Netsuke of The Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford

My wife and I were lucky enough to welcome into the world a baby boy six weeks ago: Thomas Michael Willford, born January 17th 2019. Unfortunately, he was born with some complications and we have been bound to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.  Happily, he is now on the mend and we have been granted an escape for six hours each day. 

When one is obsessed with Netsuke, what does one do with six precious hours of freedom? Jump on a bus with one’s long-suffering wife and newborn baby to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford city centre, of course! The museum is located a short walk from the historic city centre, just off Parks Road. It’s easily accessible via the Park and Ride system, and if visiting I would strongly recommend using these as Oxford is certainly not a car-friendly city.

You access the Pitt Rivers Museum via the Oxford University Museum of Natural History – which is well worth a visit while you’re there, it’s packed full of dinosaurs of various species and other interesting exhibits from around the world. When you enter Pitt Rivers you are struck by the darkness.

I’ve never been to a museum like it – you’d be grateful for a torch! Each cabinet is absolutely overflowing with treasures. The curators certainly don’t do minimalist. I really enjoyed this rather unconventional style of display. It felt as if I was entering Aladdin’s Cave, sifting through the bountiful treasure with eyes.

To add to the experience, there are random objects mixed in with each display. For example, I found a Netsuke laid on its side, nestled amongst a display of Chinese medicine artefacts… This was my second visit, and I could return ten more times and still find new treasures to admire on each occasion.

Pitt Rivers boasts a collection of in excess of 900 Netsuke, and the most eclectic display I’ve come across in a museum. To put it bluntly, it ranges from absolute junk through to some seriously impressive netsuke that would be at home in the most prestigious of collections. I would strongly recommend any new netsuke collector make the trip, it shows you the full spectrum of the art form and you can get lost for hours whilst learning a huge amount.

Netsuke collecting

The Netsuke are split across six upright cabinets. The display itself is rather higgledy-piggledy, with pieces scattered on their sides, stood upright on neat little wooden plights, with some almost hidden from view at the top of the cabinets. One poor badger was upside down, and what I suspect to be a very good ivory Dutchman was laid facing away from the viewer.

My favourite of the netsuke on display was a beautiful ivory depiction of Yamauba with Kintoki pictured below. (I apologise for the quality of photography. The darkness, combined with the reflection on the glass, made getting photos a real challenge.)

Yamauba with Kintoki netsuke

I hugely enjoyed my second visit to the Pitt Rivers. It’s a truly unique experience that, although not conducive to studying Netsuke up close, provides a rare opportunity to view a massively varied display. If I could have one wish it would be that they take their top 50 netsuke and show them in a separate, well-lit cabinet so they could be truly appreciated.

netsuke in museums

Once I had spent a while studying the collection (what probably felt like an eternity to my poor wife), we retired for a very nice lunch in the museum café, located back in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend a visit. Not only is Oxford a beautiful city steeped in history and amazing architecture, the museum is unique and staff knowledgeable and friendly.