--- Go to the Opening Page of this 'Surimono Albums' web site ---

The History of Surimono



The translation is easy ... 'printed thing' - but how much more there is to the story!


Surimono are a 'sub category' of traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Unlike the more famous ukiyo-e, which were produced with the intention of being distributed as widely as possible, surimono were privately published works, used for gifts or sometimes for making announcements, and were almost never sold to the general public.

A Gakutei Surimono

A surimono by Gakutei
The most common type of surimono were prints like the one you see here, containing a blend of image and poetry, usually of the 'kyoka' type. Such prints were commissioned by the poets themselves, and were exchanged among the members of their poetry 'circle'.

Because no commercial motivations were involved, purely artistic factors were allowed to dominate economics in their manufacture. The finest papers and pigments were used, top rank craftsmen were commissioned to do the carving and printing, and the best artists were asked to produce the designs. Surimono were usually fairly small in size, with 19 x 21.5 cm being the most common dimension.

A surimono by Shunman

A surimono by Shunman

They came into being in about the 1760's, and lasted some hundred years or so. Most of the well-known artists of the day were asked to design surimono at one time or another, and some men specialized in the work.

Many different themes were used for surimono imagery, among which historical events, scenes from nature, 'still-life', and the kabuki theatre were the most common.


So that is a small snapshot of 'historical' surimono. Are my own 'Surimono Albums' then, reproductions of these prints? Well ... yes ... and no ...


When I approached the end of my 'One Hundred Poets' woodblock print series, many ideas for future work presented themselves to me; there are many thousands of beautiful prints and books preserved in the museums of the world, just waiting to be brought to life again. The problem for me was not one of finding something to do, but of choosing among so many attractive alternatives.

I worked on this series for ten years - from 1989 through 1998 ...

A Chinnen Surimono

A surimono by Chinnen
Browsing through volume after volume of print illustrations and various history books, and seeing many beautiful prints, over and over again I found myself coming back to the surimono. The fine carving, the indescribably delicate printing - I wanted to use my skills to make prints like this!

I started to gather clippings and notes about those prints that seemed particularly attractive to me, and soon discovered that the pile grew very rapidly. The only common thread among the prints in this 'collection', was that I personally found them attractive. There was no other underlying theme or link between them. Some were simple and fairly straightforward, some were more complex and would need a very high level of skill to reproduce.

A Koryusai book page

A Koryusai book page
A number of the prints that attracted my attention were not technically surimono, in the historical sense of the word as referring to privately published prints; some being book pages, for example. But all of these designs were 'surimono', in the physical and beautiful sense ...

I picked out ten that most attracted me, laid them out in a row, and thought about the idea ... the idea of privately publishing my own set of surimono. I could make one each month, just the same as I had done during the years of the poets series, and could send them out to print lovers and collectors one by one as they were finished (with a storage case for the set sent along with the first print). And of course I would continue the practice of having an annual exhibition each January to show my work.

The more I thought about this idea, the more I liked it. During that ten-year project through the 1990's, my 'theme' was a simple one - the reproduction of Katsukawa Shunsho's 100 Poets. But once that was done it was time to take up my 'real' theme - to show people just how beautiful woodblock prints can be, through the creation and distribution of a new generation of 'printed things' ...


David BullSo that's what these pages are about, introducing my 'Surimono Albums'. The poets' series is now long behind me, and I have been buried in work on these albums ever since.

The surimono of the 18th and 19th century reached astonishing heights of beauty. Since those days, the genre has been 'asleep', but perhaps it yet has some life left in it. Surimono though, cannot be made on a 'get it done, and get it out the door' principle. They can only be produced by an 'amateur' - and I use that word in its original French meaning ... one who loves.

I am a surimono 'amateur'. I hope you enjoy looking at the work on this web site ...


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