Sunday 17 March 2013

Kew Gardens, culture and empire

In 1910, a Japanese-British Exhibition was held in White City. Among its attractions was a large and elaborate gateway, a four-fifths size replica of the Gate of Nishi Hongan-Ji in Kyoto. The following year, after the exhibition closed, the gateway was moved to Kew Gardens where it still stands. During restoration in 1995, the lead-covered bark shingles on its roof were replaced with more traditional copper tiles. This building, its location and its history do not only commemorate British interest in Japanese culture but also raise more complex questions about the meanings of such cultural exchange.

Exhibition-goers' interest in Japan was perhaps rather different in nature to the curiosity of visitors to 'human zoo' exhibitions of the same period. (The Japanese empire, however, was represented by the exhibiting of Ainu and Formosan people.) Not only had Japan never been a European colony, but until the mid-nineteenth century it had been closed to the West. When borders were opened in 1854, a fascination with all things Japanese followed. Kew was among many collectors of the newly-available Japanese plants, but a fashion for Japanese gardens came somewhat later. Leopold de Rothschild created a much-admired garden in the 1880s, in nearby Gunnersbury Park. The 1910 exhibition stimulated this British interest: two gardens were created by Japanese designers and workmen, using trees, plants, wooden features and stones sent from Japan. However, the authenticity of most British 'Japanese' gardens was usually only partial, which we can view either as a process of cultural fusion or as a more problematic act of appropriation. It was probably both, in varying degrees. 

For an apparently clearer example of cultural appropriation, we need not move from the site of Kew's Japanese Gateway, a rise of ground known as Mossy Hill. This name refers not to the vegetation found here but to the mosque which previously occupied it. In the eighteenth century, Sir William Chambers (architect to the Gardens' then-owner Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales) would build not only the famous pagoda but also, in 1762, a 'Turkish mosque'. It was in fact neither Turkish nor a functioning mosque; imitations followed in the Schloss Garten at Schwetzingen and in Armainvilliers near Paris in the following decades, but none were genuine places of worship. Instead, they were exotic novelties much like Brighton's Royal Pavilion or the aforementioned, and famously inauthentic, Kew Pagoda. Britain's first mosque would not be built until 1889, in Woking, Surrey. 

Again, though, the picture needs to be complicated a little. Turkey was the heart of the Ottoman Empire, one of the great imperial powers of Europe when the 'mosque' was built. Nebahat Avcıoğlu argues that through Kew's Chinese and Turkish buildings, the royal family was in fact attempting to legitimise its own imperial ambitions by association. In addition, the mosque functioned as an Enlightenment metaphor for religious tolerance. Finally, the design of the mosque - including the incorporation of Qu'ranic inscriptions - was not purely fanciful but indicated an acquaintance with both Ottoman architecture and Islam.

Should we be pleased that Georgian England had such interest in Turkish and Islamic culture and architecture, or horrified that sacred forms were casually appropriated for secular places of amusement? Is an openness to other cultures inevitably limited by only partial understanding of them? Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Kew Gardens show us tensions which are perhaps inevitable in any cultural exchange: maybe the issue is whether we are aware of them, and the extent to which genuine interest and curiosity outweigh objectification and exploitation. These questions are not purely historical, although the contexts have sometimes changed dramatically: in modern China, it is the English town which is being recreated as exotic curiosity.

1 comment:

Hels said...

This building, its location and its history really DO raise complex questions about the meanings of cultural exchanges. But there was such a passion for Japanese visual culture at the end of the 19th century, it mainly seems to me to commemorate British interest in Japan.

That raises another issue. Passion for Japanese culture had swept Western Europe in the 18th century as well, in a way that we cannot say about, for example, Argentinian culture or New Zealand culture. It must have been very appealing to sophisticated Brits and Frenchmen.