Japanese Inro by Julia Hutt

Inro were small sectioned lacquerware boxes, generally a little smaller than a cigarette packet, which wealthy Japanese wore dangling from their sash-belts from the 17th Century until around a hundred years ago, when Western clothes with pockets made them redundant. They contained either ink seals and blocks or medicines. There were strict laws restricting dress and material and colour for parts of this period, which made inro among the few ways that wealthy merchants, at the bottom of the old caste system, could impress people with their money and taste. They were fashion items rather than art objects – the best Western parallel may be jewellery.

This book is produced by the Victoria and Albert museum, and focusses on inro at a craft and antique level, rather than as art, which is where my interest lies. The level of craft is, however, extraordinary and fascinating – a single inro could take a year to make, with over 100 layers of lacquer which each take a couple of days to dry, and with the intricate image produced by sprinkling powders from a narrow tube, plus small flakes of pearl shell, gold and other materials.

I find a lot of inro breathtakingly beautiful, but it is unclear in most cases whether the image is created by the maker of the inro, which was normally a family shop rather than entirely by one individual, or simply copied from a painting or print. Nonetheless, as an amateur in love with them as objects of art, attribution doesn’t matter to me; nor does any notion of auteurish credit or purity; and the divisions between art and craft have always been much more complex and equivocal in Japan than the West, besides being places at different points.

A final point, which is confusing me. My editor here, Tim Hopkins, brought an auction of Japanese items happening this coming week to my attention. It includes several inro, and I could afford to buy some 19th Century ones, for anything from a few hundred pounds each and up. I do have spare money these days, but the idea of actually owning works of art seems utterly alien to me – I was an adult before it occurred to me that stepping into an art gallery was an option open to me. I think it will take some considerable time before I can seriously think about taking this further step.