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Japanese Art in Miniature

This small exhibition brought together 250 superb examples of netsuke - a form of miniature sculpture originating in 17th-century Japan. These often elaborately carved items were designed to function as ‘toggles’ for the silk cords upon which Japanese men strung their pipes, purses or writing implements. These webpage take you through the collection of the Fitzwilliam.

Traditional Japanese clothing does not include pockets. Instead, items are suspended from a belt by means of a cord. A toggle (netsuke) at the end of the cord prevents it from slipping through. The types of sagemono (suspended objects) used in this way include medicine containers, pipe holders and tobacco pouches. In the 18th century and early 19th century, netsuke and sagemono were important components of Japanese costume, and were symbols of social status. A well-dressed gentleman in Japan seldom appeared on the street without a carefully considered ensemble of netsuke and sagemono suspended from the sash of his garment.

The use of netsuke probably began in the late 16th to the early 17th century, together with inro (cases). At first, a simple piece of wood or shell was used to secure the sagemono, but soon netsuke evolved into wonderful miniature sculptures that drew their motifs from daily life, religious and mythological figures, animals and vegetables, images from fairy tales and the imagination, etc.

The Fitzwilliam Museum houses more than 500 Japanese netsuke from the 17th to 20th centuries, including some rare and early examples. They were bequeathed by a number of donors, including Frank McClean in 1904, C.B. Marlay in 1912, Oscar Raphael in 1946, Henry Scipio Reitlinger in 1950 (received in 1991) and also given by Mrs Margaret G. Fink in 1993. The most recent and generous addition to the collection are those given by Dr Roy Hull in 2008.

Dr Hull was one of a group of fourteen research students, later known as ‘The Toddlers’ (named after their Professor A.R. Todd) who moved from the University of Manchester to Cambridge in 1944. Dr Hull became a member of Christ’s College. After attaining his PhD he returned to ICI Pharmaceuticals, now Astra Zeneca. He started to collect netsuke in the early 90s. His gift has considerably extended the quality and range of the Fitzwilliam’s collection of netsuke.

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