A Japanese sculpture at Dyffryn

Detail of a bronze sculpture of a man riding an ox, possibly Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), possibly by Takamura Kōun (1852-1934), at Dyffryn gardens, NT 1682811. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Detail of a bronze sculpture of a man riding an ox, possibly Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), possibly by Takamura Kōun (1852-1934), at Dyffryn gardens, NT 1682811. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

As I was looking at images of Dyffryn Gardens while writing my previous post, I was reminded of the intriguing Japanese bronze sculpture situated in front of the house. It depicts a man dressed in traditional Japanese traveling costume sitting on the back of an ox, reading a book as he is carried along.

Back view of the sculpture of a man riding an ox at Dyffryn Gardens. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Back view of the sculpture of a man riding an ox at Dyffryn Gardens. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

A while ago I asked Menno Fitski, an expert on Japanese art and curator at the Rijksmuseum, who this figure might be. He suggested it could be Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a Japanese scholar and courtier. When Michizane’s enemies managed to get him expelled from court a faithful ox carried him into exile. He was later worshiped as a patron of scholars and  deity of calligraphy.

Front view of the sculpture of a man riding an ox at Dyffryn Gardens. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Front view of the sculpture of a man riding an ox at Dyffryn Gardens. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Menno suggested the sculptor might be Takamura Kōun (1852-1934) or someone from his circle. Kōun worked to preserve traditional Japanese woodcarving skills during the turbulent Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan was rapidly modernising and subject to western cultural influences. However, Kōun also made sculptures in bronze. Large-scale bronze figures from this period combined the western conventions of public sculpture with traditional Japanese subject matter.

This sculpture was donated to Dyffryn gardens by Grenville Morgan in 1951. Although its introduction post-dates the ownership of Dyffryn by the Cory family, it suits the Edwardian atmosphere of the garden, with its many Japanese trees and plants.

We would welcome comments either confirming that this sculptural group is by Kōun or suggesting another possible artist.

12 Responses to “A Japanese sculpture at Dyffryn”

  1. AC-W Says:

    There is a related bronze (or at least of the same subject) in the collection of Leeds Museums & Galleries, it was standing in the garden at Lotherton Hall the last time I saw it.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    AC-W, thanks very much indeed for that – how fascinating to find another one. A good frontal image of that sculptural group at Lotherton Hall can be seen in this post: http://bit.ly/1XAw772.

    It is clearly the same subject, even if the two groups are not entirely identical.

    It is mentioned somewhere that the Lotherton group was part of the ‘Radcliffe gift’ to Temple Newsam, and was later moved to Lotherton Hall (both owned by Leeds City Council). Elsewhere I have found that Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (spelled with a ‘t’; 1891-1967) gave or left fans and miniatures to the Leeds museums and galleries, so perhaps this sculpture group also came from her?

    The plaque for the Lotherton group calls the reading figure ‘Sho-Haku’, but I wonder whether this could in fact be Botanka Shōhaku (1443-1527), an itinerant priest who was also a poet and poetry scholar – he is sometimes depicted with an ox and reading a book.

  3. Andrew Says:

    I did wonder if there might be several people would could be associated with riding on an ox. This – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XyEVAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA128 et seq. – mentions Lao Tzu, Sugawara no Michizane, Neiseki, and Botanka Sohaku.

    I think Botanka refers to the peony, which aligns with the inscription at Lotherton describing him as the Peony Priest.

    Is this a Japanese trope? The scholar riding slowly along on a ox, in dignified side-saddle, reading his book? Michizane would typically be identified by accompanying plum blossom, Botanka by a peony, etc.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Oh, darn typo. That should be Botanka Shohaku, but you know that already!

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, thank you so much for identifying those other figures from philosophy, literature and religion who are depicted riding oxes. I will add a note to our catalogue entry of the sculpture.

    Yes this is probably an east Asian trope generally, but cherished and developed in Japan particularly.

    There may be a connotation of humility with regard to riding a single ox. A pair of oxen was used to pull the carriages of the aristocracy, so riding a single ox may have been associated with someone who was humble either by choice or circumstance – a bit like riding a donkey in southern Europe or a bicycle in northern Europe, perhaps.

    And the Zen parable of the ox and the herdboy of course gives the riding of an ox overtones of quietude and enlightenment.

  6. Andrew Says:

    Gosh, you are most welcome. I see the collection entry has been updated already! There might be a bit more in this book too – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yKbrAAAAMAAJ

    It seems there is another similar ox-riding statue at CalTech (of all places!) – https://lacitypix.wordpress.com/tag/polyhedron-fountain/ – said to be Ten Jin (another name for Sugawara no Michizane, I think). Is the gourd diagnostic?

    On the Zen parable, are you referring to the episode of “riding the ox home” in the ten ox-herding pictures? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks for that book reference.

    And yes there is that subject again, at CalTech – thank you! And interestingly there they describe him as Tenjin, which is the deified name of Sugawara no Michizane.

    So now we have one of these sculptures described as Botanka Shōhaku (at Lotherton Hall), another as Sugawara no Michizane (at CalTech), and a third as yet untitled (at Dyffryn).

    I have just found a reference in the LA Times to how it ended up at CalTech (http://lat.ms/1UWNECo):

    ‘It was made in the late 19th Century and brought to America about 1901. It once adorned Adolph L. Bernheimer’s Oriental garden, a tourist attraction in Pacific Palisades until the gardens started to slide into the ocean. Dr. Edwin H. Schneider bought it at auction and kept it in his own garden until he gave it to Caltech almost 20 years ago.’

    That article was written in 1985, so ‘almost 20 years ago’ would mean it came to CalTech in the late 1960s. But interesting that it came to America in about 1901 – when Japanese art and gardening were very popular both in Europe and America.

    The gourd would have been a kind of medieval Japanese Thermos flask. Even an oriental scholar saint cannot live on books alone 🙂

    Yes I was referring to that Zen parable, using the story of looking for and finding an ox to describe spiritual enlightenment.

  8. Andrew Says:

    Here is the Caltech statue in the early 20th century- http://lit250v.library.ucla.edu/islandora/object/edu.ucla.library.specialCollections.bartlett%3A1442

    More here – http://www.image-archeology.com/bernheimer_residence_ca.htm – where one postcard calls it “The Missionary” and other “Ten Jin – The Great Humanitarian”!

    It seems Adolph Bernheimer was a silk importer, born in Ulm in 1866. I’m not sure when he came to the US – there may be a connection with another Adolph Bernheimer born in 1833 who it seems was a merchant in New York.

    Our Adolph and his brother Eugene collected oriental art and they built a Japanese-inspired house for their collection on a hill overlooking Hollywood. They were driven away by the suspicions of the local population in the First World War caused by their German surname. The house is now the Yamashiro restaurant, quite close to the Griffith Observatory. http://www.yamashirohollywood.com/

    After Eugene died in 1924, Adolph created another Japanese house with a garden near Santa Monica which became a tourist attraction, but the combination of a German name and a Japanese garden caused problems again in the Second World War. He died in 1944, shortly after a landslide damaged the property. See http://articles.latimes.com/2000/oct/22/local/me-40325

    A couple of reports mention flowers decorating the horns of the buffalo. If it is Tenjin, I think they ought to be plum blossom.

    I wonder how many more of these statues there are.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    What an amazing story, of the Bernheimer mansion and garden. A bit Gatsbyesque – with an orientalist, west coast inflection – isn’t it?

    Yes I wonder what lay behind the production of these large sculptures of this particular subject (even if the exact identity of the subject is still slightly ambiguous). On one level it probably appealed to the western idea of Japan as a land of spirituality.

  10. Rhiannon Craig Says:

    As a volunteer at Dyffryn I am fascinated by these posts. Are the other elements of the donation i.e. the dragon bowl and the rain and wind god statues, all of a piece with the philosopher in terms of origin?

  11. Andrew Says:

    Here is the dragon bowl, which is also thought to be Japanese – http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1682832

    And here is “Raijin ,God of Thunder, Lightening and Storms” and “Fujin, God of Wind” –
    * http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1682856.1
    * http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1682856.2
    * http://www.nationatlrustcollections.org.uk/object/1682855.1

    So, who was the donor, Grenville Morgan?

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for those links Andrew. I haven’t found out much about the donor yet.

    As regards Fūjin and Raijin, the wind and thunder gods, the most famous depiction of them is on a group of three screens painted in the Rimpa style.

    The first, by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, was painted in about 1640 and is in the collection of the Kennin-ji Temple in Kyoto. It is a very powerful and dynamic composition, while also having the decorative qualities for which the Rimpa style became known.

    The second, by Ogata Kōrin, was painted in about 1710 and is in the Tokyo National Museum. It has the same composition but there are various subtle differences and it is in some ways more refined.

    Then there is a third version by Sakai Hōitsu from the early 1820s, in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo, which is a bit more stylised, but in which the atmosphere is simultanously a bit more down to earth, the deities appearing like Edo street thugs spoling for a fight, as Masato Naitō describes it in the 1998 British Museum exhibition catalogue.

    The bronze figures at Dyffryn are different in style and posture, but the above-mentioned screen paintings explain something about the continuing popularity of these figures in Japanese art.

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