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The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

Updated: Oct 19, 2022


Souvenir Exhibition 'Official Guide' to the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 priced at one shilling. There was also a daily programme available for three pence


Introduction


Anyone who watched Monty Don's TV series on Japanese gardens surely remembers him wandering under beautiful blossom-laden cherry trees in Japan - and perhaps also noted his mention of the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 held in London. This Exhibition, he said, “lifted the curtain on a country shrouded in mystery”, and inspired a craze amongst the wealthy in this country for building Japanese gardens.


I, for one, had not heard of this Exhibition before so set about scouring my favourite resource for all things 'garden' - the horticultural press of the time (as well as many other sources of course), for some enlightenment!


Commemorative postcard for the Japan-British Exhibition depicting King George V and Japanese Emperor Mutsuhito


The Japan-British Exhibition


This fascinating Exhibition, which ran from 14 May to 29 October 1910, was located at the White City Exhibition space in Shepherd’s Bush, London, and was an immediate sensation. According to a publication of the time, The British Press and the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 (with a modern Introduction and Preface produced by the University of Melbourne in 2001), some 8.35 million visitors flocked through the Exhibition’s gates in the six months it was open – a figure which exceeded even the attendance of the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace by more than two million. As well as its popularity with the public, the Japan-British Exhibition "also received high levels of patronage and political support with visits by royalty, and with banquets and speeches by ambassadors, politicians and dignitaries”.


London Underground poster for the Japan-British Exhibition


The Exhibition received extensive media coverage including, of course, in the horticultural press as two of its most celebrated (and popular) exhibits were gardens: the Garden of Peace and the Garden of Floating Islands. And, as reported on by all the newspapers, a visit to the site by Queen Alexandra in advance of the Exhibition opening added royal prestige and a sense of excitement. Fortunately for us there are a large number of wonderful postcards depicting various aspects of the Exhibition available on-line.


(An additional benefit of these postcards is that they show, in fascinating detail, the Edwardian public all dressed up for a grand day out!)



Postcard depicting the 'Entrance to the Japanese Fair'


At the time, the Exhibition was widely referred to as ‘the Japanese Exhibition’ as there was actually minimal British content. It was the largest international exposition in which Japan had participated – driven by its desire to develop a more favourable public image in the West, following over 40 years of cross-cultural links between Japan and Britain. And in the days before mass travel and mass media, the Exhibition allowed the British public an insight into Japanese life and culture.


The site at Shepherd’s Bush was originally built in the early 1900s on 140 acres of land for use as a grand exhibition space, first used for the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908 with a stadium added for the Olympic Games of that same year. As it was constructed in steel and concrete, and painted white, it became known as the ‘White City’. For the Japan-British Exhibition, 40 acres were under cover with an additional 11 acres for the two gardens, together with extensive pools and cascades. In total, there were some 2,270 Japanese exhibitors. There were also two 400 ft long glass palaces filled with works of art and artefacts, architectural models and painted panoramas (although two of the largest structures had been built for the earlier 1908 Exhibition).


Postcard depicting the 'Court of Arts'


In Japan, the work of selecting and packing all of the intended exhibits and models was carried out between April and October 1909. In order to be as authentic as possible, building materials, stones, and even entire dismantled buildings were sent from Japan, with shipments beginning in the autumn of 1909 and lasting until the middle of February 1910. Seven of the thirteen models were commissioned specifically for the Exhibition and, together with the other exhibits, re-erected onsite by a team of some 200 Japanese craftsmen and artists. The British press (and the public in general) seemed to be fascinated by the hard work undertaken by these Japanese workers, dubbing them “human beavers”.


Amateur photograph showing workers on the Exhibition railway. Courtesy LBHF Libraries and Archives

Several of these buildings were magnificent gateways – most being models usually about 1/20th scale, with the exception of a carved gateway called the Chokushi-mon (the Imperial Messenger’s Gate) commissioned by the Kyoto Exhibitor’s Association built at 4/5ths scale. This gate was later presented to King George V who gave it to Kew Gardens where it stands today (see Exhibition Site Today below).


The Gardeners’ Chronicle, which reported extensively on the Exhibition, carried an article in its April 16, 1910 issue entitled ‘Japanese Gardening at Shepherd’s Bush’, detailing the construction of the gardens “being prepared under the direction of Mr. H. Izawa, a celebrated Japanese landscape artist". It also reported on a special luncheon for some 100 guests held to “welcome Japanese horticulturists visiting London”, with awards of silver cups from the Royal Horticultural Society to several of the garden designers for their contributions in creating the impressive and authentic Japanese gardens – including to Mr Keijiro Ozawa from Tokyo for the Garden of Peace and the larger Garden of Floating Islands.


Postcard depicting the Garden of Peace


Postcard depicting the Garden of the Floating Isle


As already mentioned, these gardens, created from scratch from the materials shipped from Japan, drew the most attention from the public and the media and, to most visitors, seem to have been “an eye-opening experience”. The gardens were, according to the University of Melbourne paper, built to reflect the peaceful and harmonious side of Japan, and to offset the military and economic exhibits. In the words of the Japanese Department of Education: “The gardens... manifest the good feeling existing between the horticulturalists of England and Japan; equally they symbolise the alliance between our two countries, for Japan supplied the ideas and the plants while Britain contributed the site and materials.” Great care was taken to try to ensure that the plants (brought to the UK in advance, and in stages, using the newly opened Panama Canal), would be ready to flower at the exact right time. This was not, however, always successful (see Success of the Exhibition below).


The British media closely followed the work of the Japanese workers, and a couple of months before the Exhibition opened the Daily Mail reported that “A Japanese garden on a scale of compressed beauty new to Europe is now half-way to completion in the grounds of this year’s Japan-British Exhibition at Shepherd’s Bush”. And, sounding like a Chelsea Flower Show 'show garden build’ on a vast scale: “Three weeks ago the bare outline was visible, the course of the lake, the position of the two hills and the bridges, but since then several landscapes have emerged. Up the mountain side, which will be clothed in juniper, climb trees that look as if they had grown on the spot for years. They include a weeping elm, an elder bush, and a maple on the summit. An old Japanese house, half of it built on piles rooted in the lake, is nearly completed; and … a most persuasive bridge is arched over the water.


Vast canvas screens painted with artificial ‘borrowed scenery’ of pine forests and mountains, completed the illusion of a garden from Japan (one of these 'screens' can be more clearly seen in the photograph of the Garden of Peace below). Boulders from Devon and Derbyshire comprised the foreground, with some 2,000 plants exhibited by the Yokohama Nursery Company filling the middle ground.


In this beautiful photograph of the Garden of Peace, the painted 'screen' background can be clearly seen. Courtesy Local Studies and Archives Department, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea


The most notable exhibit however, was the collection of 'pigmy trees' exhibited by the famous Yokohama Nursery Company consisting of 2,000 plants ranging from 25 to 300 years of age, for which it received an award as duly reported in The Garden magazine in July (see my related blog The Beauty of Early Japanese Plant Catalogues).


‘Pigmy trees shown by the Yokohama Nursery Company at the Japan-British Exhibition’. Gardeners’ Chronicle, September 24, 1910


The Yokohama Nursery Company also received an award for its exhibit of a golden variety of a dwarfed Thuja obtusa, as being the finest example of a pigmy tree in the Exhibition. (Such examples of bonsai were referred to as ‘dwarf’ or ‘pigmy’ trees at the time - and fascinated the public.)


‘Dwarfed tree of Thuja obtusa reputed to be 125 years old. This plant was awarded an RHS Silver Cup, being the finest example of a pigmy tree at the Japan-British Exhibition’. Gardeners’ Chronicle, September 24, 1910

During the Exhibition, other silver cups (to the value of £100) were awarded for the design and construction of two miniature gardens; for a pair of bronze garden lamps; an imitation dwarf Pine; a garden, and an arrangement, of artificial flowers.


Visitors were also entertained by acrobats, jugglers and dancers – as well as twice-daily exhibitions of Sumo wrestling (their lack of attire created somewhat of a sensation amongst the Edwardian public, even though they wore additional coverings over their traditional loincloths! See image below.)


The Japanese even built a mountain railway on the site, which was a particularly popular attraction. Each of the Japanese government ministries was also represented, along with the Japanese Red Cross and the post office, together with manufactured goods, traditional and modern fine arts, as well as arts and crafts.


Postcard depicting the 'Mountain Railway'


At the time of the Exhibition in 1910, Britain had been inundated with cheap, mass-produced arts and crafts from Japan specifically made for the export market – and the popular image in the West of Japanese products was that they were tawdry and cheaply made. The Exhibition was an opportunity to reverse this view, and present the British public with high quality, genuine fine arts and architecture, and therefore the organisers ensured that care was taken that the displays and products exhibited were of the highest possible quality.


Postcard depicting 'Japanese Wrestlers' (sumo wrestlers) at the Japan-British Exhibition. Note the additional 'skirts' worn over their traditional loincloths


More controversially however, the Japanese organisers also brought to London several members of two peasant villages and showed them off in reconstructed villages - almost as exhibits. Many were shown just living their lives, or demonstrating traditional crafts. As you may imagine they were fascinating to an Edwardian public, but didn't go down too well with many Japanese visitors.


Postcard depicting 'Feast of the Bear, Aina Home' - a peasant village

The Japanese had meant these ‘exhibits’ to be educational but were perceived by the public as a form of entertainment (this kind of ‘side-show’, still being popular in exhibitions of the period, was primarily designed to show the subjugation of minority groups by colonial powers - considered at the time as a sign of colonial strength). However, many Japanese visitors were embarrassed by these displays, and felt they were really not conducive to the impression of the modern Japan they wished to convey to a Western public - a Japanese journalist noting that “the Japanese village is a mere sketch of life of the lowest class of peasants... and is a sight which must fill Japanese gentlemen with nothing but displeasure and shame.”


For anyone wanting more information on, what is to our modern eye, perhaps an unsavoury aspect of such exhibitions, one website documents the phenomenon of 'ethnographic exhibits' or what they call "human zoos". These mostly took place between the 1860s to 1960 and were, generally, a product of the colonial era. This website https:/humanzoos.net also has many other images of these native peoples at the Exhibition.


Visitors to the Exhibition could walk among traditional houses and gardens. Courtesy Local Studies and Archives Department, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea


British aspects of the Exhibition


Most of the information and images available on-line regarding the Exhibition (including the wonderful postcards), and in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of the day, concentrate on the Japanese exhibits. Articles in the Garden magazine however took a somewhat different tack, containing details about the trade exhibits and the planting in the site's various beds and borders organised by the Exhibition’s organisers, under the supervision of a Mr. R. Russell.


Postcard depicting 'In the Gardens' at the Japan-British Exhibition


In a long article on the front page of the July 30th edition of The Garden entitled 'Flowers at the Japan-British Exhibition', they reported on the “beautifying of the grounds” at the “somewhat unsympathetic surroundings” at such exhibitions which could throw "into bold and pleasant relief the buildings that surround them”.

The authors of various articles in The Garden were particularly taken with the roses and hardy plants used at the Exhibition, and how they seemed particularly chosen, and planted, using the white walls of the White City venue as a foil. In one article they were “delighted on a recent visit to find masses of Roses and hardy plants” and “in one court a great gathering of crimson Geraniums against the white background showed the remarkable colour and, at the same time, simple result.” While another article stated: seldom had “Roses and hardy flowers... played so conspicuous a part in an exhibition, and the white buildings accentuate the colouring of the flowers.


In a June article, The Garden reported that the well-known nursery firm of Messrs. Kelway and Son were responsible for planting up beds and borders with “a varied selection of specialities, including Peonies, Gaillardias etc., [and] Gladioli…”. Despite the fact that there were actually few trade exhibitors, they were “from among the best known of our nursery-men” including, not only Kelways, but Messrs. Paul and Son, Messrs. Gunn and Sons, and Messrs. Sutton and Sons.


As The Garden magazine’s July article summarised: “Wherever opportunities have been given of quiet and beautiful associations of colour, these have not been lost sight of. The gardens are worthy of the beautiful exhibition and form no small part of the attractions offered to visitors. Many who are unaware of the newer Roses that gladden flower gardens today may learn something from such a place as that popularly known as the ‘White City’.”


A later article appearing in The Garden in September, confirmed that Messrs. Kelway and Sons had been awarded “the Grand Prize” by “the Superior Jury of the Japan-British Exhibition, in consultation with the head gardeners of the exhibition”, for their hardy plants in the exhibition grounds.


Success of the Exhibition


This Exhibition was certainly a sensation at the time – and an immensely popular tourist attraction for the public, particularly the Garden of Peace and the Garden of Floating Isles. As the Exhibition was drawing to a close, the Gardeners’ Chronicle of September 24, 1910 published another article, ‘Gardening at the Japan-British Exhibition’, with several photographs. (I have not included many of these images as the postcards are of better quality.) They were particularly complimentary about the Garden of Peace with its typical “hog-backed” bridge and its “pergolas covered with Wisterias...”. And thought that "gardeners have found further features of interest in the display of Japanese plants, stone lanterns, and other ornaments characteristic of these gardens…, the models of Japanese tea-gardens, the pigmy trees…”. All these being features that we now expect to see today when visiting ‘Japanese gardens’ here in the UK.


On a more negative note, the Gardeners’ Chronicle had also reported that, as most of the plants at the Exhibition were imported directly from Japan, many had suffered the effects of the long journey and some had never recovered – or even died. Some shrubs were however flourishing such as maples, azaleas, peonies and lilies (and, of course, many of the plants and shrubs supplied by the UK nurseries).


According to the University of Melbourne's paper mentioned earlier, the Exhibition was “conceived by the Japanese as a tool to secure Western acceptance as a global power equal to the West with a sophisticated traditional culture underpinning the rise of modern industry.” In the eyes of the Western media and the public, these aims were certainly achieved, although the Japanese themselves were somewhat stung by internal criticisms of the use of the 'peasant' village exhibits.


Overall however, the Exhibition was a great success. The Graphic magazine published in Tokyo (May, 1910) had anticipated that “the Japanese and things Japanese will become… the centre of interest for visitors…” which they most certainly did. While according to the Progress magazine of 1st October 1910 the Exhibition "which had opened its doors without ceremony last May, has beauty, picturesqueness, and interest in such large measure as to assure success, and wandering amid its many delights on the beautiful blue day of May when the public were admitted… Large numbers of visitors found their way to Shepherd’s Bush… Everyone was appreciative, and one heard comments everywhere upon the freshness and novelty of the exhibits, so many of them entirely strange to Western eyes.”


When the Exhibition finally closed in October 1910, most of it was dismantled, packed-up and shipped back to Japan. Some exhibits were sent on to other European countries for similar exhibitions; however, some of it still lingers here in the UK.


Exhibition site today


Later in the 20th century, the exhibition site at White City was gradually redeveloped. A housing estate was built in the 1930s and the BBC’s famous tv studios in 1960. However, Fran Pickering, an author who studies and writes about Japan, researched the Exhibition and discovered that the Garden of Peace survived as a feature within Hammersmith Park until the 1950s, when it was partly demolished and reconfigured to fit in with the style of a traditional London park.


Part of the original bridge from the Garden of Peace in the Japanese garden, Hammersmith Park


The current restored Japanese garden at Hammersmith is approximately two-thirds of the original size. Some restoration work was done in 2001 for a Japan Festival, but a complete restoration was undertaken in 2009/2010 with Hammersmith Council workers, together with Japanese and British volunteers, working under the supervision of a Japanese landscape architect. Although much has changed at the site, the Japanese government continues to support it with the Japanese Embassy and Japan Society gifting authentic Japanese gateways and lanterns in 2018.


Image in the 'Gardeners’ Chronicle’, September 24, 1910

Japanese stone lanterns installed at the northern entrance to Hammersmith Park in 2018


Some other bits and pieces from the Exhibition also managed to remain in the UK, including the 4/5ths sized replica of the Chokushi-mon, now in Kew Gardens, where it sits at the apex of a Japanese landscape garden. This gate was restored twice in 1936 and 1957 by Torii Kumajiro, a Japanese woodcarver who had worked at the Exhibition in 1910. It was again restored in 1995.


Chokushi-mon in Kew Gardens. Courtesy Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


Follow-up


Just as I was finishing this blog, I came across this great YouTube video which puts the Exhibition into the global context of the time, and gives more info on the building of the gardens and the Chokushimon gateway now at Kew: search for


The 'Official Guide' to the Exhibition is available on-line (see Further Reading below). Here are some extracts.



Fold-out Map from the Official Souvenir Guide


And to finish...


A light-hearted take on the Exhibition with distinctly European looking geishas. Courtesy LBHF Libraries and Archives


Further Reading




A copy of the Official Guide to the Exhibition is available on-line here:


References


The British Press and the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, with a modern Introduction and Preface produced by the University of Melbourne, 2001

The Japanese-British Exhibition 1910. Blog from LBHF Libraries & Archives, November 22, 2013

Japan-British Exhibition, London, 1910. Blog from 'Old Tokyo'



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