Erotic Asian Art as Vehicle of Exchange in Early Modern England

In his March 6th talk, “Art Exchanges Between Japan and England, 1613-1616,” University of London Art History Professor Timon Screech presented a multidisciplinary exploration of the events surrounding the first English merchant ship to travel to East Asia. Its return to port in 1613, laden with spices, silks, and other luxury goods from Japan, set off a series of events that, ultimately, led to the first shopping mall. The well-attended event was sponsored by Receptions Studies DHI Research Cluster, East Asian Studies Program, and the departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Comparative Literature, and History.

Cultural, technological, and aesthetic differences between the East and the West at the turn of the 17th century left English merchants few trading options other than buying Asian spices, silks, and luxury goods with stolen Spanish silver. English merchants such as Thomas Smythe, however, quickly discovered lucrative markets in both England and Japan in the trade of erotic artworks.

The gentlemanly exchange of erotic paintings, or shunga, was part of diplomatic protocol in Edo-era Japan, Screech explained, and homosocial bonds were established and strengthened through the giving of such gifts. Among the few items from Europe that interested the Japanese were “unwholesome” paintings by Giulio Romano, an Italian artist who illustrated the lascivious sonnets by Pietro Aretino. In return for European erotic art, or “aretins,” Smythe obtained Japanese screen prints that, when auctioned off in London, could earn more than a Caravaggio.

Screech´s presentation traced a circuitous route from Smythe´s residence on Pinchon Street in London, to the banks of the Thames, and off to Asia by way of Yemen and Mughal India. Eventually the English merchant ships, soon to be known as the East India Company, landed in Kyoto and loaded their holds with Asian goods and a large collection of screen paintings, gifts from the Tokugawa shogun.

Upon their return to London, the exotic goods shipped from East Asia were sold at England´s first ever public auction, held in 1615. Asian merchandise became so popular that an emporium was built so it could be easily seen and purchased. Christened “The New Exchange,” the merchant market was built in the fields between the walls of London and the royal residences at Westminister and became a place for all levels of English society—lords, ladies, street entertainers, and commoners—to mingle, hear tales from far off lands, and shop. Here, mall-shopping became a reality, and international merchants marketed their goods to upper-class women who, for the first time, were able to “go shopping” in the modern sense.

In the discussion that followed Screech´s talk, audience members considered the links and disparities among cultures, social classes, and the consumption of erotica. They offered comparative observations on how “salacious” materials have been regarded, hidden or displayed over time and geography. The event illustrated just one of many complex webs of cultural and material exchange that defined the early global economic system of trade and colonization.