Kakiemon elephants (British Museum)

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Kakiemon elephants
British Museum Kakiemon elephants.jpg
on display in the museum
Material porcelain
Size Height: 35.5 cm
Width: 44 cm
Length: 14.5 cm
Created 1660-1690 Edo period
Place Arita, Japan
Present location Room 92-94, British Museum, London
Identification 766883
Registration 1980,0325.1-2

The Kakiemon elephants are a pair of 17th century Japanese porcelain figures of elephants in the British Museum. They were made by one of the Kakiemon potteries, which created the first enamelled porcelain in Japan,[1] and exported by the early Dutch East India Company. These figures are thought to have been made between 1660 and 1690 and are in the style known as Kakiemon. They were made near Arita, Saga on the Japanese island of Kyūshū at a time when elephants would not have been seen in Japan.[2]


The figures are largely based on Asian elephants but differ slightly in some details. Like Dürer's Rhinoceros this is art based on the best information available. The artists who made these figures had never seen a real elephant and had to work from drawings and sketches; possibly from Buddhist sources.[3] They are made from enamelled porcelain, which would have been a new technology in Japan (and unknown in Europe) at the time they were made. Each elephant is 35.5 cm high, 44 cm long and 14.5 cm wide. The novel near white glaze which is called nigoshide was developed in this Japanese pottery in the seventeenth century.[4] Nigoshide is known for its whiteness and is named after the residue that is left after washing rice.[5] The white ground is decorated with the additional characteristic coloured glazes of red, green, yellow and blue.[2]


A detailed picture of one of the elephants

These ceramics came from the pottery of Sakaida Kakiemon who lived from 1596 to 1666. He worked with Higashijima Tokuemon to create this now traditional type of pottery, which was copied by other factories in the area. Kakiemon's descendants continued this style of porcelain but it fell into disuse and it was revived by a twelfth generation descendant, Sakaida Shibonosuke.[1] Kakiemon ware was exported to Europe by the Dutch East India Company through the ports of Imari and Amsterdam. This was important early trade between nations that was to establish companies like the Dutch East India Company. England had tried to establish a "factory" (that is, a trading post) in Japan in 1613 under an agreement between King James I and the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada but the initiative was abandoned in 1623.

The elephants are now in the British Museum, as part of the collection donated by Sir Harry Garner.


The emergence of enamelled porcelain near Arita in Kyushu began Kakiemon-style decoration in overglazed coloured enamels. The success of the Japanese was due to the failure of the Chinese industry under the Ming Dynasty until it was reestablished under the Qing dynasty. However, in this brief period Kakiemon emerged with this new technique and style. These elephants are thought to have been made in 1660 to 1690. They would have been made by casting into moulds and the remains of broken elephant shaped moulds have been found in modern excavations at Arita.[3] Meissen porcelain, which was developed in the 18th century, is considered to have been strongly influenced by the Kakiemon Japanese imports.[4]

The milk white glaze called nigoshide, developed by Kakiemon, was not continued at the end of the Edo period. However the technique was rediscovered in 1953 by Sakaida Kakiemon XII (1878–1963) and Sakaida Kakiemon XIII (1906–1982) and was declared a Japanese "Important Intangible Cultural Asset" in 1971. Kakiemon porcelain is currently made under the fourteenth Sakaida Kakiemon.[5]

There are few artefacts like this pair of elephants extant although there is a similar elephant (c.1680) in the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and another in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.[3]

A History of the World in 100 Objects[edit]

This sculpture was featured in A History of the World in 100 Objects, a series of radio programmes that started in 2010 as a collaboration between the BBC and the British Museum.[6]


  1. ^ a b Japan: Its History, Arts and Literature. Volume 8, Frank Brinkley, p.112, accessed September 2010
  2. ^ a b Kakiemon elephants, British Museum, accessed 6 September 2010
  3. ^ a b c Object of the Month November, Groningen Museum, accessed 6 September 2010
  4. ^ a b Japan encyclopedia by Louis Frédéric p.455, accessed 6 September 2010
  5. ^ a b Kakiemon Sakaida, ExploreJapaneseCeramics, accessed 7 September 2010
  6. ^ A History of the World in 100 Objects, BBC. accessed 5 September 2010

Preceded by
78: Double-headed serpent
A History of the World in 100 Objects
Object 79
Succeeded by
80: Pieces of eight