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20 Jul 2018

Hornel’s photographic eye and the influence of Japanese photography: part 1

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen and Helen Whiting
Tea ceremony; shashin print by unknown photographer, c1890
Japanese photography provided E A Hornel (1864–1933) with a new way of looking at the world and approaching his painting, and aided his rise to fame.

Writing on Hornel has largely focused on how his rise to fame and increased profitability stemmed from his use of Japonisme – a ‘western’ take on Japanese art and culture. Building on this previous research, we will argue that it was Japanese photography itself – encountered on a trip to Japan in 1893 – rather than Japonisme, that provided Hornel with his new approach.

Artistic influences: Japonisme and the camera

Japanese art was greatly admired by European artists in the mid/late 1800s and its influence can be seen in the works of painters like James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Edouard Manet (1832–83) and Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). By 1872, the European art market was claiming the birth of a new style, ‘Japonisme’, adopted enthusiastically by avant-garde artists who were seeking a new language for painting. Hornel (fig. 1) emerged from art school into this atmosphere and became actively involved in the avant-garde art scene in Glasgow. Japonisme paintings were being brought to the city as well as exhibitions of costume and ‘curios’, all designed to pique the public’s imagination.

Portrait of E A Hornel by Bessie MacNicol, 1896
Fig. 1: Portrait of E A Hornel by Bessie MacNicol, 1896 |© National Trust for Scotland, Broughton House & Garden

Hornel was therefore not alone in his desire to explore and use the ‘exotic’ qualities of this newly ‘discovered’ culture. He and his friend and fellow artist George Henry (1858–1943) set off for Japan in 1893, stating his ‘desire to see and study the environment … to become personally in touch with the people, to live their life, and discover the source of their inspiration.’ Whether Hornel did indeed experience Japan in this way is questionable, but what he did bring home was a greater understanding of how to use the camera.

Hornel had taken photographs before he went to Japan. We have a glass plate negative that captures a young girl with hob-nailed boots, sitting on the grass grinning widely (fig. 2); she is the same figure seen in Hornel’s 1891 painting Summer. Hornel was also aware that fellow painters in Scotland, like John Lavery, E A Taylor and James Paterson, were using photographs to aid their work. We can therefore appreciate that Hornel was a painter happy to utilise the camera. Further than this, it is particularly interesting to study what he learned from his engagement with the visual aesthetic of Japanese photographers, and how this altered his painting style.

Photograph of a Kirkcudbright girl, attributed to E A Hornel, c1890
Fig. 2: Photograph of a Kirkcudbright girl, attributed to E A Hornel, c1890 |© National Trust for Scotland, Broughton House & Garden

A changing Japan

Japan had been a closed book to most Europeans, but this was changing by the time of Hornel’s visit. In 1868, a political revolution had occurred, which brought about the demise of the military government and the return of imperial rule. The Emperor took the name Meiji, meaning ‘enlightened rule’, and a shift began from a feudal society towards a more westernised government. Changes included hiring foreign specialists in fields such as engineering and telecommunications, to lead infrastructure projects and train a new generation of Japanese students in modern technology, as well as sending Japanese citizens to western Europe and America to learn the latest innovations.

Key figures in our story also embarked on this programme of exchange. William Burton (1856–99) was hired as a civil engineer for the Imperial University in Tokyo in the late 1880s. He was also a keen photographer and met Ogawa Kazumasa (1860–1929), a professional photographer and pioneering printer who had undertaken a two-year apprenticeship in Boston learning skills like dry plate developing and collotype printing. Burton and Kazumasa were founding members of the Japan Photographic Society (JPS). In 1891 an exhibition of Kazumasa’s photographs were part of the launch of the opening of Japan’s first skyscraper, the Ryounkaku, which had been designed by Burton. The exhibition was a publicity stunt that helped raise Kazumasa’s profile as a photographer. Entitled 100 Beauties, the exhibition comprised a collection of studied portraits of Tokyo’s geisha girls; visitors were asked to climb the tower and vote for the most beautiful woman.

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–19, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic archive of mid-20th-century Hebridean life, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.