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.

Sèvres Porcelain – History and Distinctive Marks

The Beginning: 1738 – 1751
Sèvres porcelain was conceived by Marquis Orry de Fulvy, the brother of the Minister of Finance, and opened its doors in 1738 as the Manufacture de Vincennes at the Château de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris. Early Sèvres pieces imitated the well-established Meissen style and the local craftsmen succeeded in producing a soft-paste porcelain. Focused on innovation, the factory has developed the first Sèvres hallmarks by 1745: the celebrated shades of turquoise – ‘bleu céleste’ – and a deep ‘royal blue’.

Louis XV and XVl: 1751 – 1780
Louis XV and his dashing mistress Madame de Pompadour not only appreciated the finesse of porcelain, but also saw its promising economic potential as the product so popular among the elite. Louis XV offered royal patronage to Vincennes and in 1756 ordered the whole operation to be moved to the larger premises in Sèvres, west of Paris.

By 1759, the king owned the factory outright and his investment paid off. Louis XV and then XVl held exclusive showings for the ladies at Versailles to introduce new patterns, shapes and colours. It also became a custom to gift a complete dinner service to every royal visitor, a diplomatic gesture that spread Sèvres’ fame all over the global royal courts.

At the time, all porcelain factories in Europe were making soft-paste porcelain. As beautiful as they were, the pieces couldn’t match the durability and the exquisite transparency of Chinese ‘hard-paste’ porcelain. The Chinese had closely guarded their secret recipe until an alchemist employed by Meissen developed his own hard-paste recipe based on the information smuggled out of China by Jesuit priests. The magic ingredient was kaolin.

By 1868, kaolin deposits were discovered in France, near Limoges, and Sèvres perfected the technology which required high temperatures for firing and glazing.

One of the most notable pieces of this period was the lavish dinner service commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1776. It was Sèvres first neoclassical design in new shapes and ground colours that matched the factory’s own bleu céleste, splendidly decorated with cameos copied from the Empress’s renowned collection and using the Imperial Ell cypher (for Ekaterina ll).

French Revolution – 1780 – 1800
The French Revolution made a dent in the prosperity of the factory and it almost collapsed due to debt and unpaid workers. The history of this tumultuous time was immortalised in the Sèvres’ strangely captivating Bol Sein milk bowl of 1787, shaped after the breast of Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France taken down by the Revolution.

Together with threats, the Revolution offered Sèvres a way to survive as it became property of the state.

Alexandre Brogniart – 1800-1847
The appointment of Alexandre Brogniart as the factory administrator coincided with Napoleon’s reign and marked a chapter of innovation and prosperity for Sèvres. Brogniart had no experience in porcelain design and production. An architect’s son and a scientist skilled in zoology, botany, chemistry and geology, he applied his skills and experience to creative design and production, bringing the factory back to its glory.

Napoleon’s celebrated campaign in Egypt created a new vogue in Paris and Sèvres responded with intricately detailed Egyptian-inspired services. Bonaparte favoured magnificent pieces of the Empire style, with classical influences and elaborate ornamentation as marks of power. One of the most notable pieces from the service ordered by Napoleon for Joséphine at the Tuileries Palace is a sugar bowl in royal blue with the factory’s elaborate gilding. It is still in production and can be bought at the Manufacture’s boutiques.

Brogniart’s tenure was characterised with eclecticism and historicism. He embraced various decorative styles to commemorate different art forms and periods in porcelain. For sets, such as dinner, coffee and tea services, Bogniart devised schemes that united objects stylistically and in terms of subject matter. One of the best examples is the ‘Service des Départements’ from 1824. Each plate is decorated with a famous view of the département (administrative unit) of France it represented, its border painted with a cameo of a well-known person, industries and arts from the region.

The factory sought to copy famous paintings perceived to be fragile, to record their true appearance. Among the many artists’ masterpieces Sèvres copied, those by Raphael were the most popular.

Sèvres has continued to grow and innovate throughout the 20th and the 21st centuries, while preserving its precious expertise in producing the finest porcelain.

At Sèvres, numerous painters and gilders worked together to produce a single piece and were allowed to incise their personal identification marks into the paste or paint them over the glaze. In addition to the artists’ marks, Sèvres wares carry signs identifying them as royal manufacture products. Soft-paste pieces have two blue interlaced L’s enclosing a letter that marks a date: A indicating 1753, B for 1754, and so on. When all the letters were used up in 1777, the marking switched to double letters. Hard-paste porcelain was marked in the same way, with a small crown added above the crossed L’s.

Is it genuine Sèvres porcelain?
Here are some tips that will help you identify if the Sèvres piece is authentic:

  • Is it hand-painted? Try learning to differentiate between hand-painted and transfer prints, generally used in the 19th and 20th centuries and considered modern copies.
  • What type of paste is the body made from? Hard-paste porcelain wasn’t used until the 1770s and soft-paste was abolished by Brogniart in 1804.
  • Are the decorations painted in layers? Authentic pieces have extremely fine decorations that are built up in layers and can be felt with fingers. If everything feels flat, the piece is most likely forged.

Where to see Sèvres Porcelain?

Musée Nationale de Céramique in Sèvres features iconic pieces from every century since its inception. The Wallace Collection in London, the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and the Rothschild Collection at Waddeson Manor contain the finest examples of tableware and decorative objects.

Patrick Moorhead Antiques is a great place to start or grow your Sèvres porcelain collection. Browse our pieces online or visit our Brighton warehouse – we’d be delighted to give you a tour.