There’s a fantastic feeling that you get when you hold a perfect ukiyo print in your hands, one that has escaped the ravages of time. Edo (Tokyo) has been plagued by fires which were so frequent in the past that they were referred to as the Blossoms of Edo. These fires continued from the ravaging of the Great Meiwa Fire of 1772 which killed more than 6,000, right through the nineteenth century. Edo further suffered from earthquake, notably the Great Edo Earthquake of 1855 and the Meiji Earthquake of 1893, the eruption of Mount Fuji in 1707 and in the twentieth century during the second world war, the B-29 bombings by the Americans which razed most of the city to the ground.
Despite the wafer-thin papers, the fugitive inks and the extreme delicacy of the surface many woodblock prints survive in almost mint condition… how can this be? One of the principle reasons is the lack of permanent solid walls in traditional Japanese homes. There was no convention of hanging pictures on walls in frames and these prints – the main outlet for visual culture for two centuries – were collected, dozens at a time, and passed around from hand to hand and in the meantime stored flat and away from the light or aggressive acid carrying mounts and frames. In some less well preserved prints it is easy to see the lower corners have worn away through handling, but what of the near perfect examples, how did these survive?
The beautiful print illustrated above shows a woman, almost certainly a courtesan by her fashionable and expensive clothes, carrying an umbrella in one hand and a bound sheaf of papers in the other. The print is a kakemono-e – a vertical oban diptych, two sheets mounted one on top of the other. The artist is the highly collectible Keisai Eisen and the print is from the early 1830’s. The mysterious sheaf of papers is a Gajo, a bound book of woodblock prints and it is these albums that we can thank for the fine state of preservation of so many works of ukiyo-e.
Townsmen were avid collectors of prints, either individually or in whole series. When the loose leaves of prints became unmanageable they would be sent to one of Edo’s many binders to be turned into a scrapbook. Nearly all Edo prints have binding holes down the left hand side. Japanese binding took the form of a series of knotted string loops, clearly visible on the courtesan’s gajo above. Woodblock prints were printed on oversize paper and in some fortunate cases but not all, the binding holes appear in the margin only. However for reasons of individual taste, prints are more often than not trimmed to the image and the holes invade the printed area itself. In the case of triptych or other larger formats, elaborate hinging methods were used so that the scene could be opened out and put away again after viewing. Confusingly, some binders chose not to follow the paper size and there exist strong creases down the length of some prints that do not match the joins in the sheets. Unbacked prints are also unbelievably flimsy, the washi paper being sometimes tissue thin. It was common practice for binders to back them, with scrap paper to make the book more robust. This habit of backing prints has ensured greater physical longevity but it also led to wrinkling and sometimes staining of the original image. Finally, covers were added to the collection and in some cases a poet was commissioned to write a frontispiece or provide an illustration. Again on the Eisen courtesan print, calligraphy is seen on the cover of the Gajo.
Complete albums do occasionally come on to the market and they can be a valuable resource for scholars, but more often than not they are split up and the prints sold individually. On balance, the presence of binding holes or backing paper is a small price to pay for the miraculous survival of so many beautiful and fragile prints and we should be grateful for the Japanese tradition of order and neatness in caring for their very great works of art.