The Anglo-Japanese style developed in the period from approximately 1851 to 1900, when a new appreciation for Japanese design and culture affected the art, especially the decorative art, and architecture of England. The first use of the term "Anglo-Japanese" occurs in 1851. The wider interest in Eastern or Oriental design and culture is regarded as a characteristic of the Aesthetic Movement during the same period.
Contrary to popular opinion, an early interest in Japanese art and decoration existed in England at an early, if not earlier, date than in France. The Museum of Ornamental Art (later the Victorian and Albert Museum) attached to the Government School of Design, bought Japanese lacquer and porcelain in 1852, and again in 1854 with the purchase of 37 items from the exhibition at the Old Water-Colour Society, London. Japanese art was exhibited at London in 1851, Dublin in 1853; Edinburgh 1856 and 1857; Manchester in 1857, and Bristol in 1861. The 1862 International Exhibition in London had a Japanese display which has been considered 'one of the most influential events in the history of Japanese art in the West.'
Some opinion has considered fine art to have more importance than decorative art and therefore attention has previously centred on the influence in the 1860s of the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler who introduced the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Japanese art, thus establishing a veritable cult of Japan within this Bohemian circle. It is quite clear however that serious scholarly interest was firmly established in the decorative arts in England at an earlier date. By the 1880s, the style had become a major influence on the art and decoration of the time, leaving its mark on Whistler's paintings and designs (principally Peacock Room).
The style developed in advance of the British Arts and Crafts Movement (the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was formed as late as 1887), but both are best regarded as branches from the mainstream Aesthetic Movement.
In the design of furniture, the most common and characteristic features are simple rectilinear structure, minimal decoration, often limited to incised and gilt lines or motifs such as 'mons', and most particularly an ebonized finish (or even ebony) echoing the well known 'japanned' finish. Halen (p. 69) proposes an ebonized chair exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition by A.F. Bornemann & Co of Bath, and described (and possibly designed) by Dresser as the quaint and unique Japanese character, to be the first documented piece of furniture in the Anglo-Japanese style. The types of furniture required in England such as wardrobes, sideboards and even dining-tables and easy-chairs did not have a Japanese precedent therefore Japanese principles and motifs had to be adapted to existing types in order to meet English requirements.
In much the same way as with Anglo-Japanese furniture, early examples of Japanese influence and inspiration in ceramics were noted by Dresser in his reviews of the International Exhibition, London 1862, where he remarked on Minton's 'vases enriched with Chinese or Japanese ornament'.
In the early 1870s, the Watcombe pottery in Devon produced unglazed terracotta wares, some of which rely entirely on Japanese forms and the natural colour of the clay for their ornamental effect. Japanese inspired porcelains by the Worcester factory at a similar date were much admired by the Japanese themselves. The pottery produced at the Linthorpe factory founded in 1879 closely followed Japanese examples in simple forms and especially in rich glaze effects quite revolutionary in the English market. In commercial mass-produced table wares, the style was most represented by transfer prints depicting Japanese botanical or animal motifs such as bamboos,and birds; scenes of Japan or Japanese objects such as fans. Often these were placed in a novel asymmetrical fashion in defiance of Western tradition. Glass ware was also influenced by Japanese art and the 'Frog decanter' exhibited by Thomas Webb at the International Exhibition in Paris 1867 is in its subject, simplicity and asymmetry the earliest example of Japanese influence on English glass identified to date.
The style anticipated the minimalism of 20th-century Modernism. British designers working in this style include Christopher Dresser; Edward William Godwin; James Lamb; and perhaps Philip Webb; and the decorative arts wall painting of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In the United States some of the glass and silverwork by Louis Comfort Tiffany, textiles and wallpaper by Candace Wheeler, and the furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, Daniel Pabst, Nimura and Sato, and the Herter Brothers (particularly that produced after 1870) shows influence of the Anglo-Japanese style.
Oscar Wilde's contribution, when it is remembered that he was a writer and not a designer, was in reporting and commenting upon the progress of the style, referring to "the influence which Eastern art is having on us in Europe, and the fascination of all Japanese work" in a lecture he gave in the United States in 1882 (The English Renaissance of Art).