Tuesday, 6 April 2010

ABC Wednesday L is for Lithophane

My father travelled extensively during his time in the Royal Navy, visiting parts of the world which were later forbidden to Westerners for many decades. From a voyage to the Far East before the Second World War he brought back tea and coffee sets for my mother. They were made from fragile eggshell china and hand-painted with Japanese scenes of water, trees and houses, junk-rigged sailing boats and bridges. As a child I loved to study these delicate paintings.

The most fascinating items were the cups. As each cup was held up to the light an image of a geisha's face appeared in the base. The likeness was seen clearly only when lit from behind.
This geisha has a flower in her hair.
This geisha is directing her gaze forward. The fact that there are two depictions of geishas leads me to believe that my father bought two different sets - or picked up a mixed lot. I wish I could ask him!
Recognising the appeal they held for me my mother promised the sets to me and packed them, carefully wrapped, into a large box and told me she would keep them until I had a home of my own. I subsequently married a soldier and we didn't have our own home for several years, relying on the army to provide us with quarters. Through the years I occasionally thought about these beautiful sets and wondered what had happened to them. They were rediscovered when we cleared my parents' home. I was delighted to see them again.
Assuming you're right-handed this is the front of the tea pot - or is it a coffee pot?
 . . . and this is the back! Japanese children are all expected to be right-handed. Even if they are natural left-handers they must change to their right hand for calligraphy otherwise they cannot produce neat work - or so I was told by the left-handed mother of a left-handed child many years ago.
A cursory glance gives the impression that they are all the same but each piece is unique. Sometimes the differences are slight – two boats rather than three, or a bridge of another design. Mount Fuji features in the background of each item.
I did some research and discovered that this moulded artwork is called lithophane and is created in very thin translucent porcelain. It represents a three-dimensional image and is particularly effective when used in a window where the image changes throughout the day according to the sunlight.
Many historians believe that the first lithophanes were created in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) They were also produced throughout Europe from the 18th century through to the early 20th century.
I also discovered that by the end of 1930 all Japanese potteries started producing lithophanes on tea cups and sake cups. Bizarrely this resurgence was linked with the first emergence of tea bags. The popularity of lithophane continued after WWII during the Occupation of Japan (1945 – 1952) Many lithophane pieces were taken back to the USA by American troops. The production declined until it almost stopped in the 50s.
After our late lunch on Easter Sunday we drank coffee and tea from my favourite cups. My pieces have no backstamp, no signature, no identifying mark to note who made them. (Indeed, they may well have been produced in China!) The handles on the tea and coffee pots are quite 'heavy' and somewhat crude but it is not the pottery I love so much, apart from the cups and saucers, as the illustrations on it. I know they have little monetary value but for me they are priceless treasures to be loved and appreciated for their mystery and history and absolute loveliness.
Now this is a coffee pot . . . or is it for hot chocolate?
Thanks go to Denise Nesbitt and her team for organising and hosting this meme. What have other people chosen for their Ls this week? Click here to find out.


  1. Sounds like a fabulous heirloom. It sounds absolutely gorgeous :)

  2. Your tea cups bring back memories of china my family had when I was a child...except I have no idea what happened to any of it. I hope whoever has it appreciates it as much as you appreciate yours.

  3. Radiant beauty in these precious pieces! I did not know the word "lithophane" at all! Thanks for the great information!

  4. I have vague memories of seeing similar china in my youth. I remember it being so very delicate. Beautiful.

  5. I think you hold a real treasure there ! the pieces are absolutely gorgeous and the Geisha face appearing in the base is something really special. I am sure this service has quiet some value now !
    Sometimes I watch "Bargain Hunt" or "Cash in the attic" and am surprised what things have value and what not, lol !

  6. What a delightful post! And how beautiful each piece is! Not to mention the lovely memories! Wonderful take on the L for today, Janice! Hope your week is going well!


  7. Thanks for sharing the beauty. And now I know first hand about lithophane. Such dear possessions. The Geisha images blew me away!

  8. What a lovely heirloom, and will look stunning on the table.
    I remember my friend's parents had a set of tea cups with the geishas (he was ex Merchant Navy), might have got them from the same place:-) They were on display but never used, except to let me look through the bottom and go, ooh.
    Wow what a coincidence the word verification on this comment is - botom

  9. You have a family treasure there in your lithophane (new word for me!). I have a few things from my parents which are treasures to me, but nothing as precious as that. Take good care of it for the future generations.

  10. Beautiful heirlooms! They are exquisite...

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  12. Thank you dear people! Anything which resonates with you from your childhood is to be treasured - and sometimes we don't realise until much later how much those treasures mean and what memories they evoke :-)

  13. Beautiful photos of these charming pieces. They must mean a great deal to you - wonderful heirlooms.

  14. This is absolutely the best ABC post I've seen this week - I love it. Two thumbs up from me!

    I'd never heard of this technique, and lithophane is a new word for me (I love new words!) but I read it out to my friend who is staying with me and as I was describing it she finished the sentence '.... and they have pictures in the bottom when you hold them up to the light'! It turns out her father had a set! She tells me, by the way, that there was more than one picture in the bottom of the cups in her father's set, so yours may not be a mixed set after all.

    Enjoyable post - on behalf of the team, thanks for taking part in ABC Wednesday this week! :)

  15. Such beautiful heirlooms. To have these pieces to remember your parents and then to pass on - what a treasure!

  16. Your china is beautiful. I love the fact that the pictures change a little in sunlight. I also love the faces that are in the bottom of the cup. It is great to be able to use special china every so often!

  17. A great history, and wonderful detail in the photos. I've seen this once or twice but never knew the name.

    On behalf of the ABC Wednesday team, thank you!

  18. The pieces are really beautiful and i see very well preserved. For if you must know, the mark of the geisha is in Kutani. Greetings.

  19. The pieces are really beautiful and I see very well preserved. For if you must know, the mark of the geisha is in Kutani. A greeting.


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