Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Yoshijiro Urushibara: ten woodcuts & two rabbits

On Saturday I was lucky enough to see a copy of Urushibara's book 'Ten Woodcuts'. It was published in London in 1924 and represents a unique production for the era in Britain. There were 275 copies printed for sale. All the designs were provided by the British artist Frank Brangwen who had alread worked with Urushibara on his portfolio 'Bruges' from 1919, but all the images were cut and printed by Urushibara and the main credit goes to him. If you include the extra copies he had to make for libraries like the Bodelian and the British Museum he would have had to make more than 2750. It was a huge undertaking.

One curious feature of the book (and there are a few) is the lack of text. There is only an introduction bu the writer and poet Laurence Binyon. Between the title page and this introduction, there is another intriguing feature, a small pair of rabbits. These aren't the rabbits you see here; that image is smaller but shows also a black rabbit partly superimposed over a white one. Now my first impression, being a literal-minded westerner was that the rabbits represented the two artist who had collaborated on the book simply because Brangwen took hardly any credit for his work. Hradly surprising.


But Urushibara was not a literal-minded westerner. He had only lived in Europe since 1910. He had got to know our ways but had not forgotten those of his own culture where image and word are close. So, if we look at the rabbits as words, what do they say? Is it a private joke, for instance, because, as you can see, he went on to make a larger image of rabbits (or it may have preceded the book). Allen Seaby who knew Urushibara also made a woodcut of two rabbits (see Allen Seaby, the later years).
Urushibara was not the only artist involved in the book to be away from his home. In a sense, so was Brangwen. He had been brought up in Bruges and had lived there untill he was nine and four of the images in the book are of places in the old area of Flanders, right the way from Montreuil in the west to the Scheld estuary (the fishing boats) in the north east. Another five of the images depict various palces in the Near East: Istanbul, Cairo and Palestine.

But I suspect there may be another pair of eminences grises at the back of all this, namely Campbell Dodgson, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and his assistant Keeper, Laurence Binyon. Since being recruited by Dodgson in 1895, when he was only an assistant Keeper himself, Binyon had developped a special interest in oriental art and was well aware of the Japanese print publishers like Shinbi Shoin well before Urushibara arrived in London for the Japan-Britain exhibition. Urushibara, of course, worked for Shinbi Shoin and was soon recruited to, yes, the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Two more rabbits for you there.

I believe there is more to this oriental tale of intrigue but I shall save that for another day. And please note that if I get the opportunity to upload further images from 'Ten Woodcuts', I will, but right now the new system is driving me mad.


  1. Very interesting posting, Charles. I particularily like the first print. And it may be a comfort for Lily that she is not the only one who has problems...


  2. The monitor image doesn't do the print justice. They make things look very samey. The sky in particular is a delicate shade of green. The prints are quite small but the scale on the page works well.

    The first print I think shows people picnicing by the grave of a family member. I have visited those cemeteries above the Bosphorus and people still pay gardeners to tend the graves as if they were gardens. Perhaps it reminded Urushibara of Shinto practices at home.

    Yes, I feel sorry for Lily. She does far more tricks than I do and she is such a perfectionist. It is very frustrating for her. I think I shall have to upload more images on a second post.