Poetry Party

Our print this month is what is generally known as a 'Shijo-style' surimono - it is done in a very 'painterly' style, rather than in the crisp and clean ukiyo-e manner. The signature can be read as Sampo, although the inclusion of the character sha may indicate that he copied the image from some other artist, or it was copied from him. We can never know.

My reproduction is an exact copy of the right-hand portion of the print. The original version (which I have here) has a great deal more writing on it, including a total of 35 poems and the inscription kinoe tora toshi, which tells us that it must have been made in 1854. It was presumably made in commemoration of a get-together of a poetry group; perhaps the members felt that the party had been especially productive of good poetry, so they commissioned this surimono as a keepsake of the event.

Why didn't I reproduce the entire original? One reason is that it is simply too large; 35 poems take up a lot of space and the print is more than 56cm wide! Another reason though, is that I have to keep a balance between the calligraphy and the images on these prints - I suspect that many of the collectors of my work can't actually read this sort of calligraphy (neither can I!) and thus 35 poems is I think, simply too many ... So the lettering you see here on this reproduction consists of the introductory comment together with two of the 35 poems. It was easy to choose which ones to include; the poems are all identified, and I simply chose the two written by Sampo, thus making it truly into his surimono!

It is interesting to look at the details of the image and to think about what kind of party they must have enjoyed that day. The red lacquered table, the patterns on the porcelain, the tall glasses for the drinks ... all these things tell us that it was 'Chinese food'! But remember the date - this print was made in 1854, just one year after Commodore Perry and the first of the 'black ships' arrived in Japan and began the process of forcing open the country to the outside world. So were there Chinese restaurants already open in Yokohama so quickly? Well, I don't know about that, but it does seem that the image many of us have of Japan as being a totally closed country during the Edo era is somewhat misleading. A trickle of trade goods did come into the country during those years through the port at Nagasaki, and it is interesting to see that the men who were interested in the creation of surimono were apparently the same type of men who had the wealth and position necessary for access to such rare goods. As I look through my books illustrating Edo-era surimono, I see many indications of this: surimono from the early 1800's showing Persian clocks, telescopes, imported Korean parakeets, even one mentioning an imported goods shop in Osaka in the 1820's ...

So this image of the Chinese meal is perhaps another in the same pattern; the sumptuary laws of the bakufu government did not allow such men much liberty for ostentatious display of their wealth, but we can easily imagine the pleasure with which one of the participants in this dinner would later be showing this print to others. "Please enjoy browsing through my album of surimono. Just trifles really, but perhaps you might find them amusing. Here's a little one that commemorates a little gathering our poetry group had a while back ..." The guest would be suitably impressed, one can be sure ...

I'm not trying to suggest that vanity was the entire motivation behind the creation of these prints; of course they are open expressions of visual and poetic beauty. But when looking over many original surimono, one can't help but get the impression that it was important to produce work that was as luxurious and expensive as possible.

Of course this makes me wonder about how you are showing your own Surimono Album to friends who drop by. "Please enjoy browsing through my album of surimono. It's a bit of an unusual selection, but perhaps you might find them amusing ..."

June 2001