Friday, 18 July 2014

Research on MoDA's Japanese stencils

Over the past few weeks MoDA staff were joined by Dr Alice Humphrey, from Leeds University.  
Zoe Hendon, the Head of Museum Collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, finds out more:

We've mentioned MoDA's collection of Japanese stencils or katagami on this blog several times before. These are delicate stencils which would have been used for printing kimono fabric at the end of the nineteenth century in Japan.  They were acquired by the designers who worked for the Silver Studio to use as design reference. Several of the examples from MoDA's collections have been loaned to recent exhibitions in Japan, and I also looked at their influence on the Silver Studio's design output in my book The Silver Studio and the Art of Japan (2014).

The Silver Studio and the Art of Japan
available online from MoDA via the Middlesex University online shop
But until earlier this year it was still clear that we didn't know too much about katagami  in general, or about the significance of the examples in MoDA's collections in particular.  I was therefore really delighted to be able to invite Dr Alice Humphrey from Leeds University to spend a few weeks with us, to share her knowledge on this fascinating subject.  Alice has recently completed her PhD on the different uses of geometric motifs between cultures.  She has spent some time studying the katagami held by the University of Leeds International Textiles Archive (ULITA), and was therefore well placed to be able to compare and contrast the two collections.  

MoDA’s collection consists of about four hundred stencils, making it one of the largest held in public collections in the UK.  The V&A has a similar number, and ULITA holds about two hundred. 

katagami stencil depicting chrysanthemums and bamboo stems,
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, K2.28
As a result of Alice’s careful study of MoDA’s stencil collection, we now know that a high proportion (that is, a higher proportion than in other collections), feature floral designs.  This probably reflects the interests of the Silver Studio which acquired them as inspiration for wallpaper and textile design.  The stencils mostly date from the Meiji period (1868-1912).  Several show similar themes (such as chrysanthemums on scrolling stems) in diverse styles (including imitation of tie dye and of ikat weaving) and cutting techniques, providing interesting comparative material.  Of the non-floral designs, most are either geometric patterns or representations of Japanese auspicious objects.  

katagami stencil depicting chrysanthemums and Taoist precious objects
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, K2.33

Some of the katagami have complex or multi-coloured designs, produced by overlaying stencils; in several cases, quite unusually, MoDA’s collection includes the full set of stencils so the full finished design can be visualised. 

Interestingly, about half of MoDA's collection consists of stencils featuring naturalistic scenes of plants with birds or insects, possibly made for the Western market.  These stencils provide detailed images of Japanese flora which are useful as a key to identifying more stylised flowers and, in their own right, are interesting as a reflection of variations introduced into designs for the export market.  These are not typical of traditional Japanese katagami stencils and do not appear to be widely represented in museum collections in the West.  They might therefore provide a fruitful avenue for further research, perhaps looking at cross-cultural influences between Japan and the West.

We're really grateful to Alice for all her hard work, and for sharing her expertise with MoDA staff so generously.  We'll be making more of the updated catalogue records available on our website over the coming weeks.  The katagami are some of my favourite objects in MoDA’s collections, and I’m looking forward to finding more ways to develop Alice’s research in the future.

The stencil collection is popular with both students and creative practitioners who come to MoDA for design inspiration: Paresha  Amin, one of this year’s Arthur Silver Award winners used katagami as the starting point for her work, and some of the artists taking part in MoDA’s current partnership project with North Finchley ( will be using them in their projects also.

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