attention to plant and animal life, with pieces featuring dragons, fish or rabbits.

Japanese culture was also infused with the classical forms of Western art. Artists learnt new Western techniques, whilst Japanese craft, especially metalworking, was copied in the West. Makers created pieces that appealed to Western consumers whilst retaining Japanese tradition and heritage. They developed a marvellous ability to balance tradition with innovation, and  these pieces were unrivalled in quality of craftsmanship and design.

Meiji Japan also wanted to portray itself to the world as equal to the West. Japanese art emerged onto the global stage at various exhibitions across Japan, Europe and the USA. The fine detail in works brought makers high praise, with creations becoming highly sought-after by collectors around the world. There was an insatiable demand for creations and major artists became extremely wealthy individuals.

Example Meiji period antiques

We have a wide range of Meiji period antiques in our warehouse. These include beautiful painted and bronze vases, statues and figures. Browse our collection of Japanese Meiji period antiques online or view them at our Brighton warehouse – we’d be delighted to give you a tour.

Bronze wares

bronze warrior statue

Meiji period craftsmen attempted distinctive and complex bronze wares. Several metal-working schools developed, creating intricate pieces including vases, sculptures and incense burners. They were heavily influenced by Chinese pieces, using nature as inspiration and featuring plants, wildlife and mythical animals like dragons. The best items were intricate pieces with highly realistic detailing.

In our collection, we currently have this rare, fine quality Miyao Bronze Warrior from the Meiji period. The warrior has gilded highlights and is holding a Cloisonné enamel ball clock above its head. The sphere has detail including colourful mythical creatures and a finely carved okimono of a seated man holding a brush. A great addition to any room, this also has an eight day duration clock inset into the ball that chimes on the hour.

Furthermore, this piece is signed Miyao. The Miyao Company of Yokohama, under founder Miyao Eisuke, was a producer of bronze ornamental sculptures. Works often depicted characters from Japanese legend and mythology to appeal to both Japanese and Western markets.

Cloisonné enamel

cloisonné enamel pot

The Meiji period was also known for cloisonné enamel. The technique of cloisonné was introduced to Japan from China and was initially used to decorate small items like jewellery and swords. Japan’s modernisation led to an increase in the number of enamellists and range of enamelled objects. Cloisonné was an ideal medium for intricate, two-dimensional block-colour decoration and artists experimented with complex techniques for achieving this effect.

Currently, we have some Chinese Cloisonné Enamel pieces available if you’d like to see what these Japanese antiques were based on. One is this impressive late 19th Century Chinese Large Cloisonné Lidded Pot. The enamel pot has classical symbols and detail depicting dragons, set up on a carved ebonized stand. With plenty of intricate decoration and a mythical dog on the top, this certainly makes a great centre piece.

Ceramics and porcelain

meiji period satsuma vases

Most of the fine porcelain produced during the late 19th Century Meiji period was created in Satsuma. Japan had a long history of porcelain production, with kakiemon wares common in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the early 19th Century, kakiemon production declined, and it was overtaken by porcelain made in the Satsuma region – an important area during the Meiji period as it was the first region to rebel against the shogunate and offer support to the new Emperor.

During the expansion of production in the late 19th Century, ceramicists perfected new overglaze techniques for decoration, as well as Satsuma porcelain’s distinctive ivory-coloured ground. Many Satsuma wares were produced for export and decorated with images that were appealing to Westerners, including Japanese-style figures wearing kimonos, pagodas, flowers, and birds.

We currently have these impressive Large Meiji Period Satsuma Vases in our collection. The pair of Japanese Satsuma Flared Neck Vases are highly detailed and decorative. Each have wonderful gilded and hand-painted decoration, depicting outdoor scenes of people on horseback. This, alongside classical floral, leaf and motif decoration, draws the eye and makes them a perfect decorative pair.

Gillows of Lancaster and London Furniture

Robert Gillow, the founder of Gillows, trained as a joiner, builder, house carpenter, furniture maker and overseas merchant, becoming a Freeman of Lancaster in 1728. In 1731, he started a partnership with a fellow catholic George Haresnape, lasting till 1735, and began cabinetmaking and finishing furniture. The family’s Catholic history was instrumental in growing a customer base within Lancashire’s gentry, and their purchase of the historical Leighton Hall, Lancashire from a cousin in 1822, still owned by the family.

Robert’s two sons, Richard and Robert joined the firm and in 1757 Richard became an equal partner, with the company known as Robert Gillow & Son. Robert was also an architect for several buildings in Lancaster and financed the building of the catholic church in Dalton Square. Together with the help of their cousin Thomas, the Gillow sons expanded the business into London, opening a branch in Oxford Road. The firm attracted the capital’s wealthiest buyers and became widely recognised as the best cabinetmaker of the time.

The Gillows owned a twelfth share of the ship Briget which they used to import the finest slow-grown solid mahogany wood from the West Indies to make their excellent quality furniture. In addition to mahogany, they used unusual veneers and japanning.

Having excelled at cabinet making, the Gillow brothers diversified the business into making beautifully upholstered chairs. In addition to producing their own designs, they made Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite pieces. The Gillows invented unique furniture items such as the extending telescopic dining table, secretaire drawers, the revolving top library table and the trou-madame, a ladies’ billiards table. One of their best-known inventions was the Davenport desk, a compact ladies’ desk the Gillows made for Captain Davenport. They also manufactured chests of drawers, small occasional tables and linen presses.

By 1824, Leonard Redmayne, the Mayor of Lancaster, Whiteside and Ferguson took over the firm as partners, still using the Gillows name. Under their direction the firm started offering complete interior design while still maintaining its reputation for superb quality. The company won commissions to supply furniture and decorate public buildings in France, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Australia and the U.S. Gillows also furnished the spectacular Tatton Hall, with over 150 pieces complementing the work of the architect Lewis William Wyatt.

Gillows continued to grow until the early 1900s. The financial difficulties of the late Victorian era and the shift towards mass-produced furniture forced the firm to join forces with Waring of Liverpool. Following complete takeover in 1903, the company became known as Waring & Gillow. It took on a new direction of fitting out luxury liners and then making Art Deco furniture. Unfortunately, the firm’s reputation for quality was lost in the merger and its success was not to last. The renowned cabinet maker’s glorious time spanned from the 18th till the end of the 19th century.

A large collection of Gillows furniture is displayed at the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster. Original Gillows pieces can also be seen in Tatton Hall and museums in London as well as Melbourne, Auckland and Adelaide in Australia.

Gillows Furniture Marks

A large portion of Gillows furniture is unstamped and the association can be established by studying the design and the production technique. The Gillows stamp can be found on tops of drawer edges, under the table tops and on the back legs of chairs. The firm’s cabinet makers also pencilled their signatures under the drawer linings. These can be referenced in the comprehensive Gillows archives. The printed label ‘Gillow & Taylor’ was the earliest mark. ‘Gillows Lancaster’ stamp was used from 1780s to around 1850s/60s, when it was changed to ‘Gillow’. After the 1860s the mark was made up of a capital L and a serial number. Late Victorian items had the ‘Gillow & Co’ stamp, later changed to ‘Waring & Gillow’ on a small brass plate.

Browse our Gillows furniture pieces online or see them in person at our Brighton’s antique warehouse.

François Linke – The Master’s Story

After travelling to Prague, Budapest and Weimar, Linke came to Paris to work with a German cabinet maker. Photographs, location and stylistic resemblances suggest it was Emmanuel Zwiener, a leading furniture maker with a thriving studio in Paris. Following some time in Pankraz, Linke finally settled in Paris in 1877. The great Internation Exhibition took place in Paris in 1878 and was a resounding success for a city devastated by war only seven years earlier. Linke’s own workshops were active in Faubourg St. Antoine from 1881, supplying pieces for such established makers as Krieger and Jansen.

In 1889, Paris hosted the World’s Fair, announcing to the world France’s prosperous and confident outlook on the future. The iconic Eiffel Tower, erected as the exhibition’s symbol, became the iconic landmark of Paris. Inspired by these triumphant events, François Linke resolved to make a mark at the next exhibition, decreed to take place at the end of the 19th century.

Victor Champier, one of the 1900 Paris Fair’s commissioners issued an appeal, ‘Create in the manner of the masters, do not copy what they have made’. In response to this call against mere reproduction, Linke produced a formidable collection of original pieces that included the renowned Grand Bureau. While his competitors resorted to the historicist rendition of Louis XV and XVl styles, Linke teamed up with the incredibly talented sculptor and designer Léon Messagé to develop a completely new approach. While celebrating Louis XV’s rococo and its fluidity, it took a bold step forward with the vibrant flowing lines of progressive contemporary ‘art nouveau’.

The Art Journal reported in 1900 on Linke’s stand:
‘The work of M. Linke … was an example of what can be done by seeking inspiration amongst the classic examples of Louis XV and XVI without in any great sense copying these great works. M. Linke’s work was original in the true sense of the word, and as such commended itself to the intelligent seeker after the really artistic things of the Exhibition. Wonderful talent was employed in producing the magnificent pieces of furniture displayed’.

The ‘Revue’ described Linke’s style as ‘entirely new’ and noted that his 1900 World Fair stand was the greatest success in the history of art furniture.

It is worth noting that Linke took an enormous risk producing such extravagant and highly priced furniture without a potential buyer or commission in mind. At a time when such established furniture houses as Beurdeley and Dasson were closing down, Linke chose to move his business forward by appealing to the international clientele of the newly emerging rich. He invested everything he had in the expensive stand and the furniture he made. Had he failed, he would have become bankrupt, but the daring gamble paid off and his star had shone brightly ever since. Prominent visitors who flocked to his stand included the King of Sweden, King of Belgium, the Prince d’Arenberg, the American heiress Miss Anna May Gould and the President of France Emile Loubet.

Following the exhibition, La Maison Linke became the dominant furniture house leading the way for artistic change and artisanal excellence. François Linke’s showrooms opened in the prestigious Place Vendôme and Faubourg St. Antoine. Among the numerous furniture commissions he fulfilled, the most noteworthy was the extraordinary assignment to furnish King Fuad’s of Egypt Ras al-Tin Palace in Alexandria, the largest undertaking of its kind surpassing even Versailles. The master cabinet maker continued his fruitful work until the mid-1930’s and passed away in 1946.

We are proud to have some of François Linke’s inimitable furniture pieces in our collection. View them online or visit our showroom in Brighton – we’d be delighted to give you a tour tailored to your interests.