THE COLOUR-PRINTS OF HIROSHIGE
TECHNIQUE AND HISTORY OF JAPANESE COLOUR-PRINTS
In order fully to appreciate the work by which the Japanese artist, Hiroshige, is best known, a clear understanding of the technical processes involved is absolutely necessary. The social and artistic environment in which he lived also merits attention, as well as some slight outline of the conditions which led up to it.
The colour-prints which have deservedly won so high a reputation throughout the civilized world, and are beginning even to attract the notice of educated people in Japan, were produced by a method with which we find the earliest parallel in the so-called chiaroscuro prints made in Italy and elsewhere during the sixteenth century; for these, too, were done from boldly cut wood-blocks with a separate printing for each colour. The Chinese seem to have had the process before it became established in Japan; and, although the art of engraving on wood goes back in both countries to a date far earlier than that of the European productions, it seems quite possible that the hint embodying the essential feature of the Far Eastern colour-print was derived from the prints of sacred subjects taken out by the Jesuit Fathers. Those who went to China, at all events, were keenly interested in the arts and sciences, as their published works show; and they are known in more than one instance to have imparted a considerable amount of worldly learning to their hosts.
The method used in the production of Hiroshige's prints had no great antiquity, so far as Japan was concerned; for its beginnings, cannot be placed much earlier than about the year 1744. Some twenty years later, under the auspices of Harunobu, assisted by the engraver Kinroku, and the printers Ogawa Hatcho and Yumoto Yukiye, it may be said to have reached its fullest technical development, subject, of course, to variations due to the personality of the men who used it. And that method may shortly be stated as follows:
A Japanese colour-print was the product of three separate operations, carried out by different individuals, viz.: The artist who made the design, and whose name it bears; the engraver who cut the blocks; and the printer. In this sense, it furnishes a quite remarkable example of the harmonious and efficient co-operation of distinct classes of craftsmen. The designer - Hiroshige certainly began by making a rough sketch or note of his subject. This would be re-drawn and elaborated, in clean line, on thin paper, to the scale selected for publication; the drawing being done with the brush and, as a rule, almost entirely in black. On paper of this slight substance, correction in the methods used by our artists was impossible. When necessary, and only to a small extent, it was effected by re-drawing the portion of the design concerned and pasting it over the first version. How far a completed version, in full colour, was first made by the artist, it is difficult to say; but, judging from the very few examples that seem to have survived, this was not the general practice.
The drawing in line now went to the engraver, who pasted it, face downwards, on a block of cherry-wood (yamazakura), using a weak rice-paste for this purpose. The paper was then rubbed away sufficiently to enable all lines to be seen clearly, a little oil being used, if necessary, to render them more visible. The outlines were incised with a sharp knife, and the superfluous wood removed with chisels or gouges, so as to leave the design in clearly defined relief. Registration marks for printing (kento) were cut at the same time - consisting simply of a right angle at one corner and a vertical line at one side; as well as such inscriptions, signatures or seals as were desired to appear in black on the finished print. The wood, it should be said, was cut plank-wise, and not across the grain in the manner practised by the later European engravers. Moreover, great care was taken in the selection of it; and the engraver must be given the credit (unless he was very closely supervised by the artist) of choosing, frequently, blocks for particular parts of the design, with a grain that substantially added to the effect of the latter. The names of few engravers are known; but the beauty and precision of their work claim a larger meed of recognition than they have ever yet received.
So far, however, we have only completed one block - the keyblock of the design. This now goes to our third craftsman, the printer, who takes from it a number of proofs. His method is simple, involving the use of no mechanical device whatever. The ink is laid on the block, and the paper on that. The impression is then rubbed off with a convenient tool (the baren), consisting merely of a coil of cord made of bamboo-sheath fibre, stiffened with card and enclosed within bamboo sheath, the turned-up ends of which form the handle. For accuracy of register and quality of colour the printer relies on his craftsmanship alone, except for the guiding marks on the block mentioned previously.
From the key-block he takes proofs to the extent of one for each colour
proposed to be used. On these the artist, so to speak, dissects his design,
and indicates on each the precise portion allotted to it. The engraver
proceeds to make a corresponding set of blocks, so that we have now a
key-block for the black lines and another block for each colour. The printer
does the rest. He it is who arranges the colour on the various blocks
- wiping off to produce that exquisite gradation on which Hiroshige relied
more than any of his fellows. It is he who is responsible for the variations
in degree of this gradation, which the student will note in comparing
one impression with another. To what extent the artist supervised the
printing we do not know. In Hiroshige's best period - from, say, that
of the First Tokaido to about 1850 - we must think that often he did so,
so tender, so admirably conceived are the colour schemes in the outstanding
examples, and so high the average of merit throughout. Surely he must,
at least, have coached his printers, trained them to his methods. These
methods vary-one has only to compare the colouring of the First Tokaido
with that of the Biwa Series, the Yedo Kinko Hakkei, the Eight Kanazawa
and the artist's own work in the Kisokaido, to be convinced of the deliberate
intention underlying the colour-design, and the infinite variety of it.
Yet we must praise the printer, for he was the craftsman who placed this
tool in the hands of the Master. Later, these qualities decline. The colour
is thick and coarse. There is no evidence of mastery, of originality.
The printer had arrived at a convention and was allowed to adhere to it.
In truth, even this is better work than Western colour-printers have ever
yet been able to do. But think what might have been made of the
Views of Yedo, or any other of the parallel series, if the colours
and printing had been equal to those of the Omi Hakkei.
Hiroshige was then, however, probably more concerned with other things
- and his chief pupil had little imagination, although competent enough
in the bare technique of colour-prints.
From that technical point of view, then, the Japanese colour-print may be said to have consisted simply in a print produced from a key-block in black and a succession of impressions in colour, each from a separate block. This production necessarily stated the design of the artist in terms of a series of flat printings, perfectly even in colour and tone, but for such modifications as were capable of being produced by the grading of the flat tint when laid on the block. There is no shading, no blending of colour, practically no overprinting. Yet within the stringent limits thus created, and by the use of the most simple, almost elementary conventions, Hiroshige was able to express distance, atmosphere - indeed, the whole gamut of Nature's music-in a way that has never been surpassed by any other practitioner of any of the graphic arts.
The relationship of the three classes of craftsmen concerned with the publisher is not very clear; probably the latter provided and controlled the engraver and printer. Almost always he was careful to put his own seal or label on the prints, and he appears to have been the owner of the blocks. Incidental references seem to suggest that, at times, he went so far as to maintain the designers - in order to get work out of them which they had contracted to supply; but there is no evidence that Hiroshige was ever entangled in this manner. No record has come to light of the wages paid to any of the craftsmen, though one of the diaries printed in Chapter VIII gives a note of Hiroshige's earnings for other work. Neither do we know the prices at which the prints were sold; but they must have been very small. Several prints by Hiroshige illustrate, casually, shops or tea-houses where prints of various kinds were put on sale, and probably the chief method of distribution was through the latter. The people who bought them were those of the lower social orders and perhaps the lesser degrees of retainers of the daimyo. Lafcadio Hearn gives an instance of the work of Hiroshige being offered to him for purchase in a settlement of that curious pariah class of Japanese who were so far outside the pale as to live in their own communities apart, and who ranked even below the lowest of the artisans and labourers.
One authority states that an edition of Hiroshige's work consisted as
a rule of 200 prints only; but this can hardly have been the fact. Certainly
successive editions, sometimes with and sometimes without alterations,
were issued of the more popular series; as a rule, each marked by blurred
outlines, inferior colour and other signs of decadence and wear and tear.
Often the blocks changed hands, and later editions appear with the imprint
of a new publisher. Alterations of this kind were easily within the skill
of the Japanese craftsman. He cut out the original seal or mark and plugged
the new one into the place (or elsewhere) so cleverly that signs of the
operation can very rarely be detected. Cases will be observed where the
issue of a set of prints extended over several years, and also where complete
editions were published in volume form. The Japanese public collected
them and bound them in albums, generally without having taken care to
complete sets by individual artists and often not even to obtain or to
put together the separate prints constituting three- or five-sheet subjects.
For instance, we have seen an album inscribed by the owner, Mori Takamune
of Osaka -
I had great trouble to collect all of these but at last
succeeded in completing it in the 3rd year of Bunkyu . Bound by
Watanabe. Two-sheet prints are relatively scarce; but Hiroshige
made several in his earliest period and a few, and those of his best,
in kakemono-ye form when he was at the height
of his powers. Surimono, or presentation cards
for special occasions, are described elsewhere in this volume. The only
technical difference in the making of them - and that not exclusively
confined to this class - is a liberal use of gauffrage,
or blind printing, which produces an indented, uncoloured line on the
soft thick paper generally used. It has been incredibly said that this
was done, or partly done, with the point of the elbow; but no doubt some
more suitable tool was employed, and one harder than the baren, to rub
the paper into the block so deeply as to procure the desired result.
One other variant must be mentioned, the aizuri or blue print. This is merely a matter of colour-scheme and does not involve any other alteration of technique than the selection of the suitable colour. In this class the print is almost entirely executed in a fine blue, though other subordinated colours may appear on quite a small scale. Aizuri belong almost, we think, entirely to that part of the nineteenth century which closed soon after 1860. Yeisen, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and some others indulged in them with remarkable success; and there are few things more essentially decorative than the somewhat uncommon examples in this style by these artists. The blue is, as a rule, very good, and may be said also to be characteristic of the above named period, whether in aizuri or in more usual combinations. It is an indigo said to have been obtained by extraction from old textile fabrics. The limitation of the colour-scheme was due to a sumptuary regulation issued by the Government.
While on this point, we may remark that the colours used by the Japanese
printers were chiefly of natural vegetable or mineral origin, up to the
final period of decadence; when imported European colours begin to make
their appearance - a particularly offensive aniline violet, which runs
in water, being the first, and a sure indication of late date. The paper
was tough and semi-absorbent, made from the inner bark of a species of
mulberry; for printing it was slightly damped. A detailed account of the
whole process will be found in a pamphlet compiled by the author for the
Victoria and Albert Museum,
Tools and Materials illustrating the
Japanese Method of Colour-printing (2nd edition, 1924).
Hiroshige made a few aizuri, chiefly fan-prints,
which are extremely rare and very beautiful in effect. In most of these
he uses red for both title and signature-panel, or for one of them. In
the Victoria and Albert Museum are also two original blocks cut with designs
by him; a key-block for a subject in an early lateral set of prints entitled
Toto Meisho Saka Tsukushi-no Uchi Yedo -
of Steep Roads in Yedo - which it is interesting to note was afterwards
used (on the reverse) for one of a set of views by Hiroshige and Kunisada.
The other is the key-block for a half-plate Toto Meisho -
Yedo - the reverse of which has been used for one of the colour-blocks.
The economy of material is interesting, and other examples of it have
been noted. Both blocks were presented to the Museum by Mr. Happer.
The seals and marks (other than inscriptions) appearing on prints of
the period under notice are of four kinds, viz.: that of the artist, generally
placed below or near his signature; the imprint of the publisher, which
may either be a seal of ordinary Japanese type; his name, with or without
his address, in a small compartment; or a trade-mark constituting a sort
of abbreviated cypher of his tradename and having a sort of distant relationship
to the mon or crests of the well-born. By
way of analogy, one recalls the merchants' marks, also often embodying
an indication of name, which were in use in England in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. In addition to these is a class of marks of very
great importance, the seal-dates, consisting of the zodiacal animal signs
for the recurrent cycles of twelve years which were a feature of old Japanese
chronology. With these is the number of the month-so that one reads, for
example, one of them as
Snake 4, meaning 4th month of the
Year of the Snake - which might be 1845, 1857 or 1869 and so on. Beyond
consideration of style, etc., there is thus no means of dating a print
bearing one of the marks, except within one of the cycles of twelve years;
but external evidence of this kind generally affords a safe clue. And
in one year the necessity of rectifying the error in the lunar calendar
used by the Japanese and Chinese, by the interposition of an additional
or intercalary month, fixes its date quite definitely: for the addition
of the intercalary sign uru to the Year of
the Rat establishes it as I852 - that being the only Rat year between
1842 and 1858 - in which this occurred. Mr. J. S. Happer first brought
this important fact to the notice of Western students of colour-prints,
and especially its bearing on the dating of prints by Hiroshige, in his
preface to the sale catalogue of his collection issued by Messrs. Sotheby,
Wilkinson & Hodge in 1909. Major J. J. O'Brien Sexton has since explored
the subject in great detail; and his chronological tables now published
(1) give much additional information. Such seal-dates
occur now and again in quite early prints; but most of those found in
Hiroshige's works belong to his later period - from about 1852 onwards.
The last group of seals throws a curious and interesting light on the circumstances attending the publication of colour-prints. No nation ever experienced so rigid and far-reaching control by its Government, as that enforced-so far as possible-by the Government of the Shogun. Sumptuary laws of the most stringent character were enacted; and, in some instances dating far back into the almost legendary history of the country, industries were regulated to an astonishing extent. The quantities of material to be used, for example, in making certain articles of lacquer-ware, were laid down by decree, as early as the tenth century of our era. Some sort of censorship(2) of printed matter generally and of colour-prints in particular was imposed during the eighteenth century and was carried out, in Yedo, by the municipal authorities, whose approval of a design was necessary before it was allowed to be engraved. This was called for, both on grounds of public morality and to prevent attacks on the Government; and its effects appear on the prints in the form of the kiwame (approval) seal, which is commonly found thereon. In 1790 the censorship appears formally to have been placed in the hands of the Wholesale Publishers' Guild, who nominated members to see it carried out. In 1842 and henceforward the seals of the censor appear as well as and sometimes in combination with the seal of approval; after 1852 there are generally two censors' seals in addition to the date-stamp already mentioned.
By far the greater number of prints made by Hiroshige are single-sheet designs, though it is curious that a few of his earliest efforts were of the 2-sheet lateral form. He seems to have made none of the interesting hashirakake, those long, narrow, upright compositions which are said to have been used as decorations for the vertical timbers of houses; though the kakemono-ye, compositions of two vertical sheets placed one over the other, inspired him to some of his best efforts. Such prints were often actually mounted with rollers and formed a cheap substitute for paintings in the orthodox manner, though most specimens that one sees on this side of the world have been, as a rule, removed from these accretions, if ever they had them. Occasionally, from an early date, he made 3-sheet prints, almost always consisting of vertical panels placed side by side; the view of the Asakusa Temple Festival, described elsewhere, may be the first of these, and other views of temples also come high on the list in order of appearance. Towards the end of his life many such were made, both entirely by himself and also in collaboration with his friend Kunisada, who supplied figures for the landscape settings of Hiroshige. The 3-sheet prints of the Ukiyoye artists generally have a remarkable characteristic, which is also found in those of Hiroshige: if the sheets are taken separately, it will be found that, from the point of view of composition, they can almost always stand alone, and in our eyes will make quite satisfactory pictures. This is no doubt due largely to our imperfect appreciation of the subject, so that we fall back on the mere mechanics of the design; but the fact that the artist carried out his work in terms of separate units must also be a factor in arriving at this result. In no circumstances, so far as we are aware, was a single block used for a design of 3-sheet size, although there are one or two late examples of dimensions somewhat larger than and otherwise varying from the standard oban; and, of course, many smaller.
We have referred in the foregoing paragraph to the Ukiyoye School of
Artists. This was the name given to the whole group to which Hiroshige
belonged; and it may be freely translated
Mirror of the Passing
World. The group includes some painters as well as practically all
the makers of colour-prints; and derives its title from the fact that
they delineated subjects drawn from the life of the common people - subjects
considered, by the aristocratic and cultured classes of society, in most
cases with reason, as essentially vulgar - though this censure, from our
point of view, cannot be applied to many of the theatrical prints or to
the landscapes. But it presents a remarkable and solitary instance of
a beautiful art entirely restricted to, and enjoyed by, the lower orders
of a highly developed civilization, and practised by artists who ranked
none too high even among their fellow-artisans.
THE SIZES OF PRINTS
Most of the prints designed by Hiroshige are of what may be termed a standard size, ruled by that of the paper used generally by the printers. This standard paper averaged about 15 by 10 inches (say 375 by 255 millimetres), but the actual design as a rule is nearer to 14 by 9 inches. In many cases a border has to be allowed for; often, the seal of the censor and sometimes the publisher's mark is placed in the margin, outside the limits of the composition. Prints of the above dimensions are termed Oban; those in which the composition is horizontal being described as Oban Yokoye, the vertical as Oban Tateye.
Prints half the size of Oban are termed Chuban; quarter-size prints, Yotsugiri, the same terms being used to signify the arrangement of the composition.
Larger designs consist of multiples of the Oban;
either 2-sheet subjects – Kakemono-ye where
one vertical print is placed above another as in the famous
Gorge, or Sammai-tsuzuki when three
sheets of Oban size are joined - again with
the addition Tateye where the composition
consists of three vertical panels side by side as in the
Torrent, or Yokoye formed with three
horizontal panels as in
The 47 Ronin Crossing the Bridge.
O-tanzaku are narrow vertical prints about 15 by 6½ inches. The standard paper, Obosho, was made in sheets large enough to provide two Oban. This paper would cut into three O-tanzaku, which were about the size of the prints called Oban Hoso-ye before the time of Hiroshige. The Chu-tanzaku - the same height but slightly narrower - was made from a sheet of Obosho cut into four. A still smaller panel of similar proportion, the Ko-tanzaku, averages about 13 by 4 inches.
Aiban is a size smaller than Oban but larger than Chuban - about 13 by 8¾ inches.
It is convenient here to refer to the Harimaze, or Mixed Prints. Hiroshige produced several series of these, consisting of sheets of Oban size, each with several designs of varying size. These have often been cut up, and the separate designs may, at first sight, be taken for individual compositions of unusual dimensions.