Reading the Fine Print: The Extraordinary Skill of Japan’s Woodblock Masters
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Six woodblock prints from Eight Views in the Environs of Edo (Edo kinko hakkei no uchi) Edo period, 19th century

Reading the Fine Print: The Extraordinary Skill of Japan’s Woodblock Masters

Generations of craftsmen enabled Japanese woodblock artists to realise their spellbinding visions over the centuries. Rebecca Salter PRA honours the artisans behind the familiar names, whose meticulous, painstaking techniques rendered visions of Edo Japan in delicate detail.
Generations of craftsmen enabled Japanese woodblock artists to realise their spellbinding visions over the centuries. Rebecca Salter PRA honours the artisans behind the familiar names, whose meticulous, painstaking techniques rendered visions of Edo Japan in delicate detail.

T he title of this sale - Masters of the Woodblock - obviously and quite rightly refers to the artists whose names we all recognise – from Harunobu to Hokusai. The other masters of woodblock we should also celebrate, however, are the largely anonymous craftsmen whose extraordinary skill made these works possible.

Beyond the acknowledged quartet of publisher: artist: carver: printer lie the many craftsmen whose lives were devoted to making the tools and materials necessary for the production of prints. From the making of paper, the fashioning of ultra-sharp carving tools from beaten steel, the grinding of pigments and the threading of brushes – these skills honed in families for generations were, and still are, indispensable to making a Japanese print. The carvers and printers still working in Japan today likewise rely on these crafts and their disappearance would threaten the continued practice of making Japanese woodblock prints. Within the prints in this sale we can clearly see the traces of their contribution whether it is through the softly receptive surface of the paper which absorbs and intensifies the colour, or the finest of lines carved with the sharpest of tools.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) Beach at Sunrise (Edo period, late 18th century) ESTIMATE 5,000 - 7,000GBP

The prints in this sale illustrate beautifully the vibrancy of Edo society whether it is reflected through elegant courtesans and riotous parties, famous kabuki actors or equally famous places on the Tokaido Road. The print culture of Edo was efficient in its production and the artists captured at speed the evolving mores of the society. The craftsmen were right at the heart of it all and deserve credit and recognition for their contribution.

Japanese Art

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