Will it become a custom for me to put a fan print into every year's Surimono Album? I'm not sure what to say about future albums, but when I was planning this current set and came across this image, I knew instantly it had to be included! It is a design by Ando Hiroshige, and represents a famous place in old Edo - the Eitai-bashi, one of the large bridges spanning the Sumida River.
We know the exact date that Hiroshige sketched this scene - February 25, 1852. Some of his travel diaries have been preserved, and in one of them we can read about a boat journey he took to Kisarazu. He had left Edo-bashi in the early evening of that day, but as they neared the mouth of the river, ready to head out across Tokyo Bay, their boat was becalmed at Eitai-bashi, and they spent a rainy night there waiting for wind, which picked up in the morning allowing them to continue their journey (they arrived in Kisarazu in the late afternoon.) Presumably Hiroshige used the delay that evening to make some sketches, one of which he used to create this print some time later, when the publisher Dansendo requested a scene for a fan ...
We can see a number of boats moored on the seaward side of the bridge. As boats with tall masts were not able to pass under the bridge, it was at Eitai-bashi that their merchandise had to be transferred to small boats of the type we see being poled down the river on the right hand side of the scene. These 'true-to-life' touches make me wonder if the rest of the picture is also quite realistic. Did Hiroshige sketch these three small boats just as they passed in front of him as he sat looking out over the river, or are they imaginary, made up of images he knew from his familiarity with Edo scenery? We have no way to tell, but I for one would like to believe that the 'camera' of his eye recorded a real scene he saw on the river that night; that those people we see are real men, looking forward to finishing their day's work and getting home out of the rain and into a hot bath. They of course must have had no idea that as they passed in front of the becalmed boat, they had been 'captured' by Hiroshige's brush, and 150 years in the future their picture would be reproduced and sent around the world - travelling far greater distances than they could ever dream of ...
I have looked forward for a long time to making a Hiroshige 'rain' print; his most attractive prints are those in which there is an atmosphere - mist, rain, or snow. The introduction of mood into a woodblock print was something that had been inconceivable to the designers who came before him, and images like the one we have here must have made a revolutionary impact on the viewers at the time. Purists consider this sort of print the 'beginning of the end' of ukiyo-e, the start of a gradual slide towards a realism inherently unsuitable to the essentially flat woodblock print medium. But I'll leave such considerations to the scholars; for me there is still plenty of pleasure to be found in these prints, both in the looking and in the making.
This is the fifth print in this year's album, and I see that when I sent out the corresponding print last year I wrote "... this is the fifth print, and it's already August! ... it's going to be a tight 'fit' at the end of the year." And indeed it was; the tenth print wasn't finished until January. As the five prints I am planning for the rest of this year's set are in no way less complex and involved than the first five, it looks as though the same thing may happen this year!