Stork in Rain

Is this a stork? I have to say, I don't really know! But then, I never could tell all those long-legged birds apart ... heron, egret, stork. In any case, this bird is obviously of that type, whichever it may be ...

Some of the collectors of my prints who use the internet like to look at my Webcam sometimes and try to guess the designer of the print I am working on. I received emails from such people this month, and each one guessed the same person - Ohara Koson, a well-known designer of nature prints who worked in the first half of the 20th century. They thought it was an easy guess this month, as it is very similar to a print he designed, but I had to inform them that they were wrong. The original that I reproduced was not only designed, but also cut and printed, by Yoshijiro Urushibara. And what is most interesting - it was 'Made in England'.

The influence of Japanese design on the West during the period after Japan's 'opening' is well documented. Japanese participation in many large-scale international Expositions in Europe and America in the last half of the 19th century provided one of the main routes for Japanese culture to be disseminated throughout the world. A popular 'feature' of these expositions were the demonstrations of various Japanese arts and crafts given by craftsmen. For the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition held in London in 1910 a group of woodblock print craftsmen was brought from Japan, and among them was the young (he was then 22 years old) printer Urushibara. At the closing of the Exhibition, he did not return to Japan, but stayed on in London, where he worked at the British Museum on the making of reproduction prints, print restoration and scroll mounting. He did a bit of work with European designers, doing the carving and printing for some 'collaborative' prints, and also produced a series of his own prints, and although they are not particularly 'original' in design - as this example demonstrates - they are all attractive and tasteful.

Urushibara had quite an influence on the development of a group of British artists who were attempting to make colour woodblock prints during this period. They had almost no access at all to traditional Japanese techniques, and were struggling to 'figure out' how it was done, but with his assistance, they were able to start producing interesting and attractive prints, doing all parts of the work - design, carving and printing - on their own.

Unfortunately, the seeds thus planted did not result in a flourishing 'garden' of European colour woodblock making, and I believe this was due primarily to a sort of contradiction inherent in their approach to the craft. The type of person who can create interesting designs on a blank sheet of paper is almost never the same type of person who can take on the long and repetitive work necessary to produce many copies of that print. In a nutshell - one is either a 'free-spirit', or one has a lot of patience and perseverance. The two character types simply don't mix well. In Japan, it was the normal practice for designers to work with craftsmen to produce the prints, but these Europeans wanted to do it on an 'all by myself' basis. The inevitable result though, was that the European 'school' of colour printmaking slowly faded away to nothing.

Urushibara himself returned to Japan in 1942, on a Swedish 'neutral exchange' ship. I have no idea if he wanted to go back, or was forced to go - even after more then 30 years in Britain - because he was an 'enemy alien'. Reading about this of course makes me wonder how I would feel if I found myself in that situation. I am still fairly young, with many decades of life left; who can tell what will happen during those years ... might I one day be deported from Japan as an 'enemy alien'? Such an idea seems inconceivable to us these days, but perhaps it was similarly inconceivable to Urushibara-san back then.

In any case, there are no such clouds on the horizon at present of course, so I don't anticipate any obstacle in continuing to work on these prints! I have a small surprise coming up for you next ... and the surprise is that - there is no surprise; unlike the recent work, it will be a print by a designer of whom you have heard before!


June 2003