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:
MARVALE ARRIVES FROM 18 DAY TRIP.
Glascow Liner of C.P.R. Lost Week in the ice –had fine sports.
THREE LINERS DUE
Megantic, Andania and Cassandra Reported in River – Empress
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
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
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,
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