It’s not difficult to understand the influence of Japanese ceramics on famed British chinaware producer Royal Crown Derby.

While the phrase “Imari style” has become almost synonymous with the company since the 1760s, its most popular tableware series is simply named “Japan.”

Hugh Gibson, CEO of Royal Crown Derby, displays a paperweight (left) specially designed by Imaizumi Imaemon for the British chinaware maker’s 250th anniversary. On the right is another piece the company made using its trademark Imari design, which itself is based on an Imaemon design from some 240 years ago.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the porcelain maker’s establishment, and the Japan connection is as strong as ever, according to Hugh Gibson, CEO of Royal Crown Derby.

“(Much of RCD’s history) tells a story of this cultural and aesthetic link between Japanese and British industries,” Gibson said. “That link continues today.”

The historical thread can be seen at an exhibition currently showing in Tokyo to celebrate Royal Crown’s anniversary.

Indeed, the show is as much a celebration of the company’s long connection with Japan as its 250-year landmark, Gibson said.

Established in 1750, Royal Crown Derby quickly developed a reputation for its Imari-style designs, which were based on the designs of the Imaemon pottery makers of Arita, Saga Prefecture.

Along with Kakiemon, the Imaemon tradition is known as being among Japan’s greatest. Their designs became popular with chinaware makers throughout Europe in the 18th century.

Royal Crown’s Imari style is most prominent today in the company’s aptly named Japan tableware series.

In researching for the exhibition, Gibson made a pilgrimage to the factory, now headed by Imaizumi Imaemon, the 13th generation of Imaemon potters and a national living treasure, a visit that provided an unusual twist to the RCD-Imaemon connection.

“I asked the Imaemon if he had ever heard of Royal Crown and he immediately pulled a cup and saucer out of a cupboard whose pattern looked just like our Imari pattern,” Gibson said. “But when I looked at the base, it was his mark, not ours.”

The famed craftsman explained the “copy of the copy,” telling Gibson that after the war, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers had commissioned his factory to make a huge set of crockery in the Royal Crown design, partly because the Occupation Forces had nothing to eat and drink off of and partly as a way to boost local businesses rebuilding after the war.

“We copied their designs in the 18th century and here we are in the 20th century and they were copying ours,” Gibson said.

Gibson ventured to take this a step further when he sent Imaemon an unpainted set of Royal Crown’s animal paperweights and asked him to create a special edition set for Royal Crown’s 250th anniversary celebrations.

Even though they are not yet available in Britain, advance orders for the resulting figures have proved to be a big success, Gibson said.

Both Imaemon’s and Royal Crown’s paperweights are on show at an exhibition being held at the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi through Sunday, as is Imaizumi’s cup and saucer and several RCD artifacts dating back to the 18th century.

Titled “Three Great Chinaware Makers of Britain,” the exhibition also features works by Royal Doulton and Minton.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.