Of Ivory Mice and Men

Tucked away in Rose Standish Nichols’ parlor is a tiny, impish presence that often goes unobserved. Here, an ivory netsuke depicting a seated male figure has made his home on the top shelf of Rose’s Hepplewhite secretary. This nineteenth century Japanese figurine is clad in a robe or kimono, holding an unidentifiable object over his shoulder. Flowers and leaves adorn his head and backside. His expressive face and the sinuous folds of his robe evidence the rich tradition of skilled craftsmanship and culture at play in the art of netsuke.

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Netsuke, 19th Century, Ivory, Nichols House Museum.

Netsuke became prolific in the late seventeenth century during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867) when kimonos were universal dress for both men and women. Devoid of pockets, men carried items of daily use (such as writing instruments) in tobacco-pouches and pipecases called inro which hung from their kimono sashes, or obi, by a double silk cord.[1] At the opposite end of the cord, the netsuke firmly anchored the hanging inro in the kimono sash, much like a toggle or button. Evidencing this practice, two holes pierce the backside of the museum’s netsuke where the cord would have been threaded through. One might imagine a nineteenth century Japanese dandy accessorizing with this figurine.

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Netsuke, 19th Century, Ivory, Nichols House Museum.
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Nomura Chōkei, Case (Inrō) with Design of Grasshopper on Stalk of Flowering Lily, 18th-19th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Netsuke are highly decorative, miniature works of art carved from wood, ivory, stag-antler, lacquer and other materials that suggested the wearer’s social status and level of wealth.[2] Netsuke take on a variety of forms, allowing wearers to accessorize according to season, occasion or mood. Themes of Japanese life and art are captured in the netsuke, such as nature, mythical beings, animals, the zodiac, theatrical masks and even the mundane. The Nichols House Museum’s netsuke exemplifies the personality they often possess; sometimes they are humorous or even erotic. Carvings of human figures fall into a category of netsuke called Katabori.[3]

Netsuke embodied craft, cultural tradition and self-expression. While we unfortunately don’t have any information on how Rose Standish Nichols came to acquire this object, netsuke collecting was prolific in the early twentieth century and was again popularized during the US Occupation of Japan during WWII. At the turn-of-the-century, Boston was home to two well-respected dealers of Asian art, Bunkio Matsuki and Yamanaka Sadajirō. Archived receipts tell us that Rose was a customer of Yamanaka’s shop on Boylston Street, where she purchased the four Chinese export panels that adorn the walls of her library. The Detroit collector Charles Freer declared Yamanaka one of the most experienced critics of Japanese art in this country.[4]

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Receipt from 1941 purchase of Chinese export panels.

Women collectors like Rose Standish Nichols played an important role in locating Asian art in its proper art historical context. During Rose’s lifetime, women’s cultural aspirations were often relegated to the decorative arts—the domestic interior—while men dominated the arena of “fine art.” Because Eurocentric taxonomies marginalized Asian art as decorative art, women had increased access to it. Recognizing this, “[b]oth Yamanaka and Matsuki made a point of forging close relationships with female clients by offering them a broad spectrum of goods, from miniature gardens made of coral, ivory and precious gems, to large Buddhist icons from China.”[5] At a time when the city’s cultural prowess was being eclipsed by New York, collecting Asian art was a way for Boston make its own cultural reach tangible.[6] While there is no concrete evidence that suggests Rose purchased this Netsuke from Yamanaka’s shop, it is certainly pleasing for us to imagine this transaction taking place there.

By WWII, netsuke were being collected as souvenirs by US soldiers stationed in Japan. In 1951, the Japan Travel Bureau issued a guide on netsuke, which records “valuable help given by Rear Admiral Benton W. Dekker, former commander of the US Fleet Activities at Yokosuka, Japan and a most devoted connoisseur of Netsuke.”[7] Ostensibly, US soldiers were delighted by the pocketsize charm of netsuke; outsiders who could not fully appreciate the rich cultural history that they embody, nor the stories these tiny objects carry with them.

Edmund de Waal (b. 1964) is a world-famous contemporary ceramicist who inherited a collection of 264 netsuke. In his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal reconstructs the history behind his family’s netsuke collection, exposing the many secret lives of these objects. For example, in an effort to carve a netsuke of a deer, a nineteenth century carver named Tomokazu disappeared into the mountains for days to observe the behavior of these animals; it was not rare for two months to be spent making a single netsuke.[8]

Begun by a nineteenth century banking dynasty, de Waal’s netsuke collection was later hidden from the Nazis in Vienna. De Waal describes both the beauty and traumatic past of his netsuke, writing:

Netsuke are small and hard. They are hard to chip, hard to break: each one is made to be knocked around in the world…They hold themselves inward: a deer tucking its legs beneath its body; the barrel-maker crouching inside his half-finished barrel; the rats a tumble around the hazelnut. Or my favourite [sic], a monk asleep over his alms bowl; one continuous line of back. They can be painful: the end of an ivory bean-pod is sharp as a knife. I think of them [hidden] inside a mattress, a strange mattress where boxwood and ivory from Japan meet Austrian horsehair.[9]

De Waal’s story proves the lasting endurance of these tiny objects, which are still being carved by contemporary craftsmen today.

Reflecting on our museum’s netsuke, there is no telling whose hands it fell into prior to Rose’s, nor the many lives it may have lead before arriving at 55 Mount Vernon Street. One thing is for sure, however, as much as it may evince the past, this netsuke holds onto a bright future.

[1] Madeline Tollner, Netuske: The Life and Legend of Japan in Miniature, (San Francisco: Fearon Publishers, Inc., 1960): 64.

[2] Michael Dunn, “Netsuke: Delicate Treats for the Dandies of Edo,” The Japan Times, April 24, 2009, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2009/04/24/arts/netsuke-delicate-treats-for-the-dandies-of-edo/#.WOaacRLyuCR.

[3] Tollner, 81.

[4] Christine M.E. Guth, “Asia by Design: Women and the Collecting and Display of Oriental Art,” in Journeys East, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia, (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum): 55.

[5] Guth, 55.

[6] Guth, 53.

[7] Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, (New York: Picador): 314.

[8] De Waal, 327.

[9] de Waal, 279.

By Laura Cunningham, Collections Associate

The Original Yellow Drawing Pencil

One of the most asked about objects in the Nichols House Museum’s collection is a small blue box filled with yellow pencils. While it sounds like a simple set of objects, these pencils have been puzzling visitors and guides alike for years. It is the size of these small pencils that make them so unique. At one and a half inches each, these pencils would simply be too small to comfortably hold and write with. Each wooden pencil has a brass screw fitting on the back, making it clear that these small pencils were designed to attach into a larger drawing tool. The box originally held twelve pencils (or as the box reads “1 douz.”) but only nine remain.

The brand on the pencil box is L&C Hardtmuth Koh-I-Noor. L&C Hardtmuth is a pencil manufacturer that was founded at the turn of the nineteenth century in Vienna. At the end of the century the company adopted the name Koh-I-Noor [1] after a famous diamond discovered in India that is now part of the crown jewels of the United Kingdom [2]. Koh-I-Noor is credited with designing the “original yellow drawing pencil” and appealed to artists with a range of seventeen grades of graphite. [3]

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Queen Elizabeth at her coronation, 1953. The Koh-I-Noor diamond is at the base of her crown. National Media Museum, United Kingdom

To find out more about these tiny pencils we reached out to Caroline Weaver, a self-described “lifelong pencil lover” and founder of CW Pencil Enterprise. She informed us that these pencils were a refill for pencil holders that were fashionable in the early 1900s. Usually made of sterling silver or brass, these pencil holders would often have a small ring attached to them so that they could be carried on a chain.

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Brass pencil holder, L&C Hardtmuth, late 19th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Knowing where these pencils were from and what they were designed for, the question is which member of the Nichols family may have carried the fashionable little accessory that held them. With no such pencil holder in the collection, we are relying on photos and letters in the archives to tell the rest of the story.

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Elizabeth Nichols possibly wearing a chatelaine

A photo in the Nichols family’s collection shows Elizabeth Nichols standing in the garden in their New Hampshire summer home, wearing a rope belt around her waist that appears to have a silver object hanging from a chain. Chatelaines, decorative chains that were attached to a woman’s belt and held objects such as sewing scissors, button hooks, smelling salts and pencils, were a women’s accessory in the mid to late nineteenth century [4].

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Cut steel chatelaine, English, nineteenth century, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Chatelaines became popular as a result of the lack of pockets in Victorian fashion [5]. While they had largely fallen out of fashion by the time the Koh-I-Noor pencils were manufactured, the photo of Elizabeth wearing a chain from her belt most likely dates from the early 20th century, after these pencils were available.

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Postcards from Rose Nichols’ collection showing women wearing chatelaines

There are also a few references to pencils in the family letters.

“Having spent about all the time I have to write to you in looking for a pen I am afraid you will have to content yourself with pencil.”–March 14, 1898, Margaret to Rose

“Papa is fixing the soles of my feet and that is why I have to write in pencil.” –February 2, 1902, Margaret to Marian

“I left my pencil watch key in the upper, left hand waistcoat pocket, the same garment in which you found the bank-notes. Please bring it to me, and you may possibly find also a lead pencil.” –November 30, 1902, Arthur to Elizabeth

While Margaret’s letters suggest that pencils are not her favorite writing instrument (even if her reasoning is a bit strange), Arthur seems to prefer using a pencil. His “pencil watch key” was most likely a small pencil holder attached to the chain of his pocket watch, that is seen in an image of Arthur from the photo collection.

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Arthur Nichols wearing a chain that most likely held his “pencil watch key”

His interest in pencils is also documented by on another object in the collection. A little red pencil sharpened on both ends is labeled with a tag in Arthur’s handwriting that reads,“Bought at the manufactory / Nürnberg / Anno, 1868. / Used 1885-1891. / A. H. N.”

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Arthur visited the Faber manufacturer in 1868, while he was studying medicine in Vienna. His detailed record of this little red pencil that was in his possession for over fifty years, along with his use of a “pencil watch key” suggests that he was the “lifelong pencil lover” of the family and the likely owner of our small box of yellow Koh-I-Noor pencils.

 

[1]“History.” Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[2] Tarshis, Dena K. “THE KOH-I-NOOR DIAMOND AND ITS GLASS REPLICA AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE EXHIBITION.” Journal of Glass Studies 42 (2000): 133-43. Web.

[3]”Back Matter.” Art Education 6.5 (1953): 40. Web.

[4] “Chatelaine.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[5] Matthews, Christopher Todd. “Form and Deformity: The Trouble with Victorian Pockets.” Victorian Studies 52.4 (2010): 572-3. Web.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.