The rough and tumble yet at the same time quite sophisticated tea caddy is a reflection of the spirit and talents of the extraordinary artist who created it, Tomioka Tessai (A.D.1836-1924), renaissance man, jack of all trades. The seated scholar, painted with a sure and easy brush, might in fact be a self-portrait of this devotee of classical literature—scholar, poet, painter, teacher, collector, bibliophile, sinologist, Shinto priest, traveller—with book in hand. The figure faces a seven-character inscription on the adjacent side of the four-sided vessel: Cha kore nanpoo kaboku nari, “Tea is a beautiful tree in the south,” a quote from Lu Yu’s Tang period Chajing, “Classic of Tea.” The third side bears a four-character phrase, Kakka kassui, “High heat, fresh water,” borrowed from Su Shi the great Song-dynasty poet-painter, and the fourth side is roughly scratched with the signature Tessai tsukuru, “made by Tessai.”
Tessai, who was unapologetically a Sinophile, finding inspiration, means and models from China, was naturally an advocate of sencha, the tea-drinking custom from China fashionable during Tessai’s lifetime. His obsession is reflected in his Tessai Gifu fu, “Tessai’s Tea Records,” devoted to an explication of Chinese Yixing ceramics, and his paintings focusing on tea masters, the famous potters and their works, and memorable tea gatherings. A pair of tea caddies of the same form as Tessai’s and covered with densely brushed calligraphic inscriptions were created by a notable predecessor, Aoki Mokubei, and may well have served as inspiration for the present piece.
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