For many years, Altfield has produced fine decorative accessories inspired by the antiques and artisanal crafts of various Asian cultures, including the classical Japanese style known as Byobu (“protection from the wind”), or folding screens. The team at Altfield Gallery explains why they’re so special.
Byobu screens depict scenes from nature, and the lifestyle of the elite Samurai. They were originally developed as dividers for both indoors and outdoors – the zigzag construction allows them to be free-standing or wall mounted. These functional and versatile screens evolved in format over the years to allow greater artistic freedom. For example, the innovative development of an unobtrusive paper hinge allowed for the use of one vast expanse of unbroken paper; this was ideal for continuous large-scale horizontal compositions.
Though simple in appearance, folding screens are complicated structures made of paper and wood. The individual panels are composed of carefully joined wood lattice frames, covered on both sides with layers of paper that form a dense, elastic mattress. Squares of gold, silver and metal leaf are applied by hand to the paper base and the painting is done on the gilded surface. Lacquer rails are then applied to the perimeter to finish the edges of the screen and provide support.
The screens in our collection display a wide variety of themes and include works that represent the major schools of Japanese fine decorative art of the 16th to 19th centuries. There is a focus on early 17th century works, which beautifully document the decorative taste of an increasingly affluent society. The use of gold in screen paintings was perfected during the Momoyama period (1573-1615) when some of the finest screens were commissioned by the warrior elite. Examples are included in this collection, particularly of the Rimpa school, which was extremely influential in defining the Japanese decorative arts tradition of centuries to come.
The hand-painted screens come to life with compositions of immense sophistication, which are often deceptively simple with delicate wisteria flowers, plum blossoms and peonies, as well as the iconic flowing rivers and willowy bamboo groves. These scenes offer an alternative vision of an idealised and perfect world in harmony with nature. The screens are made in a variety of sizes, in combinations of two, four or six panels, with the images painted on either distressed paper or Dutch metal leaf for a gold or silver effect. Additionally, we’re able to produce special sizes, colours and designs.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.