Day by day the decorations for my house grew, as one worker after another was added to the little band. One man recommended another, and gradually the number increased, until at last there were as many as seventy working for me. Inchie was my help, my interpreter, my foreman. At first there were many difficulties in the way, for Inchie’s knowledge of English was limited, and my knowledge of Japanese was none at all. It thus arose that the only method of making him understand me was pantomime. One day, while discussing a certain measurement, we became so involved that I was determined to demonstrate my meaning. So I borrowed the carpenter’s tools and constructed a little model of the house, with its different rooms, showing how the carved ceilings and friezes should be placed. Inchie was astounded that I should have so great a knowledge of his own particular work of carpentry, and respected me the more accordingly.
My one great obstacle with the men was in persuading them to make several things alike. They were all artists and hated repeating themselves, and without rhyme or reason I would suddenly find that they had made a red lacquer door twice the size of its fellow by way of variety. When I first employed them I made the grave mistake with my workers of ordering large quantities at a time of required materials. I actually ordered a hundred electric-light fittings — fairy-like lamps daintily wrought in bronze, of which they had made me a model — but they refused me point-blank, and the only way to get them at all was by asking a dozen at a time, and by arranging that each dozen should be varied in some slight respect. It was the same with my picture frames. They were to be a combination of wood and silk, and when I told the master bronze-worker to make me two hundred of them for my next exhibition in London, his face clouded over; he was thoroughly displeased. “No can make,” he said decisively: “there is berry much difficulty. Much it cost to make; I must get big shops to do that; I no likee.” The little man was quite discouraged, and I was only able to procure my frames by degrees.
Now, in England it would be quite the reverse — the larger the order, the more contented the merchant; but in Japan everything is made by hand. The men take an artistic interest in the work. They hate repeating themselves; and in all the panels designed for my carved ceilings there were not two alike, although the entire design formed a complete whole. Why in the world we do not use Oriental labour in Europe is a marvel to me.
Nothing that these Japanese workmen made for me at the rate of sevenpence or eightpence a day can be approached in London for love or money. I had some gold screens made for me in Japan. They were very beautiful, and were made of gold on silk varnished over and lacquered, with apple-green and vermilion silk borders made from the linings of old dancing dresses. These screens were so brilliant that they were like gold mirrors in which a lady might see her reflection just as accurately as in any Parisian cheval glass. In the passage to England one of the screens became slightly damaged. I was greatly distressed, and took it to a celebrated firm of house-decorators to have it repaired. 165 They undertook the task very confidently; but directly they attempted to match the gold they found that it was impossible to approach to anything like the brilliancy of its surface, although every conceivable method was attempted. They tried putting on gold and then burnishing and varnishing it over to imitate the surface of the lacquer. The result was that, to the present day, that screen stands in my hall with the same dull, sullied patch in the middle of it, a silent testimony to the inferiority of the British house-decorator as compared with his Japanese contemporary. [162-65]
Menpes, Dorothy. Japan: A Record in Colour. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1901. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 14 July 2019.
Created 14 July 2019