Visit to Maidstone Museum - September 2018

On the 21st of September 2018 a group of Euronetsuke members converged on the Kent county town of Maidstone.  The sun was shining, but the first snap of autumn chill was in the air. Luckily the museum was warm. Housed within the magnificent  Elizabethan walls of the former Chillington Manor, this fine regional museum houses a wide collection, ranging from Old Masters, Egyptian art, Japanese art to natural history specimens and dolls’ houses.

The particularly rich Japanese collection was formed by the donations of two local gentlemen. The first of these, Henry Marsham (1845-1908), was the third son of the Earl of Romney who lived at a time when fascination with the newly opened Japan reached fever-pitch. In 1905 he left his family in England and settled on a life in Japan, dying three years later, when his collection of domestic ware and porcelain was bequeathed to the Museum.  The second collection, comprising almost 1500 items, was donated by Walter Samuel, the 2nd Visount Bearsted (1882-1948), Samuel had been guided in his collecting by Henri Joly , who had compiled index cards detailing his netsuke, the cards now held by the museum. The museum curators were not able to identify all the pieces catalogued by Joly. The reason why became apparent in 1987, when Christie’s auctioned The Bearsted collection of Netsuke, which were sold ‘by order of a descendant’ – the ones that got away.

The collection boasts a particularly fine group of manju and kagamibuta, but the small size of online images made selecting wish lists of what we wanted to view quite a challenge. One piece on everyone’s list was a snarling wood shishi from the Tanba school – but apparently signed Mitsuhiro. Knowing that Toyomasa and Mitsuhiro had once collaborated on a sword scabbard, this made this teaser particularly compelling.  It transpired that it is actually a rather compact netsuke, and the signature is on an added, inlaid mother-of-pearl plaque, that matched the added mother-of-pearl himotoshi rings. We agreed with Neil Davey’s attribution of the work to the hand of Masahiro.

Two good katabori netsuke examples were a beguiling fishergirl, casting her gaze coyly down, and a finely detailed Shoki grimly clasping the ankle of an indignant oni who is attempting to flee over his captor’s shoulder.

Among the kagkamibuta, a favourite was an amusing Sojobu, the tengu king’s face almost filling the shibuichi plate. Details are in gold and shakudo, and the plate signed Komin.

We were encouraged to make notes about pieces and make corrections where we thought necessary. The Fukurokuju kagamibuta bowl was wrongly described and we were able to correct that to ‘Narwhal’  , while the signature and inscription was read as gyonen rokujuroku o Gyokumin kao (Gyokumin carved at the age of 66 with kao) 

Another admired piece was a kagamibuta of a rakkan plucking his eyebrows with tweezers, the shibuichi plate set in a dark wood bowl, the plate by Shozui.


Walter Samuel’s bequest contained a fine collection of inro and an exceptional lacquer manju by Chohei , that would make an ideal match for a fish-themed inro by the same artist, on display in the gallery.


We were welcomed on our visit by Dr Vanessa Tothill, who is currently cataloguing the Japanese collection – a mammoth task. She gave a short talk introducing us to the museum and its Japanese collection and then joined us in looking at the pieces and discussing the various points raised. We had a very enjoyable time, and followed the private viewing in the library with a visit to the public display. We are very grateful to Maidstone Museum for allowing us this special opportunity.


Above. Photo one: Sue and Neil Davey with Masami Yamada of the V&A. Photo two: Dr Vanessa Tothill            

Piers Dowding studies a netsuke, while Belinda Selley browses an original copy of the Red Cross Exhibition catalogue