Japanese inro in the Hopp Museum. Part 1. 1968.

Inrō with black, gold, gyōbu nashiji and nashiji grounds

It seems that the discovery and scientific interpretation of the various branches of Asian art do not follow a straight line. This is the case in the field of Japanese lacquer work and especially of inrō. Interest in Japanese art lacquers among Western collectors increased towards a climax at the end of the last century. This was due partly to the great exhibitions of Japanese art arranged around the turn of the century in Paris, London and Vienna. As noted examples of the collecting trend the Behrens or Tomkinson collections might be mentioned. The development of Oriental departments in the large European museums went on in this period and was followed by the publication of catalogues. The catalogue of Japanese lacquer works in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in its second volume with the inrō, was the result of systematic research and served as a good example for other museums.1

Since then, the most striking upswing in the publication of Oriental lacquers has been witnessed in the 1950′-s and 60′-s. Among recent publications in the West two works must be mentioned.2: The one by Kurt Herberts on East Asiatic lacquer art3 is extremely useful thanks to its excellent coloured illustrations, descriptions and the supplemented biographic list of Japanese lacquerers compiled by N. Tsuda at the beginning of the century.4 The work by Beatrix von Ragué on the Japanese art of lacquer is a most important comprehensive handbook on the history of Japanese lacquer which can be consulted very usefully with regard to the development of styles in lacquer work.5 This is based on the comparison of dated lacquer works. However, the author mentions here but two dated inrō which are included in the list of dated lacquer works from the Edo period. One of them, an inrō made by Shiomi Masanari, was dated corresponding to the year 1710. It belonged to the former State Museum in Berlin but unfortunately has been lost since 1945. Its decoration consisted of a dragon-fly and of a locust in coloured togidashi on black ground. This inrō was well known in Japan too. The other inrō, in the Museum of East-Asiatic Art of Cologne, is the work of Gamō Morimasa known for his guri lacquers and is dated corresponding to 1839.

We can mention two other important dated inrō here: one, signed by Kizō and dated to 1860 belonged to the Tomkinson collection.6 The other one was published in the catalogue of the J. Orange collection. It has the form of an ink-cake, is signed by Ritsuō and bears a date corresponding to 1720.7 In any case, the collection and publication of dated inrō would be much needed for further studies.

Among works published recently on lacquer work in Japan the books by Tomio Yoshino8 and by U. A. Casal9 must be mentioned.

There have been only a few studies treating inrō itself. A study written by M. Tomkinson near the end of the 19th century was devoted to inrō10 and E. Gilbertson outlined the development of inrō, the leading masters and schools in the catalogue of the Tomkinson collection.11

Since then three important works have been published on inrō which can be consulted with advantage: The catalogue of the large inrō collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains a short historical summary and a list of known inrō-makers.12 This, together with the descriptive part on the inrō collection, formed the second volume of the catalogue of Japanese lacquer works in the museum. In a comprehensive study published in the Transactions of the Japan Society, U. A. Casal summarized the history of inrō, classified its various forms and enumarated Ukiyo-e style screens, kakemono and woodblock prints with representations of inrō.13 A recent work by B. v. Ragué, a monograph on the inrō made by the members of the Toyo school and on their signatures can be cited as an ideal in the study of inrō masters and schools14. A number of similar monographs would be of much help. Besides the mentioned studies the relevant parts of catalogues can be consulted on inrō.

As to the origin of inrō we can refer to the above studies by Tomkinson and Casal. Apart from this, some data and remarks mentioned by Schuyler Cammann in his book on Chinese toggles are of much interest. According to this the Chicago Museum of Natural History has a small Chinese box from the Sung period, in form similar to later inrō, which was meant to be worn on the girdle. The same museum has some wooden boxes of similar function from Eastern Tibet.15 Although the origin of inrō seems to be connected with China, the merit of the artistic development of this small article for personal use is entirely due to Japanese craftsmen. With regard to Chinese connections three enamelled tinder boxes shown at the exhibition of Chinese art in the United States from the collection of the Palace Museum on Taiwan are of special interest.16 Their forms correspond to Japanese inrō of two or three cases and at their sides we see small metal cord tubes like on early Japanese examples. They bear Ch’ien Lung marks.

The study of inrō suggests three ways of approach, however, the description and publication of private and museum collections must be regarded as a first and preliminary step to them:
a. Up to now perhaps the various techniques of lacquer work have been studied with most results. As to the construction of some inrō types, the recent article by H. P. Stevens in the journal “Oriental Art” must be mentioned.17

b. Research of leading inrō-makers and schools. According to a number of specialists this issue is hard to study, as in most cases the signatures on the inrō represent the only data on their makers; on the other hand, according to Japanese conventions the younger members of the family, as well as disciples assumed the name of the master, not to mention later copies and forgeries. The signatures of some lacquerers recur therefore through generations. The dangers and difficulties of research along this line have been best summarized by U. A. Casal, a specialist who has lived in Japan for fifty years, in his mentioned book. Literary data on inrō-makers are scarce and can be studied with promising results by scholars in Japan only.

c. Research of style and artistic value of inrō offers much opportunity yet. Taking into consideration the results of technical and other research, this line might yield perhaps most to the history and appreciation of inrō. In this respect we are dependent on general works on Japanese lacquer work.

The inrō collection of the Hopp Museum consists of nearly two hundred pieces. Most of them belonged to the original collection of Francis Hopp who acquired them in Japan and on the European art market. A smaller part was transferred from the Museum of Industrial Arts at Budapest and some pieces belonged to the collection of dr. Ottó Fettick.

Francis Hopp was passionately fond of Japanese applied arts, especially of lacquer work. We are indebted to him for nearly the entire collection of Japanese lacquer work in the museum. However, Zoltán Felvinczi Takáts, the first director of the museum, also cared much for lacquer work and published some inrō.18

The exhibitions of “Eastern Asiatic Silk, Lacquer Work and Porcelain” (1965-67) and “Japanese Art of the Edo Period” (1967-68) gave an opportunity to study the inrō collection of the museum. For publication I have chosen chiefly pieces which might be of interest to further studies for the sake of technique and style. They will be published in two or three parts.

The inrō collection of the museum represents a good average quality with some outstanding and interesting examples. As a listing according to signatures might be misleading and the arrangement into periods would pose difficulties, I thought it best to arrange inrō according to the technique of the ground and in a tentative chronological sequence within that. This method was followed by E. F. Strange in the catalogue of the inrō collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum and by von Ragué in her monograph on the Tōyō school. This method of listing is to be regarded in a broader sense, together with the dating. In cases of signed specimens the caution recommended by the mentioned authors must be stressed and quality, style and composition are to be considered more important than signatures.

Inrō with black ground (not highly polished rō-iro)

1. Inrō of square form, three cases, silver cord tubes (Fig. 1. a-b). Inside fine-grained nashiji. On the black frame, bottom and top karakusa in gold hiramakie (daimyō-nuri). Reticulated cloth ground with the representation of two Chinese sages or sennin encrusted in tortoise-shell, backed with gold foil. An old man sitting before the railing with a double gourd in his hand. Another man, sitting beside a low table, is contemplating a vase with a dead bough. In the foreground rocks and flowers, behind railing in gold and silver makie. On the rocks gold okibirame. 6.4 X6 cm.
This is an early inrō of excellent quality, from the second half of the 17th century, and an outstanding example of early inrō in Chinese style. Encrustement in tortoise-shell is uncommon on later inrō. Some inrō in similar style can be mentioned here as analogies. The karakusa on the frame, the inside panel and in some cases inlay in tortoise-shell and the silver cord runners are characteristic of them.

Fig. 1. a- b

Fig. 2. a-b

The Behrens collection had five inrō in similar style19 and the Victoria and Albert Museum two.20 One of the latters is decorated with a landscape, rocks and wawes in tortoise-shell and awabi inlay; it is dated to the mid-17th century. The other one strongly recalls our piece. The representation of two Chinese sages decorates it in tortoise-shell inlay, with the heads in ivory. This inrō is signed by Inagawa and was dated to the beginning of the 18th century by Strange. The depiction of the railing is similar to that on our inrō, but the rendering of the clothes seems less fine. There are no metal cord tubes. Presumably the maker of this specimen followed already the style represented by our inrō. The study of early, Chinese style inrō would be useful with regard to the early history of inrō. It is interesting that this Chinese style was revived and similar representations were copied in the 19th century on carved black inrō.

2.Square and flat inrō, the cord runners covered with silver plates. (Fig. 2. a – b). Three cases. Inside fine-grained nashiji. Gold hiramakie, koban and yakigane. The black ground is partly covered with thin gold powder. Rocky waterside with aquatic plants, various whelks and shells in relief, covered with gold and silver foil. Okibirame on the rocks. 6.7 X 6.1 cm. End of the 17th century or early 18th century. An early inrō of excellent quality. The representation of shells and seaweed was fashionable in the Momoyama period and especially in the early Edo period.21 The scattered and harmonic ornamentation shows a striking contrast to the splendour of later inrō. Instead of the vivid colours the solemn harmony of black, gold and silver surfaces is effective here.

Fig. 3. a- b

3. Inrō in the form of a barrel. Three cases. (Fig. 3. a – b). Inside nashiji. External channels. The black ground is thinly covered with gold powder. Gold taka- and hiramakie, kirigane and silver takazogan. A silver dragon in high relief amongst clouds, waves and rocks, in the style of the Kano school. The rocks and clouds are rich in okibirame. 6.8 x 6 cm. Early 18th century. An inrō of excellent quality, also an example of early Chinese style inrō. The dragon in clouds was a favourite motif on inrō of the 18th century, also on pieces made by Kajikawa masters. An earlier, 17th? century version of this motif appears on an inrō of the Museum of East Asiatic Arts at Cologne. This has either metal cord runners, or the runners imitate metal tubes.22 An inrō with the similar representation of a dragon in clouds is signed by Kizo and was dated tentatively to the 17th century in the catalogue of the Tomkinson collection. Another inrō in the same collection, with a dragon in relief on a canvas ground, with silver cord runners was probably rightly dated to the 17th century.23 In any case, these inrō with the representations of dragons in relief are of much importance to the study of early inrō-types.

4. Inrō of four cases. (Fig. 4). Inside nashiji. Gold hira- and takamakie. Decorated with a dragon amongst clouds in silver takamakie. On the surfaces of rocks and clouds okibirame. 6.5 X 5.7 cm. End of 18th century or early 19th century. This piece is published here as a later example of the above motif, but of much inferior quality.

5. Inrō of four cases. (Fig. 5). The black ground turns into nashiji below. External channels. Inside fine-grained nashiji. Waterside with bamboo and cranes. On the sides of the birds okibirame, on their wings and on some bamboo leaves aogai inlay and gold foil. On the cover and bottom also nashiji. 8 X 5.7 cm. First half of the 19th century.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

6. Inrō of 5 cases. (Fig. 6). The black ground is covered partly with gold powder. External channels. Inside large-grained orange nashiji. Waterside with rocks, aquatic plants and egrets. Gold hira- and takamakie with okibirame on the shore and on the rocks. 9.2 X 5 cm. Early 19th century. Kajikawa signature and red kakihan on the bottom.

7. Inrō of four cases. (Fig. 7). Interior channels. Inside dark nashiji. Gold hira- and takamakie, okibirame, gold yakigane and koban, kurofun, shu-urushi. Hō-ō (phoenix) bird, kiri and flowers on karahana ground. 9.2 X 5.3 cm. Mid-19th century. A decorative inrō of careful make.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 7.

Fig. 8.

8. A one-case, pouch-shaped inrō. (Fig. 8). Black lacquer ground. The whole surface is covered with salient karakusa design (this is not discernible on the photograph). Internal channels. Inside nashiji. The trunk and branches of a plum tree in gold hira- and takamakie, combined with okibirame, in the style of the Kōrin school. On the lid three flying cranes in gold hira- and takamakie. A large silver knob in the form of a chrysanthemum on each side. On the sides of the removable case painted cottage, waterside with a bird. 5.8 x 7 cm. First half of the 19th century. A late example of one of the oldest inrō types.

9. Inrō of large size, of five cases. (Fig. 9. a-b). Above and below the black ground turns into gold ground. Inside nashiji. Autumn landscape with river side, rocks, hagi and other plants, among them pasturing horses. Gold yakigane, hira- and takamakie, okibirame, silver takamakie and shu-urushi. 9 X 6.5 cm. Mid-19th century. A late inrō of poetic effect, the scene probably taken from a painting.

Fig. 9.

Gold (kinji) ground

10. Inrō of four cases. External channels. (Fig. 10). Inside orange nashiji. The general Kanu (Kuan Yü) with halberd, accompanied by his attendant. Gold ground with gold and silver hira- and takamakie, kuro- and shu-urushi, gold foil, some okibirame. On the other side rugged rock and trees in blossom. 9.2 X 4.8 cm. End of the 18th century or early 19th century. Signature: Mitsunari Kuntachi Nariaki? and kakihan. An inrō of excellent quality. The rendering of the two figures is extremely minute and expressive.

11. Inrō of four cases. (Fig. 11). Lengthy form. Inside orange nashiji. A cock with a chick and a brood hen among flowers, grass and bamboo. Kinji ground with gold nashiji, hira- and takamakie. Aogai inlay, shu- and kurourushi. 9 X 4.9 cm. Signature: Seishunsai and red kakihan. Early 19th century. A carefully finished inrō with an everyday motif, showing no new development neither in theme nor in technique.

Fig. 10.

Fig. 11.

Fig. 12. a- b

12. Square, large-size inro of three cases. (Fig. 12. a- b). External channels Inside reddish brown, large-grained nashiji. The decoration goes all around. Heavy see, high rocks with ten and five ebi. Exceptionally rich gold hira- and takamakie, nashiji, kirigane, okibirame, yakigane, koban kinpun. The ebi are carved in red lacquer, their eyes are black. The waves are rendered with gold takamakie and some silver makie combined with blackish shading. On the lid and bottom gold nashiji. 9.3 X 9.3 cm. Signature: Koma Kansai (Koma Kansai II, 1766 -1835). Early 19th century. Previously published by Z. Felvinczi Takats.24 A representative inro made by one of the best inro-makers of the 19th century. The artistic value of this inro consists, besides the composition, in the gorgeous contrast of the sparkling gold particles with the lustreless carved red lacquer bodies of the ebi.

13. Inro of four cases, with rounded ends. (Fig. 13. a-b). Internal channels. Inside nashiji. The kinji ground turns into thinly scattered nashiji below. Yo-jo piercing with his sword the gown of king Cho Bu-jutsu. On the other side a mounted horseman. Gold hira- and takamakie, black and red lacquer. 8.5X 5.5 cm. Signature: Shōkwasai. The rounded shape, kinji ground and figural representations of historical persons are characteristic of this famous inrō-maker of the first half of the 19th century.

Fig. 13. a-b

Fig. 14 a-b

14. Flat inrō of four cases. (Fig. 14. a-b). Interior channels, Inside nashiji. A pleasure boat with travellors, towed from the bank. The kinji ground turns thinner in the centre. Gold hira- and takamakie. Red, black, brown and green lacquer. Okibirame and some aogai inlay. 8×5.5 cm. Signature: Koma Kyūhaku.

There are four Koma masters with the Kyūhaku name in the list of lacquerers given by Herberts. The maker of our inrō was possibly Kyuhaku III (1762 – 94) or better Kyūhaku IV (-1816). The representation of pleasure boats was rather frequent. It may be of interest to note that the Orange collection had an inrō with the similar representation of a boat, also with a Koma Kyūhaku signature. However, that specimen must have been made by an earlier Koma Kyūhaku.25

16. Inrō of four cases. (Fig. 16). Interior channels. Inside dark nashiji. A tiger with bamboo in gold hira- and takamakie on a thick kinji ground. Okibirame on the rocks. Yakigane, koban and black lacquer. On the other side two cubs. 8.1 x 5.6 cm. Signature: Morimitsu. Mid-19th century.

Fig. 16.

Fig. 15. a-b

15. Flat inrō of four cases. (Fig. 15. a-b). Interior channels. Inside dark nashiji. Gold hira- and takamakie, raden inlay on kinji ground. A hoe with birds and flowers, chrysanthemums. Signature: Tsuchida Sõetsu. 8.3 X 6 cm. Mid-19th century. An inrō made by a late member of the Tsuchida family. well known from the 17th century, or a later imitation. An inrō in the Tomkinson collection, made by the first Tsuchida Sōetsu (1660-1742)?, at the age of 81, might have served as a model to the representation on our piece.26

17. Large-size, oval inrō of four cases (Fig. 17.). Interior channels. Inside fine nashiji. Four, respectively three Nō masks on kinji ground. Four of them are rendered in gold takamakie, two in silver takamakie, one in black and red Negoro nuri. On the borders of the inrō large-grained gyōbu-nashiji. 10.5 X 7.3 cm. A representative inrō of the mid-19th century.

Fig. 17.

Fig. 18. a-b

18. Inrō of small size, two cases (Fig. 18. a-b). Interior channels. Inside nashiji. A tortoise in gold and silver hira- and takamakie, a basket of wickerwork, a small box covered with gold foil and a fishing rod. An allusion to the tale of Urashima Tarō. Above and below spots in black togidashi. 4.9 X 4.5 cm. Signature: Kajikawa Tomohide and red kakihan. First half of the 19th century. An interesting display of various lacquer techniques by a late Kajikawa master.

Gyōbu-nashiji gound

20. Inrō of four cases (Fig. 20). External channels. Inside nashiji. The bust of Emma-ō, the Lord of Hell, on gyōbu-nashiji ground in gold and silver hira- and takamakie. The face is in tsui-shu with black painting, the eyes are inlaid in glass. On his robe and cap okibirame and aogai inlay. The robe itself is rendered in chestnut brown lacquer, imitating rust, with cloud motifs on it. The robe spreads to the other side of the inrō. 8.6 X 5.9 cm. End of the 18th century or early 19th century. A representative individual inrō of excellent quality with a wide but harmonizing range of various techniques.

Fig. 20.

Fig. 19.

19. Inrō of four cases (Fig. 19). External channels. Inside nashiji. Four, respectively three playing karashishi in gold and bronze coloured takamakie on the gyōbu-nashiji ground. Black, brownish and red Negoro nuri decoration in some places. The eyes inlaid in glass. 6.7 X 6.4 cm. The legs and tails of the animals extend to the top and bottom of the inrō. According to Casal, this was in fashion for a short period only, perhaps at the end of the 18th century.27 Our inrō is of excellent make. Both its motif and techniques range it among the inrō made in the second half of the 18th century.

Nashiji ground

21. Inrō of four cases (Fig. 21. a-b). External channels. Inside orange nashiji with whirling waves painted in gold. Sparse gold nashiji in the black background. Masked Genjoraku dancer with the serpent before him. Behind a pine tree. On the other side a tent with karakusa and mon, and a large ceremonial drum with mitsu-tomoe. Gold hira- and takamakie, okibirame, gold yakigane and red lacquer. On the top and bottom okibirame. 6.7 X 5.3 cm. Signature: Nagata Shusui and kakihan. First half of the 19th century. A late inrō of fine, poetic effect.

Fig. 21. a-b

Fig. 22. a-b

22. Inrō of five cases (Fig. 22. a – b). External channels. Inside dark nashiji. The sparse nashiji in the black background turns into kinji ground at the upper half of the inrō. Landscape with the torii and buildings of the shintō shrine of Miya-jima. In the background hills with the pagoda. Gold hira- and takamakie, silver hiramakie, yakigane, kinpun and okibirame. On the bottom and top nashiji. 9.9 X 4.8 cm. Signature: Kajikawa and a Kajikawa kakihan in the form of a vase, not identifiable owing to its frequent occurence. Mid-19th century.

Fig. 23. a-b

23. Inrō of four cases (Fig. 23. a-b). Interior channels. Inside dark nashiji. Iris in a flower pot and flowers under the roof of a cottage. Gold hira- and takamakie, yakigane and koban, kirigane, red lacquer. The surface of the vase imitates rust. 8.3 x 5 cm. Signature: Kajikawa and kakihan in the form of a vase. Mid or late 19th century.

24. Inrõ of four cases (Fig. 24). External channels. Inside fine-grained dark nashiji. Sparse nashiji in the black background. Waterside with rocks and bamboo. On the branches bending over the water an eagle on each side. Gold hira- and takamakie, yakigane. On the rocks and branches okibirame and aogai inlay. Lead inlay. One of the eagles is covered with gold foil. 10.2 X 5.4 cm. Signature: Shōjusai. First part of the 19th century. An inrō of good quality, with the decoration taken probably from a painting.

F ig . 24.

25. Flat inrō of four cases (Fig. 25.). Interior channels. Different sorts of nashiji grounds and decorations on each case in various techniques. Iris, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums and hagi, paper slips and the character of longevity, ju. Some black lacquer and gyōbu-nashiji. 8.5 X 5.5 cm. Signature: Sekigawa and red kakihan in the form of a vase. Mid-19th century. An inrō of unusual decoration, possibly a model for various techniques. The Ko-ji hō-ten mentions a Sekigawa lacquerer without date, who incrusted his inrō with small plaquettes and motifs of the Hirata family of enamellers.28

Fig. 25.

  1. Strange, E. F.: Catalogue of Japanese lacquer. Victoria and Albert Museum. London, 1924-25.
  2. Another important recent publication is unfortunately unavailable here: Speiser, W.: Lackkunst in Ostasien. Baden-Baden, 1965.
  3. Herberts, K.: Das Buch der ostasiatischen Lackkunst. Düsseldorf, 1959.
  4. This was published anonymously, entitled “Makieshi nurishiden”, in Tokyo in 1925.
  5. von Ragué, B.: Geschichte der japanischen Lackkunst. Berlin, 1967.
  6. Tomkinson, M.: Inro. Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society of London. Vol. III. P. IV. 1894-95. p. 23.
  7. Orange, J.: A small collection of Japanese lacquer. Yokohama, 1910. p. 48, PI. 40.
  8. Yoshino, Tomio: Japanese lacquer ware. Tokyo, 1959.
  9. Casal, U. A.: Japanese art lacquer. Tokyo, 1961.
  10. Tomkinson, M.: Op. cit.
  11. Tomkinson, M.: A Japanese collection. P. 1,2. London. 1898. P. 1. pp. I—IV and 31-48.
  12. Strange: Op. cit. P. II. Medicine cases (inro). 1925.
  13. Casal, U. A.: The inro. Transactions and Proceedings of The Japan Society, London. Vol. XXXVII. 1939-1941. pp. 1-53.
  14. von Ragué, B.: Materialen zu Iizuka oyo, seinem Werk und seiner Schule. Oriens Extremus, Jhg. 11. 1964. pp. 163-235.
  15. Schuyler Cammann: Substance and symbol in Chinese toggles. Philadelphia, 1962. p. 156, Note 13.
  16. Chinese Art Treasures. Catalogue. Washington, 1961 — 62. p. 271, No. 204.
  17. Stevens, H. P.: The construction of inro. Oriental Art, N. S. Vol. I. 1955. pp. 147-150.
  18. Felvinczi Takáts Z.: The Francis Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts. Far East, Budapest, Vol. I. N. 1-3.
  19. W. L. Behrens Collection. Catalogue by H. L. Joly. P. 2. London, 1913-14. No. 273, Pl. XIII; No. 173, Pl. XIX; No. 1229, Pl. L; No. 484, Pl. XXIX; and No. 274.
  20. Strange: Op. cit. P. II. Pl. I, No. 1000 and Pl. II. No. 1026.
  21. c, f. von Ragué: Geschichte der japanischen Lackkunst, p. 183,
  22. Feddersen, M.: Japanisches Kunstgewerbe. Braunschweig, 1960. p. 206, Abb. 185.
  23. Tomkinson, M.: A Japanese collection. No. 103 and plate facing p. 26; No. 893, p. 48.
  24. Felvinczi Takáts Z.: op. cit. p. 5 and frontispiece
  25. Orange: Op. cit. Pl. 41, No. 117
  26. Tomkinson, M.: A Japanese collection. P. I. No. 737.
  27. Casal, U. A.: The inro. p. 33.
  28. Weber, V. F.: Ko-ji hö-ten. Paris. 1923. P. II. p. 266.