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In the Frame: Researching Japanese Prints for the Floating Worlds: Japanese Woodcuts Exhibition

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A curious collection

Museums aren’t always perfect. Sometimes, just sometimes, there is a box or three in the stores that just don’t make any sense. In 2018, our Paper Conservator Amy, was checking one such box. It’s not like the curators didn’t know it was there, or what it contained. It’s just that it had been there for so long, it was hard to know how best to tackle it.

Detail from Kunisada, Three ladies wading through a stream, 1853-57

This box, along with three others, housed a collection of 18th and 19th Century Japanese woodblock prints, often known as Nishiki-e or Ukiyo-e. The information about them was scant – who were they by? Where did they come from? There is no Japanese speaker on the museum staff, let alone an expert in this huge subject area. It had become one of those shelved ‘for later’ projects.

The prints were fabulous. Beautiful landscapes, people in exotic and elaborate kimonos, expressive actors in masks and makeup. Warriors, street scenes, battle scenes, animals, still life, as well as ceremonial and symbolic images – what a collection. Some prints had rambling, descriptive titles, a few had an artist’s name pencilled on the back. But for the most part, they were just beautiful, yet mysterious images.

The reverse of a print that reads: ‘one of the 60 views of Tokio [sic] by Hiroshige 1st Reg 552 6 Framers date 1904

A tricky task

Thankfully, Amy was on hand to help. We chose a manageable selection and turning detective, we double checked these prints for clues. We realised many of them already had true titles and artist attributions within the image, printed in Japanese Kanji characters. Our friends at the Brighton Japan Club confirmed that these were typically in ancient, non-standard (aka hard to read) Japanese.

The signature block of Hiroshige (also used by Hiroshige II), with publisher, engraver and censor marks

Luckily for us, these prints were made in series and produced in vast numbers. We double checked ours against works in internationally renowned collections. As with everything about these prints, it wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Names varied over time as artists used nicknames or took on parts of their master’s name. The great Ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai used over 30 different names to sign his work. The prolific artist Utagawa Kunisada became known as Toyokuni III and often used the same signature block as two different artists Toyokuni I and Toyokuni II.

Ancient Japanese is open to interpretation; translations of titles varied across organisations. Artists (and forgers) copied each other. Worn or popular blocks were recut, arising in subtle differences. Dating is incredibly tricky, not to mention a zodiacal calendar.

We got there in the end, but it was a slow, laborious process of checking and re-checking. Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, Kunisada, Eizan, Toyokuni – so many great artists were being revealed.

A collection conundrum

One question still really niggled me: why do we have such a large collection of Japanese prints in Brighton Museum at all? The provenance was not quite clear.

Anderson & Hart collection markings seen on the reverse of some of the prints

Some of the prints were stamped with non-museum numbers or were claimed to be from the collection of Ernest Hart and/or William Anderson. Hart and Anderson were prominent medics, who were founding members of the Japan Society of London, in 1891. It turns out they had quite a collection of Asian art between them. Much of the Anderson and Hart collections went to the British Museum – so how did we have these works in Brighton? Our records did not show any donations from them. The mystery deepened.

Unlocking the mystery

Following a meeting with a visiting university scholar, we found a curious little Japanese art exhibition catalogue from 1918. No images, but in it was a list of some of the prints, with titles, and a explanation of who gave them to us.

The catalogue from the exhibition of Japanese Art, 1918

Hart and Anderson knew an art dealer called Ogawa Tanosuke. Tanosuke’s primary interest was in ceramics and he was a friend and collaborator with Henry Willett – a founding father of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Tanosuke gave his collection of Japanese prints to the Brighton Corporation and as it turns out, the Jubilee Library also have some in their collection.

Our Japanese prints have come from several other sources too. We still have much work to do on this wonderful collection, but these enigmatic prints are well on the way to giving up at least some of their secrets.

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Fiona Story, Creative Programme Coordinator