A look back of early trades of Japanese ceramics

Railroad builder shares his passion of Japanese art

Art can be found in every shape and pattern. Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics introduces a railroad builder’s passion for Japanese art. The exhibition takes place in a small obscure room in the MMFA, exposing nearly 150 pieces of ceramics. Alongside the Japanese ceramics, there are various archival documents and watercolours by Van Horne.

Visitors can observe and appreciate pots, bowls, cups and figurines that are displayed across the room. Every ceramic in the room is distinct due to its shape, colour, and motifs illustrated on it. Some are long and cylindrical, whereas others are small and round; this collection illustrates the diversity in Japanese art.

One of the most remarkable pieces is a sake bottle with moulded porcelain figurines of three boys, depicted as if they were running around the bottle. There is also an incense burner in the shape of a cat that can easily catch one’s attention. Another astonishing work is the sake ewer – a jug with a wide mouth. The piece has a rat-shaped spout and a cat-shaped lid knob.

According to the exhibition page on the MMFA’s website, the American-born Van Horne was known as a railroad builder, in 1881, when he participated in the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway to British Columbia. This plan was developed by the Macdonald government and brought Van Horne recognition since the project was under his leadership.

The opening of Japan in 1854 allowed the West to collect Japanese ceramics. Ceramics were a great source of trade in the Western market. Japanese scholar Ninagawa Noritane, along with Boston zoologist Edward S. Morse, believed that exporting these Japanese ceramics would be more appealing to people, since they were more “authentic”, than exporting ware. Noritane played a big part in creating an international market for Japanese ceramics.

Then, Japanese ceramics caught the attention of many people. Van Horne was able to purchase ceramic pieces from art dealers, such as Shugio Hiromichi who traveled between Tokyo and New York. Most of these collectors lived in Montreal’s Square Mile, where they decorated their homes with various ceramics.

Visitors have access to small details throughout the exhibition, explaining how all this came to be. Van Horne was able to purchase at least 1200 ceramics through a network of merchants from Boston, Japan and New York. all of his Japanese ceramics were preserved in his house. He would study them, observing each detail. Then, he would draw them and describe each one in his many notebooks. His writings and drawings can be observed by visitors.

The exhibition offers visitors a taste of Japanese art, but also encourages them to understand the socio-economic structures that permitted collectors such as Van Horne to have access to it, and understand the impact of the expansion of railroads during the 19th century.

 Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics will be available at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday until March 1.


Photo by Brittanny Romeo-Clarke.

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