Japanese Screens Displayed in House for First Time in Decades
Japanese screen

The accessories of the room are good: a very fine full-length picture of Liszt catches the eye; a bust or two crowns the bookcases; and brilliant Japanese screens and ornaments give life and piquancy to the quiet which sometimes reigns too supreme in the library of the good American.

Charles Wyllys Elliot, describing H.W. Longfellow's library in The Book of American Interiors, 1876.

For the first time in almost a century, several Japanese screens from the Longfellow collection have been taken out of storage, conserved, and placed on exhibit in the rooms of the House.

These screens were restored through funds from Save America's Treasures. T.K. McClintock, Ltd. of Somerville, Massachusetts, specialists in the conservation of fine art and historic works on paper, treated these Japanese screens for almost two years.

Displayed in the library is a six-panel screen (pictured here), showing a boatman navigating through a spring landscape with hills, flowering trees, and a temple in the background. The ink and tempera color painting on buff paper is signed by the Japanese artist Kano Moritsune (1829-1866).

In the guest room are two interior panels of a six-panel folding screen painted in ink and tempera color on silk entitled "Seasonal Portraits of Women (Summer, Winter)."

A two-panel folding screen in ink and tempera color on paper stands in Henry W. Longfellow's bedroom. The painting, "Fans Over a River," depicts eight unfolded fans (six images from nature, a mounted rider, and a woman at a calligraphy table) suspended above a stylized river background, represented in a brilliant blue with gold leaf.

One other Japanese screen, a pastiche of poems and calligraphy, will continue to be displayed in the back hallway.

The newly displayed screens are part of a larger Japanese collection at the Longfellow National Historic Site. Hundreds of artifacts ranging from books to fine arts to household items reflect several generations of the Longfellows' interest in Asian art, culture, and literature. The collection is particularly significant because many objects were obtained in Japan before many Westerners arrived there. They were purchased out of sheer enthusiasm for their beauty and to be used in the family home.

Much of the Longfellows' Japanese collection was acquired by Charles Appleton Longfellow, Henry's and Fanny's oldest son. During his sojourn in Japan from June 1871 -- just three years after the Meiji Restoration and the opening of Japan to foreigners -- until March 1873, Charley obtained a wide range of ceramics, textiles, paintings, bronzes, and photographs. He shipped more than twenty crates of these decorative arts home to his family in Cambridge.

"We shall need an addition to the house to accommodate all your boxes," Alice wrote to her brother Charley on November 3, 1872. "Don't quite turn us out of house and home. The barn might be turned into a universal museum and curio shop…."

Boxes must still have been arriving over a year later when his father wrote to him on February 19, 1874: "We are now opening the other cases, and taking the beautiful things out to keep from the damp…. Last night the Library was gay, with screens."

Shortly after his return, Charley and his cousin Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow Jr. re-decorated his sitting room in the House with many of his Japanese souvenirs. Above the lacquer furniture, they covered the ceiling with ornate fans and adorned the walls with artwork and photos from Japan.

The Longfellow House's Japanese collection is one of the earliest collections of Japanese items in the Boston area and one seen in the context of the house it was bought for rather than in a museum. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japanese culture became increasingly Westernized. In return, late nineteenth-century Americans' lives were enriched by the increased number of Japanese imports and trips to Japan.

During the 1870s-1890s a "Japan craze" spread through Boston and beyond.

Portions of this extensive Japanese collection have been and will continue to be on permanent exhibit within the historic rooms.



June 2002

© 2004 Longfellow National Historic Site