Rich Harvest from Three-score Years by Guy Nicholls

“In a sense I am a collector of stories, stories about my discovery of these tapestries throughout the world.”

One of the most dramatic shop fronts in Hollywood Road belongs to C P Ching Antiques. It features what must be one of the largest tapestries ever to be seen in this Aladdin’s Cave district of treasures and trivia. It depicts proud cockerels and a swirling dragon, and is unlike any other type of Japanese (or for that matter, Chinese) tapestry.

The huge piece is one of a rare group of tapestries produced in Japan over a short period of 60 years, between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the work of Japanese kimono-makers who, collector Roland Marcz believes, may have started creating the tapestries simply to show off their skill at needlework. Little is known about the craftsmen except that tapestry-making was not their main craft; they made their living embroidering Japanese kimono and Fukusa, embroidered silk squares used for wrapping gifts, but took up commissions to embroider pieces for visiting dignitaries.

The scenes portrayed in most of the tapestries are a mixture of nature and powerful myths. The usual technique employed in its creation was the coil-stitch which provided a distinct background on which to work the embroidery. The workmanship is so intricate and detailed, it is estimated that two weavers would have taken around 15 years to complete a tapestry similar in size to the one that ornaments the C P Ching window.

There is yet, however, and even rarer type of tapestry made by the kimono-weavers of Japan. Known as koss’u, it involves an intricate technique of patchwork in which hundreds of jigsaw puzzle-like little pieces in different colours are stitched together to create the desired pattern or design. An example in Roland Marcz’s collection depicts three scholars standing at the bottom of a waterfall against a beautiful backdrop of hills. The tapestry is thought to have belonged to Emperor Hirohito.

Paradoxically, very few of these works of art are available in Japan itself. In the seven years Roland has been collecting them, he has come across only about 150 pieces, of these, very few were actually found in Japan.

“Most of the pieces were made (and given away) as gifts to important visitors, so they existed as an export commodity. It is easy to see that the tapestries were not made for the Japanese themselves; they are not of Japanese taste. Many of them show scenes of Mount Fuji and the like, scenes that nowadays would be termed tourist attractions,” said Roland.

While none of the tapestries were made for local consumption, some, Roland explained, were donated to temples in Japan. “My favourite depicts six gods and a goddess of fortune in a pastoral setting. Probably made in the 17th century for the harvest festival in Kyoto, it is a unique piece, outstanding in its detail. The entire tapestry is first done as koss’u, then fully embroidered with gold thread but so subtly, the embroidery just lends a glow to the piece.

I have come across many koss’u and embroidery, but I have never seen or heard of anything combining the two techniques – koss’u and embroidery – in one piece. The work is so fine that on the gods’ heads, each hair has been stitched on individually, and the embroidery changes every two square inches. It takes a viewer a long time to discover all the subtleties and nuances of the tapestry. It must have taken the craftsmen close to a lifetime to complete.

The theme itself is auspicious. The seven deities – Daikoku (representing wealth and fortune), Ebisu(candor and fair play), Benten (goddess of amiability, beauty and music), Fukurokuju (wisdom), Jurojin(longevity), Bishamon (dignity) and Hotei (magnanimity and popularity – are shown planting corn and rice, reaping and threshing, ploughing the fields, binding and storing hay with serene smiles on their faces.

“In Edo’s Japan”, continued Roland, where the social structure depended on the largely unrewarded labour of the peasant class, the tapestry must have served to remind people to be thankful for the fruits of the earth. That’s why I think the piece must have been created for a harvest festival.”

Another piece in Roland Marcz’s collection shows a valley running up to Mount Fuji. It is full of the natural beauty of Japan: rivers and lakes surrounded by cherry blossoms; and cranes, ducks, temples and bridges. Still another one borders on the abstract. It shows a group of haystacks. As you gaze into the picture, the animals disguised in the background begin to surface – birds, tortoises, etc.

Measuring and average of 4’ x 6’ in size, these are not pieces to collect as one would snuff bottles. “They are collectible in essence, but a collector can’t have hundreds on them; one or two is enough. There simply isn’t room,” says Roland. “One can’t keep them rolled up in the cupboard. They need space; they need to breathe and be seen.”

Except for the few pieces he keeps for himself, Roland is a kind of half-way house for the tapestries on their way to a new collector. “In a sense I collect stories, stories about my discovery of these tapestries throughout the world.” Every piece he has sold has gone with the proviso that if he is ever in that part of the world, he would be allowed to ‘visit’ the piece. As a guarantee of their rarity and increasing value, he has undertaken to buy back any tapestry returned to him after a year at 10% more than their original value. A recent American purchaser was so enamoured with the work he’d bought, he is redesigning this home with the tapestry (nine dragons crashing through water) as the centrepiece.

It deserves nothing less.

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