Summer’s here, the sun’s shining and what better way to enjoy it than with a nice day out with the Japan Society? Yesterday I joined a small group of members on a trip to Cambridge for a look behind the scenes at the Japanese print collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Japanese Department at Cambridge University Library, plus a stroll around the historic streets, and a delicious lunch at Fitzbillies.
At the Fitzwilliam we met the print curator, Craig Hartley, who showed us a selection of prints from the Museum’s archives, including the work of Utamaro, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Yoshitoshi and Kunisada. It was a rare privilege to see them close up and not under glass.
This triptych by Hiroshige is Mountain and River on the Kiso Road.
This double oban print by Yoshitoshi shows an episode from the Suikoden (based on the Chinese Tales of the Water Margin) in which our hero, Rin Chu has been detained in a remote army camp. The minister of war sends an assassin, Riku, to kill him. Riku sets fire to the guard house (seen in the background) but Rin Chu was not inside having taken shelter in a nearby temple. He kills Riku and the print shows Rin Chu with Riku’s corpse. Flakes of snow have been added by flicking paint at the picture after printing.
We were able to see Utamaro’s Bird and Insect books, and study their unique printing techniques using mica, brass or tin dust to create shine and sparkle and their embossed texture, created by pressing into the paper without ink (blind embossing).
The good news is, you can examine these books in detail too, in an interactive version on the Fitzwilliam website that gives you close-ups of the illustrations and translations of the kyoka (crazy verse) poems that accompany the pictures.
Following a break for lunch at the famous Fitzbillies cafe and a fascinating discussion of Edogawa Rampo versus Roald Dahl, we wandered along to Cambridge University Library to join Noboru Koyama, Head of the Japanese Department, for a tour of the archive and a close-up look at some of the historic books in the Japanese collection.
This handwritten story of a mouse has been illustrated in coloured paints. It was originally a scroll but was made into a book by folding it and binding the folds.
This 17th century book is called Horse Banners of the Feudal Lords. This page shows the banners of Tokugawa Yoshinao, whose family crest was the wild ginger trefoil.
This 17th century illustrated scroll tells the story of the invention of the folding fan. (The picture at the top of this post comes from this scroll.)
This 17th century edition of the Tales of Ise was set in moveable type with woodblock printed illustrations.
This 19th century printed book is a collection of biographies of Ukiyo-e artists. The page shown is the biography of Sharaku.
The tour of the library took us around the Aoi Pavilion, built with a generous donation from Tadao Aoi of the Marui Company, including a trip to the basement storeroom.
A magical and exhausting day out – many thanks to the cheerful and indefatigable staff of the Japan Society, Heidi, Jack and Alice, who organised and led the tour.