A magnificent suit of 19th-century samurai armour – part of the largest collection of such armour in the UK – has returned to display at the National Trust’s Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire after 300 hours of painstaking conservation and cleaning.
The armour is one of the first items to be conserved as part of a £3 million gift from the American Royal Oak Foundation to support the charity’s collections conservation for the next five years.
To mark its conservation, the armour has been relocated within the manor and dramatically lit as part of a series of displays at Trust properties this autumn which shine a light on some of the treasures in the Trust’s care.
Due to its complex make-up of materials including metals, textiles and leather, specialists at the two National Trust conservation studios worked together to conserve and mount the armour. Conservators at The Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio in Kent carefully cleaned and applied specialist treatments to the armour, reattaching flaking and lifting lacquer and stabilising the lifting and curling rawhide. The armour was then transferred to the Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk, where staff surface-cleaned the brocade, infilled lost areas and applied conservation netting to support weak areas of fabric.
Kent Studio Lead and National Conservator (Decorative Arts), Emma Schmuecker, said:
“Close examination of the armour helped us understand more about the materials and techniques, and to appreciate decorative details that had been obscured by early cleaning techniques, such as the white metal – probably silver – highlights to the beautiful insects depicted on the sleeves.
“It’s a perfect showcase for the craft and extravagance of the armours made during the Edo period.”
Conservators also worked with a specialist mounting company to ensure the weight of the armour was well supported by the underlying mannequin, reducing the strain on elements such as the silk lacing.
Director-General Hilary McGrady said:
“We’re so delighted to have this exquisite armour back on display to fascinate visitors just as it would have done when Charles Paget Wade lived at Snowshill. It’s a great example of the work our conservation teams do every day to look after the more than 1 million objects in our care.
“We’re immensely grateful to the Royal Oak Foundation for their gift, which will enable us to look after even more extraordinary objects in the years to come.”
The beautifully decorated suit was made in about 1830 in the Japanese province of Kaga, an important centre of armour production, and bears the signature of talented master armourer, Kashu ju Munenao. It was acquired in the 1940s by artist and architect Charles Paget Wade, who transformed Snowshill Manor into a stage for his vast collections, ranging from bicycles and musical instruments to historic costumes.
The armour was made for ceremonial parade, rather than for military combat, and dates from a peaceful time when samurai were required to spend half of their time at the Shogun’s court. Thousands of people would join colourful processions to the Shogun’s court and compete to put on as brilliant a show as possible.
“During this period the arts of lacquer, metalwork and textiles reached extraordinary levels of creativity and you can see this on the armour we have just conserved.
“The front of the armour features a curling iron and silver alloy dragon and the sleeves and handguards are embossed with snails, butterflies, crickets and dragonflies. The inside of the Do (body armour) is gilded – usually, the only person ever to see this would be the wearer.”
The newly conserved suit is part of an internationally significant collection of 39 samurai suits of armour acquired by Charles Paget Wade, who had a passion for craftsmanship and design. By the late 19th century, when Japan abolished the samurai class, samurai suits and weapons were of little use to their Japanese owners and some made their way to Britain.
Wade’s collection – mostly bought from antique dealers in the 1940s – is internationally significant because it contains ceremonial armour as well as serious battle armour of the lower ranks of the samurai class.
Kate Groome, Visitor Operations and Experience Manager at Snowshill said:
“It’s been a joy to hear the gasps of visitors as they walk into the manor and come face to face with the armour taking pride of place in the Turquoise Room.
“For his guests, Wade wanted to create not a museum, but a theatrical space and a unique world away from the ordinary. Having the armour back to its glory helps us continue that long tradition of delighting and intriguing visitors.”
For opening times and further details, please visit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshill-manor.