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Gosho-Ningyo Palace Dolls from the Ayervais Collection

Arts of Asia, July/August 1996 issue

Text by Timothy Mertel
Photography by Robert Wicke
and Michael Ayervais, courtesy of L'Asie Exotique


1. Ko fuku no inori denden taiko mochi gosho-ningyo
(good luck drum holder palace doll), late Edo period, circa 1850, 19 cm

The Dolls of Japan are known for their charming beauty. There are two festivals in Japan that celebrate children through the display of dolls. For girls there is the Hina Matsuri festival where an elaborate miniature display is set up of the Imperial Court including the emperor and empress and their attendants. For boys there is an equally elaborate display of dolls set up depicting the different warrior heroes of Japanese folklore in celebration of Tango no sekku. Outside of the doll festival tradition, there is yet a third type of doll which is cherished in Japanese society. This doll is referred to as "Gosho", a reference to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto during the Edo (1603-1867) period. This Imperial patronised doll is a uniquely Japanese form of a cute, chubby baby, taken to a caricature level that warms the heart as something adorable and yet other-worldly at the same time.

2. Detail showing narrow eyes of a
gosho-ningyo (palace doll), Edo period,
circa 1780, 28 cm
We are fortunate to take a look at this art form through the eyes of a passionate collector. This collection, put together over the past ten years, is exemplary of the variety and quality of gosho dolls that have been made over the past two hundred years. The Ayervais Collection, which was exhibited at the Japan Society in New York in the spring of 1995, received rave reviews and record attendance numbers. The collection is varied in all types of dolls, and is especially unique in the abundance and variety of gosho-ningyo. It is by this collection that we can examine the gosho doll and illustrate the collecting principles of this precious art form.

Michael Ayervais is a man of many artistic accomplishments. He is an inventor, art consultant and photographer having had solo exhibits around the world. Michael confesses to be a born "New Yorker" having had little contact with the East. His aesthetic eye has always been appreciative of Eastern style but he did not immerse himself in Japanese culture until he saw his first pair of Edo period emperor and empress dolls for the girl's day display. From that moment forward his focused energy in the appreciation of Japanese doll art took on a life of its own. His passion as a Western discoverer of an overlooked important art form brought to him a wealth of information and examples to add to his collection. His criteria in collecting is that each doll have a certain spirit, preferably somewhat odd or other-worldly - where his reaction to the art form comes from the soul, that same heartfelt appreciation in viewing any great masterwork. The doll works of the Japanese Edo period are the aesthetic manifestation of a relatively pure culture untarnished by the influences of the West. This is what appeals to the collector.

3. Detail showing large eyes of 10

There are few English language written resources available on Japanese dolls. Michael Ayervais educated himself on this particular topic by talking to fellow collectors and dealers. He collected works of art relying mainly on his aesthetic eye and heart. This driven passion for Japanese dolls has manifested itself as a remarkable collection of an esoteric art form. It takes courage and resolve to acquire with an objective of building a collection of merit.

Although collections of gosho-ningyo are rare in the West, in Japan these dolls are considered to be a classic Japanese art form and are appreciated as such. With their Imperial lineage a number of important collections exist. Some of the more famous Japanese museums having collections of gosho-ningyo, are the Tokyo National, Kyoto National, lberaki Prefecture, Osaka City, Tekiusi Art, Homma, and the Tekiho Memorial. In addition to these museums, a number of collections exist privately and within Buddhist temple complexes.

Gosho-ningyo can basically be defined as plump baby figures with large heads, inflated round bodies and brilliant white skin. They were originally created by doll makers in the Kyoto area for the Imperial Household to be given as gifts to visiting emissaries, thus coining the name gosho meaning "from the Imperial Palace". Prior to the common usage of the term gosho many names were associated with this type of doll: shira-kiku "white chrysanthemum" or shirajishi-ningyo "white flesh doll", also Zudai "large head" or even Izukura ningyo, a reference to the Osaka doll wholesaler, Izukuraya Kihei.

4. Detail showing mizuhiki of a Mitate-Yanone
gosho-ningyo (parody of the arrowhead palace doll),
late Edo period, circa 1825, 35 cm
According to Mr Shigeki Kawakami of the Kyoto National Museum, gosho dolls evolved from the "naked saga" dolls or hadaka saga which portrayed children's naked forms. Saga dolls carved of wood are known for their elaborate beauty and were believed to be created by Buddhist sculptors as a side line. These dolls were collected by the Court aristocracy. The simplification of this infant-like form evolved into what is now known as the gosho doll.

The Edo practice of the Tokugawa shogunate system required visits of respect to the Imperial aristocracy. The provincial lords presented elaborate gifts to the Imperial family and would be presented with gifts in return. It is believed that the Imperial Household presented what they thought to be precious as well, specifically gosho dolls. Thus the spread of gosho dolls throughout Japan was due to the visits to Kyoto. Kyoto doll makers fulfilled their commissions for the Imperial Household, as well as the merchant classes wanting to own and collect what was prized by the Imperial family.

5. Mizuhikide gosho-ningyo (palace gift doll),
Edo period, circa 1750, 23 cm

Part of the magic of the gosho dolls is their lustrous white complexion. The Japaneses idealise this skin colour. The material used to create this complexion is called gofun. Often mistaken for porcelain, this paste is derived from pulverised oyster shell mixed with rice paste. The resulting mixture is applied coat after coat to the base material. As each coat is applied a finer screened gofun powder is used. After each coat has dried the gofun is burnished, developing an opalescent sheen. It is considered that the finer and denser the gofun, the better the doll. Those with air bubbles that are sometimes apparent in the gofun surface are considered to be not as desirable as pieces that are painstakingly burnished.

6. Group of five Ko fuku no inori gosho-ningyo (good luck palace dolls),
Edo period, circa 1800, 4 cm to 14 cm

Gosho dolls are crafted out of a variety of materials: The oldest material used for gosho bodies is wood, specifically paulownia, kiri, a soft wood that is easy to carve yet fairly dense for receiving the fine layers of gofun. However, wood is also a volatile material for once sealed with the gofun there still may be some shrinkage of the wood itself, causing cracking in the surface of the gofun. The next most common material is a wood composite, toso made from paulownia sawdust mixed with paste forming a clay-like modelling substance that can be used in moulds. This material is somewhat more stable than wood, but still organic. It is the most difficult to repair due to the nature of the core material. One of the most stable materials is papier mache hariko, which is formed over a wood body, cut away, sealed and layered with the gofun, as well. The only problem with this material is that it is very lightweight and is susceptible to dents and damage since the body is thin with no core. Ceramic gosho are considered to be a post-1911 innovation corresponding with the end of the Meiji period. Ceramic had the double advantage of being able to be mass-produced as well as being a very stable base material.

7. Haihai gosho-ningyo (crawling baby palace doll),
mid Meiji period, circa 1900, 19 cm

These base materials are sometimes combined where the head may be made of wood and the rest of the body wood composite, or wood head, hands and feet were combined with a papier mache body. In determining age based on the core material, wood is generally the oldest. One way to identify the wood body without seeing the wood underneath the gofun is to look for shrinkage cracks which may appear on the surface of the gofun, remotely similar to the crackle in ceramic glazes. The ceramic gosho are considered to be the latest examples. The cold nature of the ceramic makes them readily identifiable by touch. A pierced hole somewhere in the body for the firing of the clay and a hollow feel to the object are also indicative of a ceramic base.

8. Haihai gosho-ningyo (crawling baby palace doll),
late Edo period, circa 1850, 12 cm

Another particular way to examine the gosho doll is to look at the textiles employed as the costume. Most gosho dolls are scantily clothed. Generally a silk crepe is used to create a bib or stomach cloth, haragake, dyed a reddish orange with painted or embroidered details (8). A rule of thumb in determining age is the colour of this silk crepe. Aniline dyes were introduced in Japan during the Meiji period. Natural dyes are fugitive and will fade and age over time, while the aniline dyes remain bright and vibrant, thus the faded light orange colour is indicative of an Edo period date. In addition to the silk crepe, there was the use of gold leaf paper strips woven with silk threads in a variety of patterns. This was a type of textile that was popular during the Edo period to create the haragake.

9. Ko fuku no inori gosho-ningyo
(good luck palace doll), Edo period, 36 cm

Gosho-ningyo represent a simplified aesthetic ideal with smooth bodies, simple bibs and the brevity of painted features which bring the image to life. The most important feature being the black inked eyes. (2, 3) In early times the aesthetic was to have the eyes long and narrow. As time moved forward this aesthetic changed for wider, brighter eyes where the upper eyelid became larger and rounder, probably due to the common use of glass eyes on other types of Japanese dolls. Gosho doll makers generally did not adopt this practice of glass eyes for their dolls and kept the simple aesthetic of the painted eyes.

To provide a systematic way to approach the different kinds of gosho-ningyo, we will divide them into nine categories. Mr Ken Kirihata of the Kyoto National Museum has divided the gosho-ningyo into seven basic categories. We will use this division with the addition of two more categories to examine the Ayervais Collection. These categories often overlap, where a specific doll can be classified into three of four categories. The purpose of the categories is to provide definitions for understanding gosho-ningyo better. Please keep in mind that the rules of determining age, hidden materials and function are not absolute. This is part of the mystery of gosho-ningyo. The Kirihata division is as follows: 1) Gift dolls 2) Crawling dolls 3) Good luck dolls 4) Dressed and Standing dolls 5) Young Prince and Princess dolls 6) "Living" dolls and 7) Thematic dolls. In addition to these we add: 8) Hinged leg dolls and 9) Mechanical dolls. These last two types are rare but this collector has had remarkable good fortune in finding the unusual.

10. Ko fuku no inori harukoma mochi
gosho-ningyo (good luck spring horse)

Gosho dolls as a whole are considered gift dolls, whether from the Imperial Household or as a gift for the celebration of a new born. A type of gosho dolls that are specifically meant as a gift are those that have their forelock tied with a red ribbon. This painted ribbon on the forehead is called a mizuhiki, referring to the red and white paper strings used to tie wrapped presents for special occasions. (4) Here the strings are used to tie the hair demarcating the gosho-ningyo as a gift for an auspicious occasion. These dolls are called Mizuhikide(5) This type of gosho doll is considered to be of the oldest type, but one must be cautious in using this aspect alone to determine age since the mizuhike was used on dolls of later manufacture as well, although not in great abundance. Sometimes the mizuhike is even added later to the doll with the appropriate blank forehead. However, this is a very rare circumstance.

11. Mitate-joba gosho-ningyo (palace
doll of a warrior child on horseback),
late Edo period, circa 1840, 32 cm

Crawling dolls served a special purpose to ward off evil and are the gosho equivalent of the earliest type of Japanese doll known as Amagatsu or Hoko. These early dolls dating back to the Heian (794-1185) period were human forms created to carry the burden of illness. The gosho variety were not created to be set adrift in a river as the earlier dolls were, but were meant to be kept near a child so that evil or illness would enter the doll instead of the child. This crawling doll, haihai, is modelled after a baby crawling on his stomach with front arms outstretched, legs extended and head looking up, often depicted in the simplest of ways. (7,8) They are usually only wearing a stomach cloth or a bib.


12. Tachiko gosho-ningyo (standing child in commoner's dress
palace doll), late Edo period, circa 1850, 27 cm

13Kogata tachiko gosho-ningyo (small standing palace doll),
late Edo period, circa 1840, 10 cm

Good luck dolls are the type of gosho-ningyo that carry an auspicious symbol of some sort, such as a treasure ship, crane, tortoise, fish, pearl or hobby horse (6, 10). These symbols are rendered as if they were toys that the baby was playing with. A favourite traditional toy for babies is the Japanese equivalent of a rattle, the denden taiko, a stick with drums and stringed weights attached (1). This toy is known for bringing much happiness to a child. In Japan good luck dolls are referred to as Ko fuku no inori gosho-ningyo, translated as luck and prayer dolls. It was believed that this type of doll would summon happiness for a child. Within the category there are many variations on this theme from the small kneeling variety about 2 to 4 inches high carved of wood with a very fine burnished gofun finish, to the larger dolls over 12 -6 inches in height that were prized among the merchant class. A favourite rendition are the gosho dolls that wear a nobleman's hat, a wish for achieving high merits.(9) The costumes seem to be quite elaborate on this type of doll with lots of attention paid to the detail of decorating the haragake with paint or embroidery. The most cherished themes are playing with a hobby horse, harukoma mochi, symbolising fertility in celebration of the new year or pulling the treasure ship, symbolic of prosperity in the new year. (10)

14. Kuge-tachiko gosho-ningyo (standing children of Court aristocrats
palace dolls), Meiji to Taisho period, circa 1900-1920, 18 cm

15. Waka-gimi-hime-gim, gosho-ningyo (boy and girl from a
noble family palace dolls), late Edo period, circa 1820, 47 cm

Dressed and standing dolls, tachiko, are a type of gosho doll which the owner dresses up in different costumes. (14)They stand upright and have flexible upper arms, not hinged but created out of cotton stuffed fabric or paper so that the costume could be easily put on or taken off. This type of arm flexibility tends to make the arms extend outward when several layers of kimono are put on. Another characteristic is the use of hair on these gosho dolls, where they less resemble babies but are more like small children dressed in adorable finery (12,13). The hairstyles are either high Court fashion or simple for the commoner child and can be dressed accordingly.

16. Kogata waka-gimi-hime-gimi gosho-ningyo (small
boy and girl from a noble family palace dolls), late
Edo period, circa 1850, 17 cm

Close relatives to the tachiko are the young prince and princess dolls, waka-gimi-hime-gimi, which are more adult-like in their appearance but still have that "baby fat" kind of look (15,16). They are usually paired male and female images dressed in fine Court costumes of kosode and hakama with the appropriate hairstyles to match. These dolls look like the children of the samurai class and were intended for their use and were very finely made. Even odd variations of these dolls exist with gosho adult variations of the prince and princess.

There is a type of gosho doll which is not just for display but was intended for actual play where the dolls would have their own play objects, changeable costumes and movable arms and legs (18). Sometimes even the heads are pivotal. These so called "living" dolls would be the Edo period aristocracy equivalent of the modern baby doll in the West. This doll evolved into what is known as the ichimatsu-type doll, named after Sanogawa Ichimatsu, an eighteenth century kabuki actor. It was believed that these "living" dolls were modelled in his likeness. The name remained in identifying this type of doll even though there was no longer any resemblance to the actor (20). The ichimatsu dolls were created to be played with and are more realistically portrayed, like babies or small children with different costumes.

17Mitate gosho-ningyo (palace
doll parody of a bannerman), Edo
period, circa 1780, 46 cm

Thematic dolls are the most amusing type of gosho-ningyo for they have the baby faces of the gosho but depict different adult themes such as No performance plays (22), Kabuki stage acts, heroes in Japanese folklore and even renditions of the different folk gods. They were created as display dolls for particular festivals or as special gifts in commemoration of a specific event. These dolls rely upon the identification of the figure. They are referred to as mitate, a parody of something well-known (17). The most favourite parody is of shishi-mae, the new year's lion dance performed by children where they hold a lion mask in one hand and the fabric tail is draped over them (19). Another popular parody is of the seven gods of good fortune where the gosho doll carries the attributes of the god such as Daikoku (21), the god of plenty with his rice bales, and Ebisu, the daily provider with his sea bream. A very unusual mitate gosho-ningyo is that of Momotaro, the peach boy (27). This is a children's folk tale of how a childless couple found a child inside a large peach and adopted him. He grew up big and strong and would provide for his aging parents by conquering the resident ogres and seize their stolen treasures. On his way he met a monkey, a pheasant and a dog whom he fed, and they all assisted him in his successful raid. This subject would seem to be popular for gosho-ningyo but apparently is quite rare. For those familiar with Japanese folklore the gosho renditions of these characters are quite charming and amusing.

18. Kogata mitsu-ore gosho-ningyo (small three-fold palace
play doll), note the accessory of a purse with fringe attached to the belt,
Edo period, circa 1800, 15 cm

19. Karakuri mitate-shishi-mae gosho-ningyo (mechanical palace doll parody of a lion dance),
late Edo period, circa 1850, 37 cm

20. Ichimatsu mitsu-ore gosho-ningyo (threefold palace play doll in urban commoner's costume),
late Edo period, circa 1840, 47 cm

21. Daikoku-mitate gosho-ningyo (palace doll
parody of the god of plenty), mid Meiji period, circa 1890, 21 cm

22. Mitate-no gosho-ningyo (two palace dolls as a parody of
a No play), late Edo period, circa 1830, 33 cm

The dolls with the hinged legs known as three-fold dolls, mitsu-ore, are not restricted to gosho-ningyo alone. This is a particular technique in allowing the doll to sit in a japanese style kneeling position as well as to stand. Usually the doll is jointed in three places: at the hip, the knee and the ankle. The ankle joint on these dolls allows for the feet to turn sideways - creating greater support for the doll as it rests in this kneeling position. Mitsu-ore are usually beautiful women dolls and sometimes even "living" dolls with their change of kimono and accessories (23,24). This type of doll is considered to be one of the best and the most desirable among collectors of Japanese dolls. One can imagine the rarity of finding a mitsu-ore gosho-ningyo.

23. Mitsu-ore waka-gimi-hime-gimi gosho-ningyo
(three-fold prince and princess palace dolls), late
Edo period, circa 1850, 30 cm

The final category for the identification of gosho-ningyo are the mechanical dolls, referred to as karakuri. These dolls are defined by mechanisms that make the doll move by means of springs, gears, belts, sand and even mercury. The mechanics for mobilising the doll were either hidden in the display stand or in the body of the doll itself. Gosho dolls are rarely mechanical. If they are, simple mechanisms are employed in the back cavity of the doll such as a turn knob to raise and lower the arms. The doll would hold a special object such as a drum, hobby horse or lion dance mask. The movement of the arms then resembles an infant playing with a toy (25, 26).

24. Naked detail of 23

There is an endless variety of gosho-ningyo forms. By identifying the different types of gosho dolls and I seeing the myriad of possible combinations that exist, we can begin to scratch the surface of the meaning and purpose behind these wonderful creations. These "dolls" are a unique art form unto themselves; made from a limited amount of material, they have an identifiable look and reflect some of the nuances of Japanese culture. This collection is one of great foresight preserving an unusual type of object from Japan's aesthetic tradition.


25 Karakuri harukoma mochl gosho-ningyo (mechanical palace doll of a spring horse holder), late Edo period, circa 1830, 23 cm   26 Karakuri denden taiko gosho-ningyo (mechanical palace doll holding a drum), late Edo period, circa 1850, 30 cm
27 Momotaro-mitate gosho-ningyo (palace doll parody of the
peach boy riding a dog), late Edo period, circa 1820, 22 cm

For further information on the Ayervais Collection refer to the catalogue of the exhibition "Ningyo: The Art of the Human Figurine-Traditional Japanese Display Dolls from the Ayervais Collection, with additional pieces from the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, The Newark Museum and the Museum of the City of New York". Curated by Gunhild Avitabile, essay by Shigeki Kawakami, catalogue entries by Sumie Kobayashi, Midori Aida and Kohichi Nakamura. Japan Society, Inc., New York, 1995.

Please visit our Japanese Ningyo page
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