A Meiji-era Treasure Trove



One day in the summer of 2010, I got a call from friend Shingo Ueda, who has been working in recent years as a dealer of used books and prints. (He is also a proficient printer himself, but doesn't find much time for that activity recently, as his business activities have expanded so much.) The phone call was to let me know about something he had just purchased at an auction. This wasn't a public auction such as eBay or Yahoo, but one open only to professional dealers in the field. He was quite excited about what he had picked up, and thought that I would be interested. He was right.

It wasn't an old book, or a special woodblock print. The 'item' he had purchased was a bulk lot of old carved woodblocks. As far as he could tell, they seemed to date from the mid-late Meiji period. The blocks were arranged in shallow tray-like boxes, and there were a lot of them - more than 30 trays, each containing a couple of dozen blocks.

I went over to his place to have a look, and we studied them together. They are mostly of the type that would have been used in book and magazine publishing. Many of them have written notations on the back or side that indicate which magazine they were used in - and many of the most popular magazines of the day seem to be represented. These blocks are too small to have been used for the kuchi-e prints which were inserted in such magazines, but would instead have been used within page layouts. Many of them are 'type-high', and also are cut in irregular shapes, indicating that they were used (and adapted) to fit on a page together with the text type.

The quality of the carving varies greatly; some are as finely carved as the best kuchi-e, others are pretty rough. And as for the content, it is all over the map - far and away the largest group of blocks are clearly illustrations for the story which they must have accompanied, while others are more decorative, including title page designs, and small 'filler' images that must have been used to pad out white space in the magazine pages.

Study of the blocks shows that they were used in a number of different ways. Many of them have been brushed with sumi pigment, indicating that they were printed in the traditional way with a baren. Others have had an oil-based pigment rolled on, and would have presumably been printed in a press, setup together with metal type. Still others show no evidence of being printed at all, but do have traces of a silvery graphite powder. These blocks would have been used to make electrotypes, which would have done the actual production printing.

This collection of blocks is a tremendous resource, and although Ueda-san purchased them with the intention of selling them off, one by one, I convinced him to hold off on that plan, for at least a while. I think this 'collection' should be kept intact, as it provides an excellent window into both the carving techniques, and the printing production methods of that era. Not to mention that they are just so cool! (Although I do admit that this is the viewpoint of a carver ...)

There are far too many blocks here for us to be able to show you them all. As time permits, I'll be printing some of them in batches and posting the results here, but I have to warn you that this is going to be a very long process ...

To start off, here is a sample block, along with an impression pulled from it. Can you tell what the image represents?





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