Forgotten scroll by famed Japanese artist turns up at back of library safe

A Japanese handscroll painting from 1710-1730 by Furuyama Moromasa
A Japanese handscroll painting from 1710-1730 by Furuyama Moromasa
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A FORGOTTEN 18th-century scroll which lay gathering dust for decades has been hailed as a major Japanese artwork after experts identified its celebrated painter.

The fragile masterpiece, which unfurls to 40 feet in length, was found on the top shelf of a safe at Edinburgh Central Library, hidden by books and other rare items in the city collection, when staff carried out an inventory.

It depicts 300-year-old street scenes from Edo – the ancient name for Tokyo – including images of 
theatre performances, vibrant traders and citizens milling around the city.

Painted by feted artist Furuyama Moromasa, who flourished between 1741 and 1748, the handscroll and other artworks were bequeathed to the city by the family of Henry Dyer – a well-travelled Scot who become known as the “father of Japanese engineers”. Mr Dyer is thought to have been presented with the treasure following his appointment in 1873 as principal of the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, where he remained for a decade. Under his supervision, he transformed the college into the most advanced institute of its kind in the world.

The material, now held by Edinburgh City Libraries, was gifted in the 1940s by Henry Dyer’s daughter.

But only recently has the significance of the scroll been realised thanks to the expertise of Rosina Buckland, senior curator of East and Central Asia at the National Museums of Scotland. She said: “There’s nothing else in Scotland like this – surviving paintings from this period are very rare I would say, particularly this genre and of this size.

“It’s a fascinating scene. There’s a line-up of commercial enterprises, food vendors and theatres with advertising signs above the door announcing the acts performing there. It also has the names of actors written on boards outside the theatres as well as humorous images of pantomime horses and acrobats.”

Hilary Williamson, city collections officer, explained how the rare artefact was uncovered by accident.

“We have a huge walk-in safe where most of our most valuable items are kept. But it’s fairly cramped and we recently rationalised the space to provide more room. In the process we came across several scrolls we knew we had but had never looked at before.

“It’s extraordinarily illuminating from the point of view of showing what life was like in Edo. It shows almost four dimensions, street scenes, shops and shopfronts. At the back of the shops, there’s theatres and at the very back there’s hill scenes showing people hanging out their washing. It’s an intriguing insight into life there.”

Experts say valuing the item is difficult, with the only other UK examples of Furuyama Moromasa’s artwork being held in the British Museum in London. A price tag might be made public later this year.

Due to its age, the scroll is described as being in a “extremely fragile state” and Edinburgh City Libraries and National Museums of Scotland have submitted a joint conservation grant to the Sumitomo Foundation– which provides cash for Japanese-related research projects – for funding to return it to its former glory.

The artwork may have to be lifted from its original backing and relayed in restoration work expected to last around two years. Plans are in place to display the scroll at the Central Library and East Asia gallery of the National Museum of Scotland in 2016.

The scroll, thought to be spun on ivory poles, is appended with a silk finish and said to be disintegrating. One the painting is remounted it will be possible put it on show.

The result of the funding application to preserve the scroll is likely to be announced in March.

A VALUABLE GIFT TO ENGINEER

How Henry Dyer came to own the precious handscroll is shrouded in mystery.

Experts say it may have been presented to the noted engineer by a high-ranking Asian official for his services in the field, or perhaps a gift from a Japanese scholar studying in Glasgow at the time.

Hilary Williamson, city collections officer, said: “It transpires that a lot of the material Mr Dyer was given was quite valuable and I can only think it was given to him by the Emperor or a high official from the time. I doubt it would be something he would pick up in a market.”

Mr Dyer returned to Scotland from his nine-year Japanese sojourn in 1882.

Mystery man’s work is prized

WHILE his works are highly prized amongst collectors, not a great deal is known about the life of the artist who created the extraordinary scroll uncovered in the Capital.

A painter and draughtsman, Furuyama Moromasa was a particularly active artist between 1741 and 1748.

Traditional accounts suggest he was the son of Furuyama Moroshige and represented the third generation of the Moronobu School.

He was specialized in bijin - or “beautiful person” - portraits and genre scenes, and is said to have worked from the Hoei era (1704-11) using first the name Hishikawa Masanori.

But it has been acknowledged that all his extant works, including a

dozen or so paintings and four woodblock prints, would appear on stylistic grounds to date from the Kampo (1741-4) and Enkyo (1744-8) eras.

Apart from accomplished paintings of beauties in an idiosyncratic style there is a long handscroll in the Azabu Museum of Arts and Crafts in Tokyo.