‘Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper’

Mark Nesbitt, Curator, Economic Botany Collection, Kew

Many paper conservators will have seen the Parkes Collection of Japanese papers (washi) held at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, during one of our behind-the-scenes tours. The 111 sheets of paper and 17 objects made of paper are some of the great treasures of the Economic Botany Collection, being both of subtle beauty and in remarkably good condition.

The papers were collected under the direction of Sir Harry Parkes, the British minister in Tokyo, in 1869-70, and are now divided between the Victoria & Albert Museum and Kew. They were rediscovered in 1978, thanks to the enthusiasm of paper historians Hans and Tanya Schmoller. The Kew papers had been kept rolled up in glass jars, accounting for their excellent preservation. Freshly conserved, papers from both museums were exhibited in Kyoto and Tokyo in 1994, but have not been on public display since.

Karakami from the Parkes Collection

Karakami from the Parkes Collection

Two happy events have led to a new exhibition: Nancy Casserley, a History of Design MA student at the RCA, did a brilliant dissertation on the reception of the Parkes Collection in Britain, submitted in 2010, and at the same time the “Washi: The Soul of Japan committee” issued a 12-volume set of 800 Japanese papers representing the current state of paper making in Japan. With support from several institutions in Japan and the UK, over 100 papers from both collections will be on display at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA)’s Gallery, in central Norwich. Nancy, now a Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, is the curator and has had the pleasant task of winnowing down the exhibits. The exhibition “Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper” runs from 12 March-20 April, 2013 (Tues-Sat, 12-5pm).

Rain covers for slippers, Parkes Collection

Rain covers for slippers, Parkes Collection

We think there will be much to interest paper conservators, with the opportunity to view such a wide range of washi under gallery conditions. The exhibition also offers an overview of a very wide range of Japanese paper types, including karakami (decorated washi used on sliding partitions), gikakuji and kinkarakawakami (washi treated to look like leather) and objects such as hats and slippers. The exhibition has also prompted a thorough conservation survey of the collection, being carried out by a student at Camberwell College of Arts.

Thanks to a partnership between Kew, NUA and the Sainsbury Institute, an extensive programme of events is being organised, including a one-day conference at NUA on Saturday 16 March. This features presentations on the making, dyeing, and history of washi, and on washi in contemporary art, as well as a private view of the exhibitions. The following day, Japanese paper makers will give two workshops. A variety of talks, and the launch of Nancy Casserley’s book, are also scheduled.

‘Washi: The Art of Japanese Paper’ – click the image to view book details

The International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA) has organised a full programme, including 3 exhibitions of paper art held in nearby galleries. Overall, we think there is more than enough to justify a day or weekend in Norwich, a city that offers many other attractions.

For full details of time, place and booking, see:



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