Two Japanese Lanterns – Revealed

September 25, 2019

The museum’s Japanese lanterns outside Ravenhill Mansion in 1904.

In my last post I left off establishing that two lanterns recently published in Expedition magazine came from Zōjō-ji temple and had come to the museum in 1919 from a Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs. While I had photos of the lanterns outside the Trescher entrance I wondered if there were other photos of them outside the museum.

 I looked over the our board minutes and found an entry from May 20, 1919, it stated:

“Mr[s]. Richard Waln Meirs has placed on deposit two Japanese temple lanterns. These have been set up at the 34th Street entrance to the Auditorium.”

When I read that I immediately went to my archive of aerial photographs to see if I could find one that showed them in their original location. I found one dated to 1929 showing the outside of the auditorium and sure enough, they were there! (visible at the bottom of the photo). I also found a photo from 1931 with the one closest to the Rotunda visible and flanked by some cars.

The lanterns outside Harrison Auditorium in 1929

Now that I had the name of the donor I asked the Archivist if there was any correspondence between Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs and George Byron Gordon, the director of the museum at the time. Perhaps she may have mentioned how they were acquired.

In a letter to Gordon dated to March 7, 1919 Mrs. Meirs outlined the lanterns’ origins:

“They are very old and are from one of the Buddhist Temples destroyed during the Great Earthquake of 1891 and were sent to this country by my uncle Mr. Walker when we were in Japan.”

The Mr. Walker mentioned is Robert Jarvis Cochran Walker a politician and business man of considerable means who may have had contacts in Japan. In his obituary it is mentioned that he was “fond of travel and made several voyages abroad, on one or two occasions making the journey around the globe, and spending several months in China and Japan.” He is also mentioned in a travelogue that places him in Japan in the late 1880’s with one of his cousins. The correspondence also stated that upon the lanterns arrival in America they were placed on the grounds of Ravenhill mansion the home of Anne Marie Weightman Penfield, who at one time was one of the richest women in the world. Curious that they were placed outside a private residence I did some research on Ravenhill and found that it was located in Germantown and had been sold and turned into the school that Grace Kelly attended before going on to movie stardom and royalty. Even more surprising was a photo I found on the website of the East Falls Historical Society showing the Ravenhill mansion in 1901, complete with lanterns on either side! ( you can make out the one on the far right the easiest, the other is hiding behind a tree off the left side of the porch)

Ravenhill Mansion – 1901 – The lanterns are just visible are either side of the porch

The story of the lanterns was now coming into focus. Created in 1705 in honor of Keisho-in, the mother of the shogunate, they were in placed at Zōjō-ji temple until they were damaged by an earthquake in the late 19th century. Robert Jarvis Cochran Walker procured them while travelling abroad and sent them back the states where they were placed at the Ravenhill mansion, then the residence of William “the quinine king” Weightman and father of Anne Marie Weightman Penfield. William Weightman died in 1904 and Ravenhill passed onto his daughter who in 1910 decided to give it to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

A plan for Stoner Courtyard by Frederick W.G. Peck indicates the location of one of the lanterns.

In 1919 when final preparations were being made to turn the building over to the archdiocese Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs contacted George Byron Gordon about having them on display outside the museum. They were placed outside the auditorium on the west side of the building where they remained until around 1932 where they were moved to the Trescher entrance as part of a renovation of the space. At this point Gordon had passed away and there was no curator of Japanese art at the museum nor were the lanterns ever given a proper accession number. They somehow slipped into obscurity. They occasionally show up in paperwork where staff assume they are Chinese or simply refer to them as “antique lanterns.” One is loaned to a flower show put on by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at the now defunct Commercial Museum.

Decades later one of the lanterns was vandalized and the museum brought it inside (sometime around 1970). When new construction was done on the Stoner Courtyard (around 1999), the other lantern was moved into the inner courtyard. It remained there until a conservation project moved it inside for safekeeping in 2018.

One of the Japanese lanterns as it appeared in the inner courtyard of the museum.

Additionally a number of large bells were recently discovered which most likely belong to the lanterns. Subsequent research may reveal more about how they were procured by Jarvis Walker in Japan and sent to the US. For now they wait to have their day in the sun again (so to speak), having greeted visitors to the museum for almost 100 years.

For more information about the lanterns in this post see “The Tale of the Tokugawa Artifacts: Japanese Funerary Lanterns at the Penn Museum” by Yoko Nishimura in the Spring 2019 issue of Expedition Magazine.