The use of shell as an enhancing and decorative inlay has been practised in Japan for literally hundreds of years, particularly by lacquer artists in the production of writing boxes, inro and similar items. However it was during the 19th century that the Shibayama family (from whom this style of work derives its name) developed the technique into a highly detailed and truly stunning art form that became hugely popular during the Meiji period.
The Meiji Emperor was a great champion of all the Japanese Arts and appreciated that the foreign currency flowing into the country from the sale of these works both within Japan and worldwide would greatly assist in his modernisation programme. As a consequence considerable Government effort was put into encouraging and supporting artistic development, exhibition and sale both within Japan and abroad. The western world was to become fascinated by these hitherto unseen treasures following exposure at the numerous world trade fairs that commenced with the Paris Exposition in 1867
Also, many high ranking foreign advisors and their supporting workforces together with a high number of curious and wealthy early tourists were enjoying the excitement of life in Japan during the second half of the 19th century. Shibayama art with its intricate designs, superb artistry and mind boggling technical skills appealed greatly to this new customer base and demand grew strongly.
Early pieces by the original Shibayama family largely comprised luxury versions of existing everyday Japanese items such as inro, netsuke, small flower vases and boxes which were usually fashioned from ivory but also utilised gold lacquer. The technique involved carving the desired decoration, often floral, into the body of the object. The various carefully selected materials for the inlays were then shaped, carved and polished so as to fit precisely into the vacant design creating a beautiful, slightly raised jigsaw like effect. To fully appreciate this amazing skill it is necessary to actually look at a few pieces as describing the process is somewhat difficult! The exact fit of the inlay and truly realistic delicacy of the carving defies belief.
The materials used for the inlay include vivid seashells such as abalone (electric blue and pink), mother of pearl (white, bronze, purple, grey and yellow), coral (red and pink), turtle shell, coconut shell, various woods, various horn, stained ivory, silver, gold – in fact anything that could be crisply carved or worked.
Rapid growth in demand from about 1870 onwards meant that numerous other studios quickly began the production of a far wider and more diverse range of works of art bringing even greater innovation and creativity. Many manufacturers began combining the talents of inlay artists with those of the metalworkers, enamellers and lacquerers.
We find dramatic silver vases and koro with elaborate translucent enamel decoration, detailed dragon or Ho-o bird handles and decorative finials with inset panels of ivory and gold lacquer lavishly inlaid. The quality of workmanship in many of these fine items is staggering. The same techniques are used to produce large silver chargers and dishes also with intricate filigree silver and enamel work.
Designs included sumptuous floral displays, tranquil garden or aquatic scenes, rural everyday life, historical and legendary people and events, famous places, in fact anything that was shown to appeal to the insatiable foreign market now established both in Japan and worldwide.
Quality and intricacy continued to reach new heights as technical skills evolved. Newly conceived works of art were added to the existing range of traditional products. These included large tusk vases that often came in pairs, superbly worked with all round designs standing on elaborate lacquer or wooden stands. The same techniques and skills were used on even larger scale furnishings including substantial wood and lacquer wall panels and elaborate display cabinets. At the smaller end of production came delicate paper knives, page turners, card cases, even full sets of ladies dressing table accessories, all richly embellished with dazzling inlays and gold lacquer designs.
As with all works of art, Shibayama style work comes in a wide range of objects, sizes and qualities.
They vary from the very finest pieces destined for the wealthy connoisseur (and these are truly breathtaking) through to superb middle range pieces and on to a lower quality product destined for more of a mass export market.
The best way to judge quality is to handle as much material as possible, visit museums, sales and exhibitions and study any reference book available.
It is a certainty that any signed piece will be far more desirable than the same piece unsigned especially if the mark of a famous maker or commissioning retailer is present. Thankfully the majority of Shibayama is reliably signed. This is a refreshing and reassuring feature of collecting these beautiful works of art.
Condition and damage
As with any work of art, condition always has a bearing on its desirability and value.
By far the most commonly encountered defect is where inlay has fallen out and been lost. This can be caused by drying out of the original glue or perhaps some shrinkage in the actual base material of the item. There are very few craftsmen alive today who have the skills and materials necessary to restore Shibayama to its original perfect condition using exactly the same techniques as the makers. Modest losses of simple inlays can be perfectly replaced, but it is a massively time consuming and needless to say expensive undertaking. When done correctly it can however have a very positive effect on both the appearance and value of a wonderful work. Collectors need to watch for restoration undertaken (often many years ago) by non-skilled but well-meaning enthusiasts. This type of repair frequently uses roughly broken and shaped pieces of shell badly stuck over the design. These can be easily missed by an untrained eye.
When silver is used on a work in conjunction with gold lacquer it is sadly all too common to find that the lacquer work has been abraded or even worn away by careless and over zealous polishing of the silver. This type of damage cannot be successfully restored and such pieces are best avoided.
Many works, for example Koro and jars with covers came in two or three separate parts and the absence of say the lid will have a dramatic effect on values. Always make sure that all elements are present.
Oxidisation of the silver or other metals used is often encountered. This is where the metal has reacted over time with the atmosphere around it. This can cause the surface to become bloomed or dull or simply very dirty. Sometimes silver feet, handles or finials can become slightly deformed. Thankfully in skilled hands these minor issues can be reversed and a work can be returned to its totally original condition. This can have a very positive effect on its value and its appearance.
One other type of damage all too often encountered is simple impact damage where an item has been dropped resulting in severe cracking in the ivory or wood base structure – this is usually impossible to repair.
There is a well-known saying “something is worth what someone will pay” – and in truth nowadays that applies perfectly to these wonderful works.
Value is determined by several factors that are encountered in an almost infinite number of variations. Overall quality of the object, quality and complexity of inlay, use of “mixed media” such as enamel, silver or other metalwork, rarity of an item or its subject matter, condition – especially of inlay and gold lacquer, the size of an item – they all come into play. The presence of a major name either as a retailer such as the Ozeki Company, (who enjoyed a reputation as suppliers of the very finest Shibayama) or maker such as that of the Shibayama family will also have a dramatic effect on value.
Spectacular Shibayama masterpieces represent the pinnacle of this art form and are sought by wealthy collectors worldwide. They therefore command very high prices.
However In my opinion there are many high quality works that sit just below the finest pieces and represent staggering value for money especially when you think about the range of different artists and talents involved coupled with the sheer time it took to make even a modest item. Some larger works are documented as being years in the making.
Thankfully it is still possible to form a collection of superb work for an outlay that looks very modest when compared to the equivalent Chinese or European producers.
As with all forms of Japanese Art it is my contention however that a few better things are always preferable to a high volume of lesser items!
Some Shibayama can involve the use of ivory. This is viewed as a contentious issue in some countries nowadays. In my view it is important to remember that these fabulous works of art (not just Japanese but Chinese, European, Indian etc) were produced over a hundred years or more ago in an age when little regard was paid to conservation and conscience. Standards and beliefs were vastly different to our modern enlightened attitudes. I believe we should enjoy these superb works of art for what they are – treasures from a long lost time and a long lost place – Meiji era Japan.