One of the most well-known genre of Japanese art in the seventeenth century is the so-called Namban art. Loosely defined, it consists of any piece of Japanese art which was influenced by early modern European art or European-themed. The best examples are probably the Namban Byobu, or Namban folding screens. These large works of art generally depict the arrival of large black Portuguese ships to Japanese ports.Recently, I found out that one of the most famous auction houses of London, Christie’s, sold a Namban screen in 2015 by the amount of GBP 818,500. Like many of the se screens, this one also depicts the famous scene of the arrival of the Portuguese ship to Japan. Comparing this screen to others, all the traditional elements of a Namban screen seem to be present: a three-masted large black ship on the left, the port on the right, a number of smaller boats unloading merchandise, a line of shops with curious locals, a church on the back and a gap between golden clouds showing what probably is the inside of a Christian church in Japan. Merchants parade into the port, led by a captain protected from the sun by an umbrella carried by a slave. The Portuguese captain is welcomed by a group of missionaries, the few Europeans permanently residing in Japan.
However, unlike other screens, this six-fold screen has a very large number of people depicted on it: about 130 as far as I can tell by the low-resolution picture available at the auction house’s page. These include some odd characters I personally have not seen elsewhere.The details are breath-taking, which suggests this to be an early screen. The interior of the Portuguese ship is complete with a kind of tent where the captain sits. Chinese-style teapot and table wares lay in a small table ready for the commander.
The captain is surrounded by servants, including an Asian woman. This is a detail I never saw in any other screen of this period. We could wonder if she was the Captain’s wife, a daughter or maybe a slave. But her presence is definitely eye-catching.The scene at the port is also very intriguing. Previously known screens often show Black servants carrying umbrellas for their Portuguese masters while they meet missionaries. However, this screen shows what seems to be an Asia servant, or at least a non-Black servant carrying his master’s umbrella. The group of missionaries also includes an uncommon member, dressed in red, whereas well-known screens have Jesuits dressed in black and Franciscans in gray. Finally, on the background, we can see in a shop a very large turtle shell, elephant tusks, and two Japanese around a large bowl of golden fish. The group in front of the shop also has uncommon characters, such as the red-robe Portuguese man and two priests with their heads covered.
Surely enough, Christie’s website does not identify the name of the person who acquired this incredible screen. But it would be a shame if this magnificent piece of Namban art stayed away from researchers able to analyze its details and enrich even more the fascinating field of Namban art history. So, where is it?