On the Laws of Japanese Painting

Laws of Japanese Painting cover
Cover of "On the Laws of Japanese Painting"

One of the little joys of researching obscure century-old books is when the equally obscure author suddenly springs to life. So it was with Henry P. Bowie, author of On the Laws of Japanese Painting, published by Paul Elder in 1911.

The book is a more than just the laws of Japanese painting; it also discusses calligraphy, ink, animal and vegetable sources for different colors, signature seals, and even how to properly view the artwork (from a distance of one tatami mat, and not from a standing position). There are 65 plates (a very high number for an Elder publication). The production doesn’t quite measure up to the content: the typography feels too ‘industrial’ and printer John Bernhardt Swart peppers the text with florid ‘st’ and ‘ct’ ligatures.

Henry Pike Bowie (1848-1921) was born in Maryland, but his family moved to San Francisco soon afterwards. He studied law with the attorney Hall McAllister (after whom McAllister street in San Francisco is named). He seems to have done well for himself as a lawyer, but did even better for himself as a husband: in 1879 he married the wealthy and twice-widowed Agnes Poett Howard, retired from the law, and went to live with her at her estate “El Cerrito” in Hillsborough.

Laws of Japanese Painting title
Title page of "On the Laws of Japanese Painting"

In the 1880s, Henry and Agnes approached Makoto Hagiwara to build a garden and tea house on their estate. (Hagiwara would later design the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 1894 California International Midwinter Exposition. He is also often credited with introducing America to the fortune cookie.) They named their garden Higurashi-en, meaning “a garden worthy of a day’s contemplation.” Among the signature plants is a silver-green, five-needled Mikado pine, said to be given to Bowie by Emperor Meiji. (The estate was subdivided long ago but the garden still exists at 70 De Sabla Road in San Mateo, although much reduced in size. The current owners purchased the neglected property in 1988 and have gradually restored it. The garden is now on the National Register of Historic Places.)

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"Laws of Japanese Painting", page 1. The headband shows flowers and leaves of the peony.

When Agnes died in 1893, Henry Bowie took a trip to Japan, and enjoyed it so much he returned the next year. It was a turning point in his life: Bowie would subsequently live in Japan for extensive periods and become fluent in Japanese. He studied many aspects of Japanese culture, including painting and the Shinto religion. In 1905 Bowie co-founded the Japan Society of Northern California and served as the society’s first president (the other co-founder was David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University). In 1909, Bowie dedicated a memorial gate in the garden, designed by Sekko Shimada and Suikichi Yagi, and built by Japanese craftsmen brought over specifically for the project. The gate was designed to honor the valor of Japanese sailors and soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.

In 1918, he sailed for Japan as special emissary of the U.S. Department of State. Shortly after returning in 1921, Bowie fell ill and died at the age of 72. When his will was read, all were shocked to learn that half the estate was left to his wife Komako Hirano, and his two sons Imao and Taweo. No one in California knew that Bowie had married and started a second family in Japan—although it was common knowledge in Japan and the Japanese newspapers ran prominent obituaries. Bowie’s stepson George Howard unsuccessfully contested the will in 1922.

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"Laws of Japanese Painting", page 6-7. The design is leaves of the icho plant, placed in books to prevent bookworms.
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"Laws of Japanese Painting", page 46-7. The art is the pattern known as "bamboo and the swelling sparrow"


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"Laws of Japanese Painting", plates X and XI