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A5308 Collection of 125 tsubas (sword guards), various makers, metal, Japan, 1700-1900. Click to enlarge.

Collection of 125 Japanese tsubas (sword guards)

Designed in Japan
A tsuba (sword guard) is a flat metal disc that forms the guard on a sword and serves to balance the sword, as well as protect the hand from sliding up the blade of the sword during use. The blade fits through the central hole of the tsuba and the smaller holes are used to fix the kogai (a skewer-like implement) and the kozuka (a small knife). Tsubas originated in Japan in around the late 14th century during the Nambokucho period (1333-1391), a time when civil war raged throughout the country. Accordingly, there was great advancement in the production of swords and sword mounting, and Japanese swords became recognised as some of the most lethal hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia.

Along with their practical purpose, sword guards served a symbolic function and were often decorated with a design that had particular meaning to the owner, reflecting their strength, personality and family background. As such the sword guard became an important status symbol to the samurai. The late 1400s through to the mid 1500s were marred by a period of warfare and many warriors, regularly facing death, found spiritual strength in Zen Buddhism. Religious script featured commonly in tsuba inscriptions, offering protection and spiritual guidance to the warrior.

As Japan entered the more peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868), tsuba became increasingly elaborate and decorative in design and function, and their manufacture became highly specialised and technically advanced. Different schools of makers developed their own styles, often influenced by the culture and environment of the region, and the role of the tsuba extended to become an elaborate piece of art. Subjects for decoration included Japanese mythology, history and nature. Since the 16th century, it was customary for the guard to feature the signature of the maker.

Valued for their excellence in design and execution, tsubas today exist as refined pieces of art, and although now only used for state occasions and consecrations, the Japanese sword and its fittings remain a symbol of authority and reminder of Japan's powerful, and at times tumultuous, samurai past.

This collection of tsubas was selected in 1966 from a large collection of diverse objects amassed over many years by the parents of the donor Christian Rowe Thornett (1879-1972).


REF:
Bilney, Elizabeth (ed), 'Decorative Arts and Design from the Powerhouse Museum', Powerhouse Publishing, 1991
Irvine, Gregory, 'The Japanese Sword: The Soul of the Samurai', V & A Publications, London, 2000
Richards, Dick, 'Japan: Three Worlds', Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 1999
Robinson, B W, 'The Arts of the Japanese Sword', Faber and Faber, London, 1961
Sasano, Masayuki, 'Early Japanese Sword Guards', Japan Publications Inc, San Francisco, 1972

Summary

Object No.

A5308

Object Statement

Collection of 125 tsubas (sword guards), various makers, metal, Japan, 1700-1900

Physical Description

A collection of tsubas, made from a variety of different metals, including bronze, brass and iron. The tsubas are generally circular, with some squarish and oval shapes with a central triangular shaped hole with either one or two holes on either side. The tsubas display a variety of techniques and designs.

Production

Designed

Japan

Made

Japan 1700-1900

Notes

This collection of tsubas were made in Japan by various makers in around 1700-1900.

The making of tsubas began in around the late 14th century, originally serving a practical purpose being to balance the sword, as well as protect the hand from sliding up the blade of the sword during battle. However tsuba gradually developed a more decorative and symbolic function, particularly during the relatively peaceful Tokugawa, or Edo period, where samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors and swords took on a more symbolic emblem of power.

During the Muromachi period (1392-1572) tsuba became a separate industry to sword manufacturing. A number of well-defined schools and styles of tsuba making developed, and craftsmen began inscribing their names on their work. Originally made of iron, later tsuba incorporated bronze and other alloys, with elaborate designs overlaid with gold, silver, copper or shakudo. Shakudo is a low content gold alloy, usually 2-7% gold and the rest copper. Sometimes small amounts of other metals are added. The effect is an attractive blue black patina. Although some tsuba were made specifically for warfare, often with minimal decoration, others were made for display at court and featured elaborate decoration or incorporated motifs and inscriptions that reflected the strength, personality and ambitions of the wearer.

In March 1876, during the Meiji period (1868-1912), the Hatôrei edict was passed, officially abolishing the samurai as a class and thus ending their privilege of carrying swords. A large number of specialist craftsmen were left without a regular source of income and began producing finely crafted objects such as jewellery and ornamental pieces. Some metal workers continue the traditional craft of tsuba production, and tsubas are today considered highly-skilled works of art.


REF:
Bilney, Elizabeth (ed), 'Decorative Arts and Design from the Powerhouse Museum', Powerhouse Publishing, 1991
Richards, Dick, 'Japan: Three Worlds', Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 1999
Sasano, Masayuki, 'Early Japanese Sword Guards', Japan Publications Inc, San Francisco, 1972
Irvine, Gregory, 'The Japanese Sword: The Soul of the Samurai', V & A Publications, London, 2000
Robinson, B W, 'The Arts of the Japanese Sword', Faber and Faber, London, 1961
Sato, Kanzan, 'The Japanese Sword', Kodansha International Ltd, San Francisco, 1983

History

Notes

This is an important collection of Japanese sword guards that came to the Museum in 1966. The donation was facilitated by agents from the Perpetual Trustees Company Limited, acting on behalf of the donor, Christian Rowe Thornett (1879-1972).

Accumulated over many years most likely by the donor's parents, Sir Hugh and Lady Dixson, the diverse collection was originally bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. However, Christian was encouraged by the manager of her affairs to first offer the collection prior to dispersal at auction, to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The curator of the Museum selected the tsuba and various other items for acquisition into the Museum's holdings of decorative objects. The proceeds from the auction of remaining objects was subsequently donated to charity. It was noted that the objects were not collected personally by Christian but were most likely the contents from the family home in Summer Hill, 'Abergeldie', a grand Edwardian mansion that was demolished in 1927, a year after Sir Hugh's death.

Christian was born into a high achieving wealthy, philanthropic Sydney family who shared a passion for collecting. Her grandfather, Hugh Dixson emigrated from Scotland in 1834 to establish a tobacco shop on George Street. After an uncertain start, the business flourished, mainly due to the American Civil War. His sons developed and expanded the business. The eldest son Hugh Dixson (1841-1926), renowned for his philanthropic activities in Sydney in the early years of the 20th century, was particularly successful. Knighted in 1921 in recognition of his humanitarian service in Australia, Sir Hugh Dixson was also a noted horticulturalist and collector of exotic and rare plants and a board member of several influential Sydney businesses. A further connection of the Dixson family to the Museum is an important collection of mineral specimens acquired from the Broken Hill area, known as the 'Sir Hugh Dixson collection'.

Christian's mother, Lady Emma Elizabeth Dixson nee Shaw (1844-1922), was a patron of numerous charitable organisations and bestowed the bulk of her estate to the Home for Incurables in Ryde. As a connoisseur and collector of rare China, the crowning attraction of her extensive collection was a tea-service previously owned by Marie Antoinette.

Knighted in 1939 for his philanthropic activities, Christian's brother, Sir William Dixson (1870-1952), bequeathed a significant collection of pictures, Australiana including manuscripts, books, coins and stamps to the State Library of NSW. The Dixson Gallery, part of the Mitchell Library, was opened in October 1929.

Christian travelled extensively from her early 20s and was also known for her generous support of charitable organisations. A short-lived marriage to Arthur John Rowe Thornett in 1902 was annulled in 1919. On her death in 1972, Christian's extensive collection comprising Chinese works of art, jade and embroideries, furs, jewels, silverware, Persian carpets, glassware, porcelains, furniture, period clothing jade and coins, was auctioned over 3 days with the proceeds donated to charity. Continuing the family tradition as public benefactors, the Christian Rowe Thornett Scholarship was established in 1975 for the teaching and development of agricultural science at Sydney University. Decorative objects acquired by Christian Rowe Thornett are also included in the collections of the Art Gallery of NSW and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Reference
Digby, E (ed), 'Australian men of mark: Hugh Dixson', vol 1, Sydney, 1889
The Cyclopedia of NSW, 'Leading commercial men of Australia: Hugh Dixson', Sydney, 1907
Daily Telegraph, 'Our public women: Mrs Hugh Dixson', March 17, 1915
www.adb.online.edu.au, 'Sir Hugh Dixson (1841-1926)', cited 13/09/2007
Auction catalogue, (Estate of Christian Rowe Thornett), F R Strange Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1972

Source

Credit Line

Gift of Christian Rowe Thornett, 1966

Acquisition Date

27 January 1966

Cite this Object

Harvard

Collection of 125 Japanese tsubas (sword guards) 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 9 July 2020, <https://ma.as/182937>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/182937 |title=Collection of 125 Japanese tsubas (sword guards) |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=9 July 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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