In the spring of 1910 the Tokyo firm of Shimbi Shoin sent two young craftsmen called Sugizaki Hideaki and Yoshijiro Urushibara to give demonstrations of woodblock cutting and printing at the great Japan-British exhibition at White City in London. If the intention was also to demonstrate just how fine their workmanship was, Shimbi Shoin were perhaps too successful because staff from the Department of Prints at the British Museum were so impressed, they offered to employ the two men themselves.
The wheeze was quite a simple one. Since 1903 the department had owned an early copy of an ancient Chinese scroll painting ascribed to the C4th artist Ku Kai-chih, which had been looted from the Imperial collection during the Boxer Rebellion and then offered to head curator Sidney Colvin and his oriental specialist, Laurence Binyon. The two men immediately paid £25 for it. Seven years later they decided tempt the craftsmen with the job of cutting and printing reproductions of the great Chinese scroll, which eventually went up for sale between 1912 and 1913 with a text by Binyon.
All the portraits by the Toulouse artist, Edmund Dulac, seen here you date from about 1913 and after and all the individuals belonged to a circle of artists and writers that included Ezra Pound, William Rothenstein and Dulac himself who would meet at the Vienna Café on New Oxford St not far from the museum. The portrait of Binyon's assistant, Arthur Waley (above) imitates a brush drawing but I think is pen and wash while the witty and unforgettable portrait of Charles Ricketts (below, right) alongside his other half, Charles Shannon, dressed as Dominican saints, is in watercolour. But the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge describes the superb portrait of Binyon himself as 'woodcut, colour printing'.
Binyon's face bought out the best in artists. William Strang produced one portrait of him (below) that stands out against all of his many, many portrait etchings. Likewise Dulac was able to combine the unusual face and another aspect of Binyon's personality and interests in one masterful little woodcut. And wonderful draughtsman he may have been but was Dulac - or was any English artist - capable of reproducing their own design with such refinement in colour woodcut? I think the answer has to be no. Surely, only Hideaki and Urushibara could have done anything so sophisticated as that.