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Obsessed with Japanese Ceramics

November 23rd, 2018

Glass display case containing a Japanese ceramic vase with horses painted on it. Next to the vase is a watercolour paining of the same vase.

Photo credit: Toni Hafkenscheid

Imagine it’s the late 19th century and you’re a railway tycoon with a large fortune to spend on whatever you please. What do you do? For Sir William Van Horne (1843–1915), the American-born builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the answer was simple: create one of the largest art collections in Canada (at the time), including 1,200 Japanese ceramics. Over 100 years later, you can see part of this amazing collection at Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics on now at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto.

Watercolour painting of two japanese ceramic bowls. The bowl on the right has an image of a small house, and the bowl on the left has an image of a red spiny lobster.

W.C. Van Horne, Two Mimpei ware tea bowl: [left] with a scene from a narrative in polychrome on white; [right] with Japanese spiny lobster in red on white, 1896. Watercolour over traces of graphite pencil on paper, Sheet (irreg.): 28.2 × 39.3 cm. Gift of the Estate of Matthew S. Hannon, in memory of Mrs. William Van Horne, 2001.

Stroll through the exhibition and you’ll see over 350 beautiful ceramic pots, jars, bowls and vases. You’ll also see watercolour paintings, notebooks and letters on loan from the AGO Archives & Special Collections. This is the first time since Van Horne’s death in 1915 that these pieces are on display together. In addition to the AGO, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and several private collections also lent works to the exhibition.

Some of the muted, monochromatic colours of the ceramics differ from the more decorative ones made for export that are often associated with Japanese pottery. Van Horne sought out the less colourful domestic pieces, which collectors viewed as more rare and authentic to Japanese culture.

Image of a leather bound notebook open to a page filled with drawings of Japanese ceramic bowls.

W.C. Van Horne, Van Horne catalogue “Ki-Seto”, pages 133-134, c. 1900. Book: 26.5 × 22.6 × 3.2 cm. Gift of the Estate of Matthew S. Hannon, in memory of Mrs. William Van Horne, 2001.

The fascinating exhibition also features watercolours painted by Van Horne, depicting pieces from his collection in amazing detail. Many of these watercolours are on display next to the original ceramics, giving you a sense of the love and care Van Horne had for these works. Also on view are a number of leather-bound notebooks and personal letters documenting the patterns, cracks and flaws of each piece.

What does this say about Van Horne? Does his attention to detail constitute an obsession with Japanese ceramics? Visit the exhibition and decide for yourself. Plus, get a glimpse into the life of one Canada’s most storied businessmen.

Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics is on now until January 20, 2019 at the Gardiner Museum before travelling to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts next fall.

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