Portrait of the Week #11: Josiah Conder

Josiah Conder (1852 – 1920)

In 1876 a young architect in Buckingham Street signed a contract with the Japanese government agreeing to teach western-style architecture in the newly created Engineering College in Tokyo, and also to serve as an architect for the Ministry of Public Works. While we do not know precisely why Josiah Conder made this commitment, we do know why the Japanese government was so eager to hire western technical experts at this time.

The leaders of the new Meiji regime, established in 1868, were convinced westernizers. Their inclinations in this direction had only recently been reinforced by a prestigious mission to the United States and Europe led by Prince Iwakura Tomomi. After the prince and his colleagues had scrutinized Great Britain from Clydesdale shipbuilding to Yorkshire mining to Midlands iron and textile plants to – a favourite – the Enfield rifle factory, the government concluded, though it was loath to follow any one western model, that, in general, British technology was the best to emulate…

In all, Conder designed some seventy major buildings from Tokyo to Nagasaki. He produced a number of country villas for elder statesmen and zaibatsu, but he was also often engaged by foreigners, and his range of styles was prodigious. In 1905 he built a house for himself that was a very good symbol of his own life, part British half-timbering, part Japanese. His religious architecture was extremely varied: Old English Gothic, a proposed ‘Japan Revival’ church for the Unitarians (they decided against it), the famous still-standing Russian Orthodox cathedral (Nicolaido, 1891) in Byzantine style.

Of his late buildings, perhaps the most appealing surviving one is neither the Shimazu House (a somewhat more graceful version of Kaitokaku) or the gloomy Furukawa House of 1917 (his last major residence), but the Mitsui Club of 1913. In this stone-clad brick building Conder’s restrained late style is balanced by his innately decorative and romantic outlook. Like Kaitokaku it has a steel frame and truss, but its mood looks back to the Rokumeikan. It is, however, a much better Rokumeikan. At the back, its curving, two-storey loggia, overlooking a fountain and a wide garden, has arches, balustrades, pilasters and a central cartouche done in an elegant Baroque manner. Inside, attention to detail is equally impressive: a two-storey main hall under a stained-glass dome (shades of Burges and his cartoonist for English church windows, H.W. Lonsdale), a monumental turning staircase, arched doorways and dentile mouldings, Ionic pilasters on the first floor, Corinthian on the second.

Conder should also be remembered for his early efforts to interpret Japanese culture to the English-reading western world. One book described traditional painting, specifically the work of Conder’s own teacher Kawanabe Kyosai. Another, Flowers of Japan and the Art of Floral Arrangment, first published in 1891 in Japan and later in London, intorduced Ikebana. His Landscape Gardening in Japan, which grew from one of his papers for the Asiatic Society of Japan, has been republished many times since it first appeared in Yokohama in 1893.

Conder’s own work, after his death in Tokyo in 1920, was memorialized in a handsome volume edited by Baron Furuichi Koi and numbers of Conder students, including Sone. Filled with colour drawings of his principal buildings, this Collection of the Posthumous Works of Josiah Conder came out in a limited edition in Tokyo in 1931. Though the designs for the Rokumeikan have been lost, Kyoto University holds a large number of other original plans and elevations which have now been published.

Conder has a quiet grave beside his wife at Gokokuji, a Buddhist temple not far from Tokyo University. There, in front of the engineering department, he has been honoured by a life-sized statue which was carefully hidden during the wartime scrap metal drive. It shows a handsome man with a moustache looking rather more serious than Conder, a devotee of amateur theatricals and convival parties in his rose garden, might have been in life. Still, the Japanese sculptor remembered to put a bronze cigar in his hand.

This is an extract from a biography by Dallas Finn. The full biographies for each Portrait of the Week are contained in the Japan Society series Biographical Portraits (Vols. I – VIII). If you would like to purchase any of these volumes, they can be found online in the Japan Society Shop, with a special discount for members.

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