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Small Print Collection: Print #3

Port in Winter

David's New Year card for 1992

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We skip forward hundreds of years this time - to the early 1840s. This image is taken from a set of prints designed by Hiroshige, which featured ten famous ports of Japan - Nihon Minato Zukushi. The location depicted in this print turned out to be a lot more famous than Hiroshige could have imagined, and played quite a special role in Japanese history. Just ten years after he gave us this peaceful view of the port on a snowy evening, this same village was 'host' to a fleet of ships arriving from overseas. Yes, this is Uraga Port, where in 1853 Commodore Perry arrived with his famous 'Black Ships'.

I wonder just how realistic the picture is; did Hiroshige actually visit all the places that he depicted in his landscape prints? I read an analysis recently of his famous set of images of the Tokaido route between Edo and Kyoto. It showed that most of the locations at the Edo end of the print set were quite recognizable and could be identified fairly easily, but that from one particular point along the route, the pictures become more vague and can't be linked clearly to actual locations. The thesis is that Hiroshige only travelled part-way along the road, and that a number of his designs were drawn from his imagination.

So although this peaceful little port may indeed have looked something like this, we might suspect that a 'modicum' of artistic license was used ... But that, of course, is what we want in a Hiroshige print. We're not looking for a photographic reproduction, we're looking for atmosphere, and there is plenty of that in this one!

It also occurs to me that after Hiroshige's series on the famous ports was published, copies of those prints must have been sold at each of the locations in the set, as souvenirs. I wonder if any of the Black Ship visitors bought this print back then? If so, it would have been among the very first ukiyo-e to leave the country!