The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

Anyone watching Monty Don on the TV the other week wandering under blossom-laden trees in Japan, may have noted his mention of the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 held in London.  This Exhibition he said, “lifted the curtain on a country shrouded in mystery”, and inspired a craze amongst the wealthy in this country for building Japanese gardens.

The Exhibition, which ran from 14 May to 29 October, 1910, was located at the White City Exhibition space in Shepherd’s Bush and was a sensation at the time.  Attracting over 8 million visitors, it received extensive media coverage including, of course, in the horticultural press as two of its most celebrated exhibits were gardens: the ‘Garden of Peace’ and the ‘Garden of Floating Islands’.  And a visit to the site by Queen Alexandra in advance of the Exhibition opening, reported on by all the newspapers, added royal prestige and a sense of excitement. 



At the time, the Exhibition was widely referred to as ‘the Japanese Exhibition’ as there was actually minimal British content.  It was the largest international exposition in which Japan had participated – driven by its desire to develop a more favourable public image in the West, following over 40 years of cross-cultural links between Japan and Britain.  The site covered 150 acres, 40 of which were under cover, with an additional 11 acres for the two gardens.  In total, there were some 2,270 Japanese exhibitors.  There were two 400 ft long glass palaces filled with works of art and artefacts, architectural models and painted panoramas (although two of the largest structures on the exhibition site had been built for the earlier Franco-British Exhibition of 1908). 

The work of selecting and packing the whole of the exhibits in Japan was carried out between April and October 1909, with shipment beginning in the autumn and lasting until the middle of February 1910.  The Gardeners’ Chronicle, which reported extensively on the Exhibition, carried an article in its April 16, 1910 issue, ‘Japanese Gardening at Shepherd’s Bush’, which detailed the construction of the gardens “being prepared under the direction of Mr. H. Izawa, a celebrated Japanese landscape artist”.

The Gardeners’ Chronicle also reported on a special luncheon for some 100 guests held to “welcome Japanese horticulturists visiting London”, with awards of silver cups from the Royal Horticultural Society to several of the garden designers for their contributions in creating the impressive and authentic Japanese gardens – the smaller ‘Garden of Peace’ and the larger ‘Garden of Floating Islands’.  Both were constructed from scratch at the Exhibition site, with trees, shrubs, wooden buildings, bridges, and even stones, shipped from Japan – along with various Japanese gardeners and workmen. 

As mentioned, the gardens drew the most attention from the public and the media and, to most visitors, seems to have been “an eye-opening experience”.  The most notable exhibit however, was the collection of "pigmy trees" exhibited by the famous Yokohama Nursery Company.  It consisted of 2,000 plants ranging from 25 to 300 years of age.  One, Thuja obtusa reportedly 125 years old, also received an RHS silver cup as the finest example of a pigmy tree – the British press referred to Bonsai as ‘pigmy’ or ‘dwarf’ trees at this time.

Visitors were also entertained by acrobats, jugglers and dancers – as well as twice-daily exhibitions of Sumo wrestling (their lack of attire creating somewhat of a sensation amongst the Edwardian public, even though they wore additional coverings over their traditional loincloths!)  The Japanese even built a mountain railway on the site, which was a particularly popular attraction.  Each of the Japanese government ministries was also represented, along with the Japanese Red Cross and the post office, together with manufactured goods, traditional and modern fine arts, as well as arts and crafts.  The organisers ensured that care was taken that the displays and products exhibited were of the highest possible quality in order to offset the popular image in the West that Japanese products were tawdry and cheaply made.

However, on a somewhat negative note, the Japanese organisers also brought to London several members of two peasant villages and showed them off in reconstructed villages - almost as exhibits.  As you may imagine, they were fascinating to an Edwardian public, but many Japanese visitors were embarrassed by these displays, and felt they were really not conducive to the impression of the modern Japan they wished to convey to a Western public. 



At the end of this successful Exhibition, most of it was dismantled and shipped back to Japan.  Fran Pickering, an author who studies and writes about Japan, has researched the Exhibition and discovered that the ‘Garden of Peace’ survived as a feature within Hammersmith Park until the 1950s, when it was partly demolished and reconfigured in a non-traditional style.  However, it was restored in 2010 by a Japanese landscape architect and Fran’s blog contains “then” and “now” photos.  Under the title of ‘Sequins and Cherry Blossom’, Fran has written two blogs about the Exhibition and the restoration of the ‘Garden of Peace’: see here and here.

Some other bits and pieces from the Exhibition also managed to remain in the UK, including a four-fifths sized replica of a temple which is now, in Kew Gardens, where it sits at the apex of a Japanese landscape garden.  There is a lot of information, together with postcards and photographs, on-line on the many aspects of the Exhibition, including these two links: see here and here.

This Exhibition was certainly a sensation at the time – and an immensely popular tourist attraction for the public.  As the Exhibition was winding up, The Gardeners’ Chronicle of September 24, 1910 published another article, ‘Gardening at the Japan-British Exhibition’, with several great photographs, writing “whilst these gardens have attracted great attention, gardeners have found further features of interest in the display of Japanese plants, stone lanterns, and other ornaments characteristic of these gardens…, the models of Japanese tea-gardens, the pigmy trees…” – all features that we now expect to see if visiting ‘Japanese gardens’ here in the UK.