Japan art and Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956): Aberdeenshire to Korea

Japan art and Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956): Aberdeenshire to Korea

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The artist Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956) was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. However, her artistic and creative spirit altered dramatically when she visited Japan.

One can only imagine the cultural changes concerning Aberdeenshire, London, and her time in Japan when she arrived in 1915. Irrespective of initial cultural and religious differences, Keith enjoyed her time and stayed for nine years while also visiting other countries including Korea.

The esteemed Japanese publisher Shōzaburō Watanabe (1885-1962) enabled the growing rise of shin hanga (new prints) by supporting the work of many artists. He encouraged Keith to commit herself to also producing woodblock prints – after viewing her work.

The British Museum says, she was a “Landscape and figure artist working in watercolors and woodcuts. Born in Scotland and was self-taught. Visited Japan in 1915, where her sister had married an English publisher living in Tokyo, and remained in the Far East for nine years, traveling in Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines. Studied Japanese woodblock printmaking techniques, her prints being published in Tokyo, where she also had an exhibition of her Korean watercolors in 1919. Returned to England in 1924, with further visits to Japan in 1932 and 1935.”

Keith also enjoyed her time in Korea. After visiting the Diamond Mountains, she said, “I would not have missed the grandeur for all the danger. Sometimes a mountaintop would appear like the dome of a great cathedral. Then the tops would look like jagged spires. . . . The beauty of the climb was a revelation to me.” 

One can only imagine how nationalism and wars impacted her mental state. This concerns Japanese nationalism in Korea and her birth nation and Japan clashing in World War Two – while also knowing the legacy of the British Empire on countless people on several continents.

The Annex Galleries says, “In 1928, Keith published the diary of her travels in the book Eastern Windows, complete with sketches. She returned to Asia and Japan twice more before World War II. As a printmaker and watercolorist, she gained an international reputation and exhibited to great acclaim in Britain and the United States. In 1933, Keith began mastering the techniques of color etching and continued to produce prints from sketches she had made in Asia.”

Keith had very fond memories of Japan. Artistically, the nation of Japan opened her eyes to new thinking – and publishers welcomed her with open arms. However, Keith was saddened by the colonial period she lived in – and events in Korea concerning the occupation of this nation by Japan. Therefore, it is comforting to know that art bridged the “inhumanity of empires” and generated mutual respect on a personal level throughout her life – related to the United Kingdom and her cherished time in Northeast Asia.


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