Netsuke from the Hermann Gunther collection in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Ashmolean MuseumHermann Arthur Gunther was born in Hampton Wick in 1872. He was the son of Charles Theodore Gunther, who had been physician to Prince Leopold Duke of Albany, the haemophiliac son of Queen Victoria. Charles Theodore had been born in Wurttemberg, but moved to England, settling in Hampton Wick, in 1863. The house in Lower Teddington Road was to remain the family home for his sons Hermann and Victor until their deaths in the 1940s.

We know very little of Hermann’s life, but consulting various sources, it is possible to build a small picture. He never married and followed in his father’s footsteps as a respected medical doctor, with a particular interest in the detrimental effects of a flawed sewage system1. But one little snippet of information in the Census of 1881, gives a clue to Hermann Gunther the netsuke collector. It informs us that at the age of 9 he is no longer living with his father, but with his uncle Albert Gunther and cousin Robert Theodore Gunther, at their address at the
British Museum.

His uncle Albert was the Keeper of Zoology at the museum and Hermann was sent to live with them to provide companionship to 12-year old Robert. At that time there were residences within the Museum complex where various figures lived. Confined to the scholarly atmosphere of their surroundings, the two boys would reportedly play cricket after 5 o’clock, when the Museum closed, on the lawns of the forecourt, ‘where Mr. Franks, later Sir Woolaston Franks, who lived in the house next door, used to exercise his hobby of keeping the lawn free of daisies’.2 Only the smallest leap of imagination can lead us to wonder if it may have been no lesser person than Franks who introduced the child to netsuke? Records at the Pitt Rivers Museum suggest that he began collecting in earnest in 1903, when he visited China and Japan3. Each piece was carefully catalogued by Hermann, though a small number of the records appear to be open to correction when it comes to the reading of signatures or subject matter.

He remained close to his cousin Robert, who nominated him as guardian to his children in event of his death. Robert was a highly important figure in the world of Oxford Museums, who through his unflinching determination established the History of Science Museum in the Old Ashmolean building, which opened its doors in 1925 (fig.1). He had faced much opposition in his task, scientific instruments and the like not being considered of sufficient importance by the “old school” of curators. (A.W. Franks had faced the very same resistance from Panizzi when he determined to expand the scope of the British Museum beyond manuscripts and classical culture).

The 1936 annual report for History of Science Museum records that Dr. Gunther loaned an undetermined number of netsuke of medical interest to an exhibition held there to coincide with the 104th annual meeting of the British Medical Association ‘In Oxford an Exhibition of Objects of Medical Interest was arranged in the Old Ashmolean for the meeting of the British Medical Association under the presidency of Sir Farquhar Buzzard. In addition to a special display of apparatus belonging to the University, the interest of the exhibition was greatly increased by the loan of important series of Trade Cards illustrating various bygone phases of medical practice, and specially chosen by Sir Ambrose Heal from his great collection. Also by a unique series of Japanese netsuke; miniature carvings of ivory or wood, of medical interest, lent by Dr. H. A. Gunther. Miss Joan Evans lent several early medical charms and two Chinese poison cups of carved rhinoceros horn, and the Curator showed a series of majolica drug-pots from Southern Italy.’4

This will explain why the accession numbers on the pieces all start with the date 1936. Hermann left his netsuke to his nephew, Albert Everard, son of his cousin Robert. What is not known is whether some or all of the Gunther pieces in the museum’s collection were exhibited at that time, or indeed whether they remained on loan there until Albert Everard formalised that loan in 1944. (A further 891 netsuke were similarly loaned to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford). The loan remained as such at the HSM until 1986 when it was converted into a gift, as part of the larger Gunther Loan Collections. On both occasions, Albert insisted that they should be recognised as being from Hermann’s collection. A further group was offered for sale by Glendining’s as The important collection of netsuke formed by the late Dr. Hermann A. Gunther in June 1944. On his death, Hermann left an estate worth £26,373.15.5d, an amount equivalent in buying power to around £1,233,500 (€1,435,000) in 2021.

Fig. 2 . © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Chester Beatty Collection
Guo Xu album dated 1503 Chester Beatty collection
Fig. 4 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Fig. 5 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Fig. 6 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Fig. 7 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Fig. 8 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Fig.9 Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) courtesy
Fig. 10 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford
Ippachi skeleton netsuke
Fig. 11 © History of Science Museum, University of Oxford

The collection features several netsuke of particular interest, among them a good representation of Shinnō, the deity of medicine, dressed as a sennin and seated on a rock, biting into a leafy stem (fig.2). Two stumpy protuberances are evident above his temples. Derived from the Chinese Shennong, the son of Princess Ngan-Teng and a celestial dragon, he was said to have been raised by wild mountain beasts. He is regarded as one of the ‘Three Sovereigns”, a group of prehistoric mythological emperor deities.

Considered the patron protector of agriculture, Shennong is credited with the introduction of the plough to farming methods. He is also revered as herbalist, experimenting fearlessly with eating various plants and recording both their beneficial and their toxic qualities (fig.3). His death was recorded as poisoning by one such experimental consumption, before he was able to administer the antidote. His renown goes further still, to the heart of both Japanese and Chinese culture, to tea. The steam from boiling water is said to have lifted a sprig of tea in the air, the leaves falling back into the water. He of course tasted the resulting brew and discovered its refreshing and beneficial qualities. Further credits go to him for developing the use of acupuncture, the use of moxa and the measurement of the pulse to determine the state of someone’s health (fig.4)

The Gunther bequest includes a rare netsuke of this subject (Fig.4). In the database it is recorded as the work of Takasane and gives the description: A (Foreign) Doctor probably Chinese, feeling the pulse of a Japanese Lady. She seems in pain. He has his fingers on the ulnar pulse. He is kneeling and has a beard. The lady kneels on one knee.
Gunther is known to have catalogued all his netsuke, and it is probable that the descriptions on the museum’s database are his. Looking at the piece, it is apparent that the patient is a Chinese court lady. Her hair is arranged in a high triple-lobed chignon and a soft silk scarf flows around her shoulders, while her sash ties to the front. The back of the netsuke shows richly patterned robes.

Another very unusual netsuke subject can be found in the collection (fig.5). It depicts a man pulverising medicines in a yagen. A heavy metal wheel is pushed backwards and forwards in a narrow wooden ‘trough’ to crush the contents. Used particularly by herbalists, it differs from the pestle and mortar used in food preparation. It seems quite an arduous task, but the druggist here is beaming widely as he works.

The concept of strange creatures and supernatural beings has long been part of Japanese culture and as such creatures with disabilities held a fascination. Ghostly stories told on a hot summer’s evening were a good way to send a chill through those gathered to listen. This netsuke of a bakemono (Fig.6) by Shuichi serves both to frighten and to amuse: it represents a bakemono holding up his hands in a ghostlike attitude, one huge sclerotic ceramic eye bulges from the outsize head and it’s long tongue hangs down to it’s neck. The right leg is stepping forward menacingly and the description records that its hair hangs down its back in seven tresses. It was bought from Murakami in Paris in 1937, so clearly was not part of the 1936 BMA exhbition. Meinertzhagen was clearly very taken with this piece and writes about it at some length in his card index.5

He summarises that it is “A remarkable and important netsuke, immediately striking for it’s brutally grotesque expression and daring design. The subject has given full scope to the artist’s bold, free treatment. Though repulsively ugly, the piece is a real work of art, and a worthy example of the early Tokio school of ‘netsuke’ carvers, its exceptional artistic merit almost annuls the defects due to damage”. (He notes on the card that both the left hand and left foot are repaired and the hem of the robes are damaged at the back) Gunther purchased netsuke (Fig. 7) from Frederick Meinertzhagen in 1924. It is a beautifully patinated depiction of a blind masseur with a swelling above his eye, signed Tsuhan Minko. He calmly works his fingers against his patient’s bicep, while the client twists his mouth into a grimace of agony.

The wood netsuke of three blind men astride a log, formerly in the Gaskell collection (Fig.8), shows a group of travelling musicians, the last with a biwa strapped to his back. Seated closely together, the first feels his way along the log with his hands, while his companions rest their hands against each other in turn, unable to rely on their vision but sharing the journey. This seemingly refers to the Buddhist concept of the road to enlightenment – surrendering to the unknown. It was an image revisited several times by the Zen painter Hakuin6, (Fig. 9) his depictions in simple brush-strokes conveying the heart-stopping perils of their journey. Hakuin’s waka verse encapsulates the concept:

yōjō mo
ukiyo mo zatō no
maruki bashi
wataru kokoro wa
yoki tebiki nari
Both the health of our bodies
and the fleeting world
outside us
are like the blind men’s
round log bridge—a mind/heart
that can cross over is the
best guide 7

I feel unable to move on from the subject of those afflicted by loss of sight without including one more example (Fig.10): The unfortunate man has his head thrown back in agony, the swelling around his eye with a horizontal indentation indicating where his eye should be. Illustrated in Behrens pl. III, Joly’s text suggests it may be a reference to the fairy tale of the Men with Wen8, but I am inclined to disagree, since the contusion is clearly of the eye.

While blindmen feature quite strongly in the museum’s collection, so too do skeletons. Some are carefully and accurately portrayed, while others are appealingly offbeat, such as the example here, signed Ippachi (Fig.11). It is another of the pieces Gunther acquired from Meinertzhagen and the museum catalogue card, presumably written by Gunther, is written with a medical man’s eye: Wooden netsuke with no definite cord holes. A Skeleton standing holding in the left hand a basket filled with Reishi. The lower jaw and the lower part of the skull is missing. There are 11 ribs on the right side and 10 on the left. The angles of the scapulae are placed above the right ribs. The pelvis is invert and appears to be composed of ribs. The sternum is very small and is placed low down in the chest. Balancing Netsuke. Height 7.8 cm. Signed in a rough incised cartouche on the left foot. Ichi-hachi. (Ippachi). Signed Ippachi.

Space precludes mention of further netsuke from the Gunther bequest, but along with skulls and skeletons, and an egg-tester, a small group falls under the banner of ‘hygiene’ with depictions of haggard old midwives bathing babies, a lady clipping her toenails and another washing her hair. In his correspondence with Lazarnick, reproduced in MCI (p. XXXVII), Winkworth remarks that ‘netsuke attracted medical men’ and cites Dr Gunther. The observation still rings true today. Its is natural that subjects that raise medical interest continue to fascinate and the Gunther bequest includes some rare and fine examples, many of which can be found in the image database of the museum.

History of Science Museum, University of Oxford

2. Eds. Caygill, Marjory & Cherry, John, A.W. Franks. Nineteenth-century collecting and the British Museum, London 1977, p. 294
3. Archives of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
4. Source: archives of the History of Science Museum
5. Lazarnick, George, MCI, 1986, vol. II, p.770
6. Stephen Addiss
7. Stephen Addis, ibid.
8. Cf. page 42 for this popular tale

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