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All creatures great and small: netsuke at World Museum

9 September 2016 by Emma Martin

Emma and Helen installing netsuke on the new mount

Emma and Helen installing netsuke on the new mount

Last week we re-displayed some of our new Japanese netsuke in the World Cultures gallery in World Museum. This wonderful collection of carved toggles was given to the museum in memory of the well-known 20th century collector Jonas Goro Gadelius.

Each year we refresh the display bringing a new group of netsuke out from the stores. This year I chose the theme ‘mini beasts’ and we now have a new mount inspired by a bonsai tree.

It is difficult not to just pick your favourites when selecting objects for display. You need to find objects with interesting stories to tell and those that can surprise you. Like Jonas I am particularly interested in contemporary netsuke and the carvers who continue the tradition today. This fabulous owl is one of my favourites. Not only is he or she quite a character and a rare subject for netsuke carvers, but this netsuke tells us interesting things about netsuke carving today.

Owl netsuke, late 20th century by Tamiko Nakamura

Owl netsuke, late 20th century by Tamiko Nakamura

This owl was carved by one of only a few known women netsuke carvers, Tamiko Nakamura (d. 2001). She came from a famous line of male netsuke carvers (her grandfather was Kuya and her father was Masatoshi), but she developed her own style and signature piece, the owl. The material she chose for this netsuke also tells us a great deal about the challenges facing netsuke carvers who traditionally used now banned elephant ivory.

This owl netsuke is made from mammoth tooth. Woolly mammoths became extinct around 10,000 years ago, but large quantities of teeth still exist and so netsuke carvers use this material as a substitute for elephant tusk today. They also use the tagua nut, known as vegetable ivory: when carved it is difficult to tell it apart from animal ivory.

The owl, along with more than 40 other netsuke and a whole host of unexpected stories, is now on display for the first time.

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