The rebirth of Japanese enamelling is widely credited to the samurai Kaji Tsunekichi of Nagoya. Like many Samurai in 19th century Japan, he was haunted by the menacing spectre of modernity – that, and the meagre stipend. To address this he took apart one of his own pieces (not recommended) and by studying its construction felt suitably confident to have a go himself. Presumably, after a period of great frustration and toil, he emerged with a small cloisonné dish.
In some ways enamelling was the perfect way to channel the introspection of Samurai life into a useful pursuit. Gone were the days when the Samurai were needed for defence and order; instead they lingered as a class of poetry writing swordfighters and rusty ones at that.
The first pieces of Japanese cloisonné came to the West with the ‘Paris Exposition Universelle’ of 1867. A £24 kettle and a tiered sweetmeat case for the remarkable sum of £60, were purchased directly from the ‘Tycoon’s Government.’ These items were unsigned, but according to Gregory Irvine’s Japanese Cloisonné Enamels, were“likely to have been produced in Nagoya, possibly even by Kaji Tsunekichi himself. A single known-piece of Tsunekichi is displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum: an enormous charger, distinct for its heavy use of background wires.
The substantial use of wires wasn’t solely decorative, as wires were one of the few ways of anchoring enamel to a vessel. Therefore, pieces of this period are tightly decorated with brocades, stylised waves, crosshatching and Chinese grasses. The dark green enamel is unique to this era and came about through a botched attempt at recreating the turquoise blue of Ming Dynasty cloisonné.
This piece follows a similar style, notice that the piece is enamelled on its base, to give the enamel structural rigidity.