William Empson arrived in Tokyo just a month short of reaching 25, following the expulsion from Magdalene College that so complicated his career. He spent the bulk of the 1930s teaching English literature in Japan and China. Buddhist sculpture made an immediate spellbinding impression on him: ‘the drooping eyelids of the great creatures are heavy with patience and suffering’, he wrote of ‘the Buddha type’. Having first encountered the imposing likenesses in Japan, Empson pursued them throughout Asia, travelling upstream relative to the spread of Buddhism, from the Far East to the earliest monuments in India, and visiting on various trips Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Ceylon. In the war years, he assembled his observations in The Face of the Buddha, an art-critical monograph whose manuscript was given, in 1947, to John Davenport. Davenport’s amnesia led him to...

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