Home Biographies History Places Documents Letters Family Tree Misc. Contact NEW Blog



On September 4th, 2003, I was accompanied through a half dozen locked doors and then taken deep into the bowels of the Vancouver Centennial Museum where the Silver Bowl is currently held. It had been more than thirty years since I had seen or held it myself . That day, I had come to photograph it from all angles so I could compare it with a seemingly identical bowl that was owned by a related family in County Down. Since I was going to be leaving for Ireland in a few weeks, the Museum’s Far Eastern curator, Paula Swart, had gone out of her way to make this short-notice viewing possible, for which I was exceedingly grateful.

Finally, we arrived at the shelf where the bowl is currently stored. Paula pulled it from its flannel bag and unveiled it from its shroud of white tissue paper. Then she offered me a pair of white gloves. The fingers have greyed from much use and there is a small hole in the right middle finger - a symptom of cutbacks, I suppose. I put the gloves on and hesitated for a moment, though goodness knows why. The heft of the bowl when I did lift it up was familiar. Entirely. Slowly, I lifted it up and rotated it at eye level. Carefully, I checked out the sides, inside and bottom. The sheen of the bowl was not quite what I recalled. It had been coated in some kind of shellac to protect it. This gives it a slight amber overcoat to the sheen of its silver, particularly at the seams where it has pooled. And it may be fancy on my part, but I remember the bowl looking more polished than when I was a child, particularly in the crevices that surround the chrysanthemums.

When I was a child, this bowl sat on a mahogany hinged-leaf table that my mother had brought with her from England. We didn’t have many such “nice” things, so this was always special for that alone. Out of all the jobs that were mine to do (and there were many as one might expect in a family of five children), polishing this bowl was one of my favourites. That and waxing the floors with Johnson’s Lavender paste wax. In both cases, I loved the resultant sheen. Not that either ever lasted very long.

My father was proud of the part of the family history that surrounded this bowl. The story was brief because little was known, but he told it often. Apparently, the bowl had been given by the Meiji Emperor to one of our ancestors for his work in banking in Japan.

My Aunt Dorothy remembers how the bowl was smuggled into the country when the family returned from Ireland in 1923. They had sailed back on the Marvale after winding up the sale of her grandparent’s estate and were stuck in ice in the St. Lawrence for a week. The bowl was with them in their rooms. Dorothy remembers her eleven year old self watching out on deck one evening as they passed an island in the river. When she awoke the next day and went back out on deck, the island was still there; in fact the ship was further back from where they had been the previous night. This became something of a cause for alarm as water and food was running short. Mind you, there was also lots of fun to be had. The staff put on skits and since the grave of King Tut had just been found, they did skits with this as a theme. Finally, an icebreaker freed them and they continued on their trip. (An aside: On its return voyage, the Marvale crashed onto rocks at Cape Freels, one mile from Cape Pine, Newfoundland. The ship backed up to attempt to refloat, but eventually sank. The passengers and crew, numbering 436 reached St. John’s by train from Trepassy two days later. There was no loss of life. The ship had been sailing back from Montreal to Liverpool when it sank.)

(Transcription of News Item:
Glascow Liner of C.P.R. Lost Week in the ice –had fine sports.
Megantic, Andania and Cassandra Reported in River – Empress Arrives.

On the eighteenth day after her leaving Glasgow the Canadian Pacific Liner Marvale (formerly the Corsican), docked in this port shortly after 10 a.m. today with a good list of cabin passengers from Scotland and Ireland. The Belfast call for Glasgow liners en route to Montreal has been very successful since the season opened there and it is now evident that Ireland will vie with Scotland in migration to Canada this year.

The Marvale seems to have spent more time in the ice this trip than any other liner, entering the ice zone on a Saturday and only getting through the following Thursday. Her passengers, however, were all more or less of one race and easily mixed in with the games and amusements arranged by the liners staff. There was a Tutankhamen Grave playlet presented with considerable talent and very well received. “Toot Toot Mar Toot Toot Vale” was the catchword of the piece which seemed to make the hit.

The passengers were of the best type of Scotch and Irish with family groups bulking quite largely and apart from returning Canadians, all were new acquisitions to the portions of the Canadian West where immigration is most needed. There were, all told, 164 cabin passengers and 521 first class.

Among the cabin passengers were:- Mrs. J.E. Brown and family of Cranbrook, B.C.; Mrs. W. Burgers, Winnipeg; W.J. Carson, Mr. And Mrs. E.N. Harvie and Miss M.M. Harvie, Mrs. M. McBroom of Vancouver, W.E. Coad, Franklin, Man.; Mrs. E. Coats, Leduc, Alt.; Florence, Mrs. And Mr. W. Rothnie, Mr. And Mrs. Rothnie, Windsor, Ontario; W. Landed, Miss J. Stuart, Mr. J. Stuart, Ottawa; Mrs. W. Lynch and son, Calgary; Mrs. C. and the Misses C. and E. Macartney, Outlook, Sask.; Mr. And Mrs. R.H. Simmons, Vancouver; Mrs. M. Smith and child, and Mrs. And Mr. G. Whitton, Toronto.

When my grandmother and her children disembarked from the Marvale, the Silver Bowl was hidden in a basket of apples, “They’re just for the children”, she said as she whisked the hidden bowl past the eyes of the Montreal customs officials. She had a soft charm about her and was the kind of person who knew the entire life history of any stranger who happened to sit beside her on a bus. I am sure that the customs official was mere putty in her hands.

So this is all I knew. Since, I didn’t have a clue who the Meiji Emperor might have been, nor even who this long forgotten ancestor David Jackson or David Brown might have been, I decided to find out. This web site is one of the results.

When my father wrote to the Vancouver Centennial Museum on March 30th, 1979, he said the following:

For many years now I have had in my possession a silver bowl which, apart from its beauty, does have some historic value. In the past decade with burglaries becoming so commonplace that we now refer to them as B. & B.s, we have kept the bowl in the bank for safekeeping, chiefly because we would hate to have this objet d’art melted down for its silver content. For this reason we have thought of giving the bowl to the Centennial Museum as a display where many thousands may enjoy its beauty.

The bowl is sterling silver and was presented to my great uncle David in the mid-1800’s by the then Emperor of Japan as being part or emblematic of the Order of the Rising Sun. This honour was accorded to my great-uncle in recognition of his organization of the banking system in Japan. The bowl weighs about 14 lbs and is done in the Japanese Chrysanthemum design and is the largest of three bowls which went along with two candelabra and a tray. These other items were ‘handed down’ to other relations in Ireland and where they might be heaven alone knows. I do have pictures of the bowl and would be prepared to come over to Vancouver with them so that you may decide if you would like to have the bowl in perpetuam and make up the necessary papers for me to sign. As a family, we would like it to be given in loving memory of my mother who was largely responsible for its care during some sixty years or more, and are prepared to pay for a plaque to that effect, a simple one.

I am sure that my father believed all of the above to be true, but truths have many sides. Not all of them shine like the silver bowl, or at very least, the edges of the facts become darkened with tarnish over time.

The other members of my family recall the rationale for the donation of this bowl to be the opportunity for a receipt that could reduce our father’s income tax assessment. The possibility of this being the prime motivator is given more credence by a most intemperate letter that he wrote to the Museum when the receipt did not arrive on the date that he had anticipated it. Not that the motivations mentioned in the initial letter were not also true, but I doubt they would have been acted upon without financial reward. As it has played out, it is our family’s loss – the Museum’s gain. On the other hand, our family might not have had the story that goes with this bowl if it hadn’t played out the way it did. Win some, lose some. The news clipping beneath is undated.

NOTE: Text of article is transcribed beneath.

Antique Silver Bowl donated to Museum

A one hundred year old silver bowl, crafted in Japan, will become part of the permanent collection of the Vancouver Centennial Museum. Presenting the bowl to Carole E. Mayer, museum curator of decorative and applied arts, was the Rev. David Brown of Gibsons.The bowl was given on behalf of Brown and his son, Bruce David Brown.The bowl was a gift to Brown’s great uncle, David Brown, by the Emperor of Japan some 100 years ago. The art work was given for his work in organizing the Japanese banking system.
The silver bowl, a rarity as far as Japanese art goes, features a chrysanthemum symbolizing purity of soul and life eternal. The flower is one of the favoured symbols of Japanese samarai.
Meyer said that the bowl will form part of a new display in the museum.A monetary value on the bowl is uncertain but Brown estimated that its worth would be about $3,500.
He presented the work of art to the museum because it was kept away in a vault and “neither I nor others could enjoy its beauty,” he said.
SILVER BOWL to be on display in Vancouver Centennial Museum was presented by the Rev. David Brown to Carol Mayer of the museum. Bowl was presented to Brown’s great uncle by the Emperor of Japan some 100 years ago. Picture at right shows chrysanthemum motif on bowl signifying purity. Silver work was very rare in Japan.

Regrettably, the donation of this bowl was particularly galling to my brother Bruce David Brown since he had been told as a child that the bowl was actually his. There was supposedly a tradition whereby the bowl was to be handed down to the next David in each generation. Unfortunately for Bruce, he was 23 years old when the bowl was donated to the Museum and not in much position to object. Years later, when it was exhibited in “The Arts of the Meiji”, my brothers and I went to see it together. Although the rights to Bruce’s hoped for inheritance had been broken, it did mean a lot to him to see the bowl honoured in such a well designed setting as our father had hoped, it was now being enjoyed by thousands and Bruce’s name was at least recognized as one of the donors in a subsequent publication. (Cabinets of Curiosity: Collections of the Vancouver Museum 1894-1981, p. 62

Bowl. Late 19th Century. This bowl is marked “jungin” (pure silver) and “Bigyoku”. Although it is richly decorated with an overall design of chrysanthemums, a traditional Japanese motif, its shape is remimiscent of western traditions. Silver has never been abundant in Japan and refining methods were so wasteful that silver was employed chiefly in inlays and in the much used alloy shibuichi. It was perhaps the potential western market that encouraged craftsmen to pay more attention to silver, and to produce fine examples such as illustrated here. Width 30.6 cm. Donors: Reverend H.P. Brown and Bruce Brown, 1980. Cat. No. DB 77.

So, where are we now with the story? According to Museum records, the provenance of the bowl states that it was a gift: “Donor. Rev. David H.P. Brown in the mid 1800s by the Emporer (sic) of Japan as being emblematic of the Order of the Rising Sun for setting up Japan’s Banking system”. My father would have been the source of this information, based on the largely oral information that he had access to, but there are some problems with it. Firstly, and this may be splitting hairs, but the people of Japan had their own banking systems and our family could only have been involved in the evolution of their banking systems towards a more European model. Not that these accomplishments are to be sniffed at. The question still remains though, who was the initial recipient of the bowl?

My father mentions “Great Uncle David Brown”, but we don’t know of such a person – which doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, but we have yet to find out any evidence of his existence. There is an uncle of my father who was named “David Brown” but his banking career was largely in Iran, which makes him an unlikely candidate for an award in Japan. The more likely great-uncle to receive such an award would be my father’s Great Uncle David Jackson who did indeed serve in banking in the 1890s and until his death in Yokohama in 1903. Other sources indicate that this David Jackson was also the recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun. If it is him (and I suspect that it is), then the dates of the bowl are more likely to be late-1800s or early 1900s, not mid-1800s. These dates would also fit better with the reign of the Emperor Meiji who ruled from 1868 (when he ascended to the throne at age 14) until July 29, 1912.

Regardless of the provenance of the bowl, it is a work of art in its own right. Two historical facts contributed to the flowering of the silversmithing arts in Meiji Japan. Firstly, the ending of the samurai tradition included a decree which abolished the wearing of the exquisitely crafted swords which samurai warriors wore. This cut silversmiths off from their traditional patrons. Secondly, when Shintoism was established as the national religion, the production of Buddhist artefacts declined. (See: The Arts of Meiji Japan, Barry Till. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1995 page 30). Silversmithing, however, had been a centuries long tradition in Japan and the artisans retooled their production with remarkable agility. They began to craft goods aimed at the European market, domestic goods, and items such as our silver bowl. Both the nature of the craftsmanship and the attention to detail are particular to the time.

David Brown on the right presenting the silver bowl to Carol Mayer of the Vancouver Centennial Museum

The silver bowl which is in a private family collection in County Down.

Recently, a friend was staying with me who has a background as a near-eastern archaeologist and she looked at my pictures of the bowl with great interest. We compared them with the pictures of the similar bowl in County Down. The spacing of the chrysanthemums was slightly different, closer to the rim in the second version. “This would seem to suggest,” she said, “that the pattern on this bowl resulted from being stamped rather than poured into a mould. That would make the rim a rolled rim. Was the reverse pattern visible on the inside?” Since this was not the case, I was puzzled. Fortunately, Paula Swart solved this mystery for me. I turns out that the bowl is double-walled.


If my father is correct, there are two more bowls out there like this as well as two candelabra and a tray. The detective story continues. I’ll keep you posted.


Sharon Oddie Brown, September 17, 2003



Site Map | Legal Disclaimer | Copyright

© 2006-2023 Sharon Oddie Brown