Sunday 30 December 2018

The Colour-prints of Japan: an Appreciation and History (1906)

Woodblock printing has been used in China since at least the fourth century AD.  The earliest Japanese examples of block printing dates from several hundred years later in the reign of Empress Shiyau-toku (764-770). 

The woodblock technique reached its highest level of excellence and popularity in the Ukiyo-e style of prints that were popular from the 17th century until the early 19th century. These popular prints depict actors, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women, landscapes, trees, flowers, erotica and scenes from folk history. The prints were created by a collaborative quartet: the artist who conceived the composition and drew the image; the engraver who carved the design into multiple blocks of wild cherry wood, one block for each colour; the printer who inked the blocks and made the printed impressions and the publisher who financed the work and marketed the results.  

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was an artist who painted more than thirty thousand designs. He was also a master designer of Ukiyo-e prints. One of his favourite subjects was the distinctive peak of Mount Fuji. This was painted from different vantage points, in different seasons and under different weather conditions. Sometimes the mountain completely dominates the scene. In others, it almost disappears into the background behind an old man working on a barrel, or a busy river crossing or an agricultural activity.  Even the best known of Hokusai's prints, the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, although dominated by a huge okinami wave that is threatening to engulf several boat loads of sailors, has in the background the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. 

The image shown here, Hodogoya on the Tokaid0, is from the set of 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai that was first published in 1830.  This original series of prints was so popular that Hokusai later added another ten views of Mount Fuji to the series. 

This scene shows a small group of travellers who are making their way along a tree lined avenue near to Hodogoya on the Tokaido highway, leading away from Edo.  At the left is a traveller being carried in a litter or kago, who is waiting for one of the bearers to mop his brow and the other to tie his sandal.  At the centre of the composition the man who is leading the horse is pointing his herding stick towards Mount Fuji in the background. The form of the horse borne passenger with a domed hat mirrors the peak of Mount Fuji and the horse blanket incorporates designs derived from the seal of the publisher.  At the right is an itinerant monk wearing a sedge hat and bearing a flute in his clothing. Behind this scene of everyday movements on the road sits the imperious and immobile Fujiyama.   

During his long artistic career Hokusai used thirty-one pen names (including: Katsukawa Shunro, Gummatei , Tawaraya Sori, Hyakurin Sori, Kako, Tokimasa, Taito & Manji). By his mid seventies he called himself Gwakio-rojin, the old man, mad about drawing and he wrote the following:
From the age of five I have had a mania for drawing the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality  of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees.  Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvellous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words. 
Hokusai was one of Japan's most prolific artists, but until recently only a small number of his preparatory sketches and drawings for illustrations were known.  The recent discovery by M. Bertrand Rousseau of a private European collection of 24 sheets of preparatory sketches and drawings for illustrations printed between 1807 and 1815 has filled a void. Meticulous examination of these works has shed some light on the period when Hokusai was at the peak of his artistic mastery, and has led to a series of striking discoveries about his working methods. Hokusai developed a visual shorthand to indicate to the engraver how they wanted particular details, such as the decoration of items of clothing or clumps of pine needles, to be rendered.  For me one of the most interesting aspects of this study is a series of very detailed comparisons between the published prints and corresponding preparatory sketches. 

This book was written by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Fairbrother Strange CBE (1862-1929) a British civil servant who worked at the South Kensington Museum from 1889, where he headed the department of Engraving, Illustration and Design for a long period and later became Keeper of Woodwork.  Strange was an expert who wrote numerous museum catalogues and popular books on Japanese arts and crafts.

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: Hodogoya on the Tokaido by Katsushika Hokusai.


Amsden, D. (1905). Impressions of Ukiyo-ye. Elder & Co. San Francisco.

Lane, R. (1978). Images from the Floating World. Putnam, New York.

Rousseau, B. (2009). `Drawings by Hokusai: Groundbreaking discoveries'. Orientations Magazine Vol. 40. No. 6.