A GUIDE TO JAPANESE PRINTS - BASIL STEWART
HOW COLOUR-PRINTS WERE PRODUCED
First Appearance of Japanese Prints in Europe — Captain Osborn's Japanese Fragments—French and American Collectors—Aesthetic Characteristics of Japanese Prints.
THE interest of European and American collectors in Japanese colour-prints is of comparatively modern origin, and dates approximately from the time when Japan was thrown open to the outside world, and her art products became accessible to the foreigner, a process accelerated, at the beginning, by the keenness of the natives to acquire in exchange European culture and manufactures to the disparagement of their own arts. True, they soon found out their mistake, but in the interval the eager dealer and collector from abroad had made good use of their opportunities, particularly where colour-prints were concerned.
These prints first made their appearance in France, via Holland, whence they came from the Dutch trading at Nagasaki, in the early part of last century, about 1815. They were, however, considered only as curiosities in those days, without any appreciation of their artistic merit. As it is said that they were merely used by the Dutch at Nagasaki as wrappings for parcels, when dispatching goods to Europe, or stuffed in bales, their condition on arrival would hardly conduce to a proper appreciation of their merit as works of art. The prints of Utamaro and Hokusai are supposed to have been the first to thus leave the land of their origin and be seen in Europe.
M. Isaac Titsingh, who died in Paris in 1812, was for many years an official of the Dutch company trading at Nagasaki, and amongst his collection of Japanese art objects, books, etc., were a few (less than a dozen) colour-prints, probably prints by Utamaro. As far as any definite records tell us, M. Titsingh's prints were, most probably, the first to find their way into Europe at the hands of a collector, apart from any which arrived as wrappings for merchandise.
The earliest mention of Japanese prints that the writer has been able to discover in any book published in this country is to be found in an interesting (but now rare) work of 139 pages, entitled Japanese Fragments, by Captain Sherard Osborn (London, 1861). This book contains six reproductions of prints by Hiroshige, coloured by hand, and various cuts in the text, mostly taken from Hokusai's book, Hundred Views of Fuji.
The author had been in command of the frigate which conveyed our ambassador, Lord Elgin, to Yedo Bay, on a mission which resulted in the signing of the treaty of 1858, based on the similar treaty just previously concluded between Japan and America. These treaties, by which certain ports were opened to foreign trade, and at which foreign settlements were established, marked the termination of Japan's two centuries of seclusion from the outer world.
Captain Osborn's prints, then, must have been amongst the earliest examples to be seen in this country, and he certainly, by his reference thereto, appreciated them as much for their artistic merit as for their (in those days) curiosity. He says in his Preface : "I have found much encouragement in being able to illustrate my fragmentary tale of the strange things of Japan with a series of beautiful illustrations, bought during my stay in the city of Yedo."
In allusion to one of the coloured illustrations, a reproduction of one of Hiroshige's scenes in his "Sixty Odd Provinces" series, he writes : "Even the humble artists of that land become votaries of the beautiful, and in such efforts as the one annexed, strive to do justice to the scenery. Their appreciation of the picturesque is far in advance, good souls, of their power of pencil, but our embryo Turner has striven hard to reproduce the combined effects of water, mountain, cloud, and spray."
Little did our author imagine, when he penned these words, that the day was not very far distant when "our embryo Turner" would be considered one of the two greatest landscape artists of his or any other country, and that one of his masterpieces would fetch from ninety to a hundred pounds in the auction room a bare fifty years later, and to-day is probably worth three times that sum.
Elsewhere Captain Osborn makes reference to the realism which these humble artists conveyed into their designs, in the following words: "These native illustrations bring before us in vivid relief the scenery, towns and villages, highways and byways of that strange land - the costumes, tastes, and I might also say, the feelings of the people - so skilful are Japanese artists in the Hogarth-like talent of transferring to their sketches the characteristics of passing scenes."
Coming from a writer who had visited Japan before it had adopted the notions of Western civilization, and while it yet remained the country of Hokusai and Hiroshige, who knew so well how to portray it, these appreciations of their pictorial art have an added interest at the present day.
Japanese colour-prints first attained more general recognition at the International Exhibition of 1862 in London, where the first public exhibition of them was given amongst the collection of Japanese Arts and Handicrafts formed by the late Sir Rutherford Alcock, but they were the late and inferior specimens by contemporary artists then being sold in the streets of Yedo, Osaka, and Yokohama, as he states in his book, Art and Art Industries in Japan, that he made his collection in the markets of the latter town.
Paris appears to have been the centre in which Japanese print collecting was first seriously taken up in Europe, from about the year 1880 onwards, a movement that had its origin in the Paris Exhibition of 1867, which contained a display of Japanese colour-prints, though only by inferior artists. Amongst French collectors of this time M. de Goncourt stands out as one of the most important, and his volumes on Utamaro (1891) and Hokusai (1896) are standard works on these two masters of Ukiyoye. The dispersal of several important collections took place in Paris between the years 1890 and 1900, thus giving to Paris a pre-eminence amongst print collectors, and helping to extend a knowledge of the art to a larger circle, which had hitherto been confined to a few connoisseurs.
These sales included the following collections: Burty (March 16-20, 1891); an amateur (anonymous) (June 19-22, 1891); Duret (February, 1897); and Goncourt (March 8-13, 1897). The Hayashi sale, probably one of the largest private collections ever dispersed at auction, was held in Paris, June 2-6, 1902.
American collectors, however, were the first in the field, or at least, if not earlier than the French, took up the serious study of this new art much in advance of amateurs in this country, while German collectors were the last to do so.
Americans, also, were much more fastidious in what examples they admitted into their collections, and insisted more on condition than collectors in this country were at first wont to do. Consequently French and American collections show a higher standard, and contain a larger proportion of fine examples of the work of artists whose designs are rare than is the case with other countries.
Prints, therefore, which are the pride of these collections rarely find their way to London, so that the English collector has a somewhat limited field wherein to acquire these art treasures, there being many of the rarer and more desirable prints he cannot hope to possess. Moreover, fine examples of almost any artist, and particularly of those in the first rank, are becoming more difficult to obtain as each year passes, owing to increasing competition, particularly from collectors in Japan itself, coupled with the fact that dispersals of large private collections in this country have been few and far between during recent years.
Owing to the immense production of Japanese colour-prints, as compared with the output of European wood-engravers, all of whose work is known and has been catalogued, to acquire the complete work of any of the leading masters of Ukiyoye is probably an impossibility; yet but a proportion of their original output has come down to us. Hence it is that in every collection, public or private, one meets with new examples, and no one collection, however large or varied, can hope to be complete.
In the province of collecting examples of graphic art, Japanese colour-prints may therefore be considered unique in this respect, and for this reason it is difficult, if not indeed invidious, to make comparisons between different collections. Amongst public collections that in the Museum of Boston, in America, is probably the largest, while that in the British Museum may also claim to be in the first rank, though perhaps somewhat defective in quality from a collector's standpoint.
The largest collections, however, are in private hands, the most notable in Europe being those of Parisian collectors, amongst whom M. Henri Vever is pre-eminent . In America, which possesses many fine collections, that of the Spaulding brothers, of Boston, is the largest and best known, and early last year (i.e. 1920) the fine collection of Mr. Davison Ficke was sold by auction in New York, when some exceptionally high prices were realized. No collection of equal importance has appeared in the auction room in this country since the dispersal of the Swettenham and Danckwerts' collections in 1912 and 1914 respectively.
The charm which old Japanese colour-prints undoubtedly have for those who come under their spell, even when they cannot at first understand their language, lies in their pure beauty of decorative treatment combined with totally different canons of drawing. They are so different that they compel attention, so that, once their conventions are understood, one becomes fascinated by their beauty and simplicity of drawing. Western art distracts and irritates by its unnecessary, and often meaningless, detail in attempts at realism; the Japanese colour-print designer wisely understood the limits of his art, and made no attempt to copy Nature, though, if he choose, he could - as in his drawings of flowers, birds, and insects - attain to a realism far beyond that reached by his Western confreres. He allows no extraneous details to divert attention from the subject of his picture, which he presents in such a fashion as shall hold the mind to the exclusion of all else.
Few of the many thousands who glance at the large pictorial advertisements on our street hoardings to-day realize to what extent the great improvement in their design, which has become evident within the last fifteen years or so, is due to the art of these Japanese craftsmen of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These prints, indeed, owe their origin to the large theatrical posters which were displayed outside the popular theatres of Yedo. To the modern designer of posters they offer superb examples of the correct use of bold outline in conjunction with large masses of colour, and of the most effective manner of grouping figures in a design. Their influence in many a pictorial advertisement, not only on street hoardings (an influence all to the good, as anyone who remembers the hideous posters of twenty to twenty-five years ago will admit), is at once apparent to all who have seen and admired the beautiful productions of the Ukiyoye school of Japan.