With a lineage going back to the sixteenth century, the Eiraku workshop is one of the leading manufacturers of elite ceramics in Kyoto. Generations of the family have provided tea wares to the three Sen schools of tea based in Kyoto, as one of the “ten craftspeople favored by the Sen family” (Senke jisshoku). The Freer owns a ladle stand made to commemorate the seventieth birthday of the tenth-generation head of the workshop, Ryōzen, in 1839. The eleventh-generation head, Hōzen (1795–1854), also served the Kii branch of the Tokugawa ruling family, to whom he was introduced by the Sen masters.
This set of coffee cups and saucers, in its original signed and sealed wooden presentation box, represents the workshop’s successful efforts to keep up with changing fashions in ceramics as Japan modernized in the early twentieth century. The box’s inscription describes the set as “coffee teabowls” (kōhi chawan), indicating uncertainty about terminology as coffee-drinking culture began to take hold in Japan. The generously scaled cups and saucers are inspired by European designs, but they bear Chinese motifs. Rendered in bright enamels and depicting frolicking children, the imagery evokes Chinese porcelains of the sixteenth century and positions the Kyoto makers within that distinguished lineage. Even so, the combination of red-orange, ochre, and chartreuse enamels is pure art nouveau.
Furthermore, the set is the work of a rare female head of a crafts workshop. It was executed under the direction of Eiraku Myōzen (1852–1927), who succeeded her deceased husband as the fourteenth head of the workshop.
Acquisition of this set of coffee cups accomplishes several goals for the Freer and Sackler collections. It is the work of a woman. It is emblematic of the dignity, elegance, and high-quality workmanship of Kyoto tableware ceramics. It presents, in the context of the Sackler collection of modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics, the continuity of a venerable workshop lineage represented in the Freer collection. And it expands representation of “modern” ceramic styles that emerged during the Taishō era (1912–26), a key period now strongly represented by our Japanese prints.