Friday, 31 July 2015

'Laurence Binyon' a colour woodcut by Edmund Dulac


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'. (Their print came from Ricketts' and Shannon's collection).

Binyon's face bought out the best in artists. William Strang produced one portrait of him 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 (below) could have done anything so sophisticated as that.



  1. I love the Dulac print of Binyon! Dulac is clearly channeling Sharaku (active 1794–1795), the great kabuki actor print caricaturist, although Binyon's eyes are depicted in a Western manner. (It also suggests to me that the American caricaturist Al Hirshfeld might have been influenced by Dulac.) If you look at the Japanese calligraphy carefully, you'll see that it is not kanji at all but stylized Roman letters designed to give the appearance of Japanese calligraphy and actually spells out (from right to left) "Laurence Binyon" and "Edmund Dulac." And I believe the circular crest on Binyon's kimono (corresponding to a kabuki actor's "mon") is intended to be read as "BM" -- as in "British Museum."

    Shimbi Shoin's participation in the Japan-British Expedition of 1910 was intended to do more than promote a Japanese art form. It was one step in a business plan designed to cultivate European clients for its business (which was devoted almost exclusively to using woodblocks as a form of reproduction). From October 1910 to February 1911, Shimbi Shoin organized traveling exhibitions in Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Hamburg, Munich, and Paris, eventually setting up its European office in the French capital. Urushibara, of course, stayed behind in London to work on the reproduction of the Admonitions scroll for the British Museum. He was just 22 at the time, so he was then hardly a master craftsman, and he would later recall the project with both pride and regret because of his novice skills at the time.

    Other than Binyon's hair and eyebrows, Dulac's portrait of Binyon doesn't strike me as particularly complicated from either a carving or printing standpoint. I think it would have been within the competency of some British printmaker who had been working in that medium for at least six to eight years (and so beyond Dulac's abilities). But I suspect that Gordon is correct that Urusibara carved and printed this for Dulac. It would be interesting to know if there was anything on the back of the print, as Urushibara often placed his own seal on the back of prints that the carved and printed for other artists (and sometimes even sign his name on the front of the print).

    I don't know that Hideaki was a printer, and he seems to disappeared after about 1913, but I can't rule him out as a carver. But it is known that Urushibara had a long association with Binyon. He stayed in the British Museum's employ for six years after the completion of the Admonitions scroll project. He carved and printed Frank Brangwyn's Bruges portfolio issued in 1919, which included 6 poems by Binyon. His "Ten Woodcuts by Yoshijiro Urushibara" (after Brangwyn watercolors) published in 1924 included an introduction by Binyon, as did his 1939 portfolio "Leaves From The Sketch Books Of Frank Brangwyn, issued shortly before he was repatriated to Japan at the beginning of WWII. Binyon repeatedly praised both Urushibara's artistry and his technical mastery of the woodblock print medium.

    Regardless of who carved and printed this print for Dulac, it is utterly charming. Now, if I can just find a copy for myself...

  2. Henry Cadness from Manchester School of Art described Urushibara as giving demonstrations of the whole process of printing so we can assume Hideaki was the specialist carver. In fact, Urushibara went to France once Japan-British closed and I think the two men began work in the December. The second admonition they worked on took up further time and helps explain why Dulac went to such lengths with Binyon. Interestingly he and Urushibara lived no more than a few hundred yards from one another on the borders of Notting Hill and Holland Park. I can't think that anyone else would have wanted to make a print like that. The capable British artists were all too Arts & Crafts in their aesthetic to do anything so reproductive and ,as you say, who could have done the hair like that?

    I didn't know about the Shimbi Shoin tour but interestingly enough the Graver Printers organised a similar tour in 1912, visiting Paris, Brussels, Munich and even Moscow (it then went on to the United States and Canada) so the more we look at this, the more interesting the role that Urushibara played now becomes.

    I agree, though, it's a killer print, and knowing your skills I am sure you will find an impression somewhere sooner or later. No doubt the Fitzwilliam will be the next port-of-call. And there must be others but where?

  3. I should add that the Dulac woodcut came from Ricketts' and Shannon's own collection and that Dulac also did a Japanese caricature of the two men, which unfortunately isn't online. This makes me wonder whether Ricketts and Shannon might have commissioned the work from Dulac and Urushibara

  4. Hideaki was the carver of record and Urushibara was the printer of the Admonition scroll (although the keyblocks were cut by someone else in Japan). But that doesn't conclusively answer which of the two carved of the Binyon print. Urushibara (though probably the junior carver) had the skill to do both.

    Urushibara first visited Paris in December 1910 at the invitation of
    l'Association Amicale des Arts et de l'Artisanat Japonais in order to present and explain orally the processes of creating woodblock prints to members of the Association and other enthusiasts. Thereafter, he spent a considerable amount of time training Jules Chadel and Prosper-Alphonse Isaac (who were self-taught from the Takano Smithsonian monograph) how to carve and print, and became active in the "Société de la gravure sur bois originale." He did not return to London until January 1912 (although he did some preparatory work for the Admonition scroll project while in France).