How one Gilded Age railroad tycoon’s madness for Japanese domestic ceramics took over his imagination and led to a large, highly particular collection.
“The best thing a boy can do is to begin to collect,” Sir William Van Horne said. “Let him collect something—I don’t care what is it—and you will find he begins to notice, and from noticing he begins to classify and to arrange. Interest develops, and wherever he goes there is nothing connected with his collection about which he is not keenly interested.”
As a boy, Van Horne collected fossils. His cache is now in Chicago’s Field Museum. As an adult, he collected over 1,000 examples of Japanese ceramics. But purchasing these pieces wasn’t enough. Consumed by the desire to examine and document his examples, Van Horne dutifully categorized and illustrated each work in his notebooks, sometimes painting them in large, detailed watercolors. He researched his acquisitions and classified them down to their regional kiln in a manner akin to scientific taxonomy. He kept invoices, letters, photographs, index cards, inventories, and stray pieces of paper devoted to his ceramics, essentially scrapbooking his own collection.
It wasn’t like Van Horne had nothing else to do. The American-born, Montreal-based entrepreneur began working in the railroad industry in his teens, eventually becoming the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, in 1888. Van Horne oversaw the construction of Canada’s first transcontinental railway, invested in the Cuba Railroad Company, and parlayed his work in transportation into the development of luxury hotels. He filled his mansion in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile with top-tier European paintings, including works by Rembrandt, El Greco, Turner, and Cézanne. (“Never buy a picture that you do not fall in love with,” Van Horne said. “The purchase of a picture, like the selection of a wife, can hardly be done by proxy.”) And it seems that at a certain point his interest in art—including his own amateur painting practice—surpassed his interest in business. Lord Shaughnessy, an associate of Van Horne’s, said, “During the last seven or eight years of Presidency, Van Horne’s loss of interest in his work was most pronounced. He had ceramics, pictures, and other things artistic on his mind almost continuously.”
The title of an exhibition currently on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics,” says it all: Van Horne was obsessed with the keeping of a collection of ceramics. The show, which, after its initial run at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, is up in Montreal through January 5, brings 350 of the collector’s former treasures together. Van Horne’s collection has long been dispersed among Canada’s museums and private collections, and as a result many of the pieces come to the show as loans. However, The MMFA owns a bevy of the entrepreneur’s pieces, too. In 1944, his daughter, Adaline Van Horne, donated 595 works to the museum (which was then called the Art Association of Montreal). The gift included canvases by Monet, Canaletto, Tiepolo, El Greco, and others and 220 Japanese ceramics, many of which are on view in “Obsession.”
Also in the show are all seven of Van Horne’s notebooks and the lion’s share of his watercolors (due to their delicate nature, they will be shown in rotation). “Case Studies” in the exhibition, which present an object with its corresponding watercolor, notebook description, and, in five instances, a photograph, will provide a picture of how Van Horne documented his collection. These sorts of displays showcase how Van Horne’s desire to categorize his objects sometimes took precedence over aesthetic appreciation.
One curious piece on view further illuminates the businessman’s collecting habits: a traditional Japanese scroll painting that depicts the Van Horne family in kimonos with a Japanese landscape behind them. Contemporary museum-goers are justified in finding the work jarring—our understanding of cultural appropriation has matured quite a bit since 1890, when the scroll was painted. But the painting does showcase the extent to which japonisme had captured the imagination of the Western world in the late 19th century—and more specifically, and probably more intensely, that of Van Horne. Scholars writing in the exhibition’s catalogue theorize that Akusawa Susumu, the Japanese dealer depicted with the family in the painting, probably commissioned the piece as a sort of tribute to Van Horne’s passion and erudition. The painting has the curious quality of today’s most dedicated cosplay, in which the cosplayer doesn’t dress like a character from comic books or anime to look like the character but to become the character. That is, Van Horne, with his family dressed elaborately in traditional Japanese garb posed with an expert in Japanese art, seems to be fulfilling a wish, not donning a costume.
The comparisons of Van Horne to today’s fanboy or -girl culture don’t stop with his haute- cosplay however. His relentless search for “authenticity” feels highly contemporary and is a huge part of what makes “Obsession” so interesting. Van Horne completely eschewed the decorative pieces made in China and Japan that catered to the Western market (though, it should be noted, he did collect some works of Chinese art). By the late 19th century, Chinese and Japanese craftsmen had been manufacturing splashy porcelain vases and tableware and shipping them to wealthy Western collectors for centuries. They had mastered a strange sort of Euro-Asian decorative style that placated a cartoonish Western fantasy of the East. Though these pieces enticed Van Horne at first, his interest in them quickly waned. He wanted “domestic” cups, bowls, and jars, the types of things used on a daily basis in Japan. He wanted pieces with organic shapes, earth tones, and unusual, tactile textures. His scholarly interest in Japanese life, though he didn’t learn Japanese or travel to Japan (despite many invitations from his contacts there), manifested itself in his pursuit of these sorts of objects.
But lest a picture be conjured of Van Horne as a bookish intellectual consigned to his study, it’s best to set the record straight: he was a burly, cigar-smoking guy, prone to gruff, energetic outbursts. Shortly before his death, he described himself thusly: “I eat all I can, I drink all I can, I smoke all I can, and I don’t give a damn for anything.” In his obituary of Van Horne, the British art critic Roger Fry wrote that “he was entirely accessible to anyone who would spend long nights in the saloon over innumerable tankards of German beer discussing Japanese pottery, the ideal planning of cities, Chinese scripts, Dutch painting, cattle breeding and bacon curing, or who would listen to his racy descriptions of his adventures in planning the Canadian Pacific Railway.” More specifically on Van Horne’s obsession with Japanese pottery, Fry wrote, “He used at one time to offer to tell the maker of a piece without seeing it, by feeling it with his hands held behind his back, on condition [sic] that if he was right the piece should be his, and if wrong he should pay a forfeit; but, according to his own account, he was so frequently right that the Japanese collectors with whom he played the game, finally fought shy of the ordeal.”
Another picture of Van Horne that should be cast aside is that of a faithful champion of other cultures and their people. Van Horne made his fortune on the backs of Chinese and First Nations railroad workers. Though he was a happy associate to Japanese art dealers and a collector of Japanese artisans’ goods, there was clearly a cognitive dissonance between the “exotic” work he collected and the foreign workers he employed. Furthermore, the Anglo impulse to gather and catalogue the cultural output of other countries, as in the British Empire’s practice of uncovering archeological material from elsewhere and keeping it in its own institutional collections, has colonialist connotations. The exhibition, appropriately, does not shy away from this aspect of Van Horne’s life and legacy.
In Montreal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Van Horne wasn’t alone in his interest in Japanese art. The Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia in 1876, which heavily marketed “things Japanese,” was a strong influence on wealthy North American collectors. Japanese prints grew in popularity. The lords and ladies of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile fitted their mansions with made-to-order furniture that William Sott and Son, popular art dealers and decorators, based on Asian prototypes. The Art Association of Montreal, of which Van Horne was a board member and his pal and fellow Japanese art collector Lord Strathcona became president in 1891, began featuring Chinese and Japanese art frequently to reflect its wealthy patrons’ interests as early as the 1880s. A cache of Chinese and Japanese bronzes made a splash at the museum in 1893, and a show of Japanese “watercolors” (likely prints) sourced from Matsuki Bunkio, a Boston-based Japanese dealer with whom Van Horne consistently worked, was a hit in 1902.
In February 1883, Van Horne purchased five Japanese ceramics at a New York auction—his first acquisitions in the field. Between 1887 and 1893, he bought some 160 pieces of colorful fine export pieces from Akusawa Susumu. By 1893 he had developed his system of elaborate record keeping and had also left decorative export ceramics behind in favor of utilitarian pieces made for the Japanese market. He still owned nearly 100 examples of fine Satsuma and Imari pieces and displayed them alongside his paintings in his mansion’s public rooms, but the eventual hundreds of examples of domestic Japanese pieces he would acquire and ruminate over found pride of place in his private study. Akusawa remained a source of information and a close personal contact of Van Horne’s, but by the 1890s he was not a primary source for him. Van Horne purchased some 70 pieces from Shugio Hiromichi, a dealer based in New York and Tokyo whom he met around 1892 and stayed close with through the rest of his life.
But Edward Sylvester Morse was probably the biggest influence on Van Horne’s collection. Morse was an American zoologist who was invited to teach at the Imperial University of Tokyo in the late 1870s. In Japan, Morse found a mentor in Ninagawa Noritane, a scholar of ceramics. Ninagawa had written a publication in which he categorized Japanese domestic ceramics in an intricate taxonomy, and he soon inspired Morse to acquire his own examples or “specimens” and do the same (Morse eventually acquired 6,000 pieces, of which 5,400 are now at the MFA Boston). Van Horne and Morse met around 1892, and by the following year Van Horne had adopted Ninagawa and Morse’s practice of cataloguing domestic ceramic pieces. Morse introduced Van Horne to Matsuki Bunkio, a Japanese dealer through which he purchased hundreds of pieces. After 1906, it seems, Van Horne stopped acquiring ceramics. And in the years leading up to his death in 1915 and after, the quality of his pieces was disputed by critics; some considered his collection excellent, others sub-par.
Among the highlights on view in “Obsession” is a Satsuma ware incense burner dating to the Edo period (circa 19th century). The stoneware piece with polychrome enamels, gilding, and a silver lid comes from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum and exemplifies the decorative pieces in Van Horne’s cache. A tea bowl with a dripping green glaze around its rim showcases the rustic beauty of the domestic pieces Van Horne geeked out over. The stoneware piece, which dates to the Edo-Meiji period (circa 19th century) and also comes to the show from the Royal Ontario Museum, features an enchanting textural design of pokes and scores. A rectangular sake bottle with bright green-and-yellow glaze was made on Kyushu Island during the Edo-Meiji period (circa 19th century) bears striking, geometric color fields that reminds one of postwar minimalist abstraction. Meanwhile, a pitcher with brown-and-green glaze made at a Kyoto-related kiln during the Meiji period (late 19th century) recalls Bronze Age pottery in its primitive, handmade appearance. The piece features a splotch of green glaze, and its body is thickly formed and textured, as if ripples of water were passing along its surface.
Van Horne’s own watercolors are a revelation. Their sense of concentration and simplified detail can’t hide their odic joy. Large sake bottle with letters of “fuku” and “ju”, an 1896 watercolor with graphite and colored pencil on paper, provides a highly accurate, yet softened view of the piece on which its based. The actual sake bottle, which is also in the show and bears the letters meaning happiness and longevity or celebration, is Kyoto ware made during the Edo-Meiji period (circa 19th century). Van Horne’s 1896 watercolor heightened with graphite and colored pencil depicting an incense burner in the shape of a cat—an example of Awata ware made in Kyoto during the Edo-Meiji period that’s also in the exhibition—borders closely on cute.
By Sarah E. Fensom