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1 Jul 2021

The whimsy of netsuke

Written by Olive Wang, Curatorial Intern
A miniature netsuke sculpture, showing a central conch shell with several figures depicted standing beside it or climbing on it.
Japanese netsuke in the form of a conch shell incorporating people and demons, from the collection at Hill of Tarvit
Brodick Castle and Hill of Tarvit both have collections of Japanese netsuke, miniature sculptures that are rich in symbolism and stories.

Netsuke, a type of miniature sculpture carved from ivory, wood and antler, was introduced in the Edo period (1603–1868) of Japan. First designed to function as the toggle of a man’s kimono, the netsuke was usually pierced by a cord through two holes in order to suspend small items, such as purses or tobacco pouches. The import of tobacco from Europe to Japan increased the demand for tobacco pouches and pipes, which led to an increased production of netsuke.

When Japan started to learn from western industrial ideas and entered its modern Meiji period (1868–1912), Japanese people tended to choose western-style clothes as their daily wear rather than old fashions, including kimonos with netsuke. Ironically, at that point western collectors then began to discover traditional Japanese art and were fascinated by netsuke’s delicacy and playfulness. Many masterpieces of netsuke were brought to Europe, a trend that is demonstrated in the collections at Hill of Tarvit and Brodick Castle.

A very small netsuke sculpture is displayed against a plain grey background. It depicts a skeleton kneeling on a rock, resting its hand on its face. The rock has a small hole at the side, for a cord to thread through.
Netsuke in the form of a skeleton, showing the holes through which cord would be threaded and hung, from Brodick Castle

A netsuke is normally carved into the shape of an animal, person or mythical creature, often a Japanese symbol with specific meanings, such as happiness, longevity or prosperity.

The ivory dragon netsuke at Hill of Tarvit is one of the traditional symbols associated with water. The mythical figure has a serpent-like body with scales, and a flat head with horns and whiskers. Surrounded by clouds, the dragon is believed to have the power of creating rain and assisting in the gathering of harvests. During great droughts, farmers in ancient Japan would carry man-made dragons to their fields and pray for rain. Consequently, the dragon has become a symbol of harvest and fortune, and has been a popular image not only in the form of netsuke but throughout Japanese art.

A netsuke sculpture is carved upon an ivory round disc. The design features a swirling Japanese dragon.
Dragon netsuke from Hill of Tarvit

Brodick Castle also holds a collection of ivory netsuke, which are thought to have belonged to William Beckford, father of Susan Euphemia who married the 10th Duke of Hamilton. One of the pieces is carved as a frog (or toad) atop a skull, both of which have multiple meanings in Japanese culture. The symbol of the skull is similar to many western cultures, in that it reminds us of the brevity of our lives. But in addition to the transience of life, skeletons and skulls also symbolise the afterlife in Japanese Buddhism.

A very small netsuke sculpture is displayed against a plain grey background. It is in the form of a human skull, with a tiny frog sitting on top of the head.
Skull and frog netsuke from Brodick Castle

Frogs and toads are worshipped as a symbol of luck, especially for travellers, since the Japanese word for ‘frog’ and ‘toad’ is a homophone for ‘return home’. For businessmen in many Asian regions, frogs and toads are also venerated for bringing wealth and prosperity. The great toad spirit is even described as a mythical power to protect the oppressed and the poor in Japanese folktales. Since there were innumerable legends and ghost stories about frogs, toads and skulls in the Edo and Meiji eras of Japan, it is not a surprise that these symbols became fashionable in the creation and collection of netsuke.

Demon symbols are also a fascinating topic in the art of netsuke. Two pieces from the Hill of Tarvit collection are carved into the shape of foxes –one is alone and the other is accompanying a human. Rather than a pure animal, the fox is depicted as a supernatural and demonic creature, who is able to transform at the age of 100 into a pretty Japanese girl. He can see, hear and know everything that goes on within hundreds of miles. Whenever the fox appears by himself in Japanese artwork, it looks cunning and super powerful. Instead of helping people, the fox loves to poison humans and steal their possessions away. This is why the fox sometimes appears alongside a man – it is turning into a beautiful woman to trap wealthy or powerful men!

A miniature netsuke sculpture is displayed against a plain grey background. The sculpture depicts two figures standing back to back, although the figure on the left turns its head to peek at the figure on the right. The left figure resembles a fox wearing a hooded cloak; the right figure is an old man, with a sack over his shoulder.
Demon netsuke from Hill of Tarvit

Interestingly on the netsuke piece at Hill of Tarvit, the fox is staring at a man carved into the form of Daikoku, the Japanese god of wealth and prosperity. Daikoku is always portrayed as an old man with a stubby body, smiling face and short beard. He typically wears a beret on his head and carries a sack (sometimes accompanied by a rat) over his shoulder. This scenario, where the god of wealth meets a demon creature in a miniature sculpture, is a great example of the whimsy of the art of netsuke.

Although a netsuke is only up to 6cm high and 3cm thick, it can represent a complete Japanese legend, with humans, animals, mythical creatures and plants, in just one skilfully carved image. Especially popular with 19th-century collectors, these sculptures charm people from all around the world.

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