If you’re free tomorrow evening (18th March) at 6:45, I suggest you head down to the Swedenborg Society in Bloomsbury where Paul Johnson is giving a talk for the Japan Society about Sir Alfred East, a Victorian artist who was sent to Japan in 1888 by the Fine Art Society to paint scenes of Japanese life.
Alfred was born in Kettering in Northamptonshire in 1844, the youngest in a family of eleven children, and went to work in the family shoe company before going to the Glasgow School of Art and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This is him, in a portrait by Philip de Laszlo, looking every inch the British Artist.
He didn’t go to Japan on his own. His companions were Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty, the founder of Liberty’s of Regent Street which at the time specialised in fabrics and ornaments from the Far East and Charles Holme, who went on to edit The Studio, an illustrated fine arts and decorative arts magazine. They arrived at Nagasaki, and went on to visit Kobe, Kyoto, Hakone, Yokohama, Tokyo, and Nikko, keeping diaries of their trip as they went. They returned in 1889 via North America.
An exhibition of more than a hundred of East’s pictures from the trip was held at the Fine Art Society in March 1890.
The exhibition was a turning point for East – the critics loved it and it made his name, enabling him to go on to become one of the most successful painters of the day.
Some of his pictures strike a bit oddly now. Japan painted by a non-Japanese artist has a very different feel to it (East admitted that he had painted Japan ‘from the European point of view’) and with some pictures you have to look twice to see that they are views of Japan at all. For instance, in this view of Mount Fuji the pale blue of the sky and the handling of the clouds, along with the deep blue of the mountain slope, give it a non-Japanese feel to eyes accustomed to Japanese art:
In this sketch the scenery could almost be anywhere:
And in this night scene of Mount Fuji the trees in the foreground have a European feel:
But some of his pictures, particularly his watercolours of Kyoto, seem to have more of a Japanese atmosphere, perhaps because of the buildings and people in them.
East became President of the Royal Society of British Artists and a Royal Academician. He was knighted in 1910 and the gallery he founded in his home town of Kettering, the Alfred East Art Gallery, opened in 1913. This year is the centenary of his death.
If you can’t make it to the talk, the book by Paul Johnson and Kenneth McConkey, Alfred East Lyrical Landscape Painter, is available on Amazon.
East’s diary of the Japan trip, A British Artist in Meiji Japan, edited by Hugh Cortazzi, is available from the Japan Society.