Boys and Ox

Here's an image that I'm sure you have never seen before ... and by a designer that you've perhaps never heard of. Going by the initial character of his name, we can safely assume that Kashosai Shunsen was one of that multitude of men who passed through the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho in the late 18th century. I own a copy of the original of this print, and it shows, by the fold down the middle and the remnants of glue at the edges, that it is one sheet taken from an album, presumably a poetry collection.

As is usually the case with surimono containing poetry, the image overflows with allusions to various interpretations of the poem. A gentleman who lives near me helps me with reading these things, but there really isn't any way that I can understand much of what I hear ...

You now hold this print in your hands, but it has been quite an adventure getting it to that stage this time! In last month's little print story I mentioned that I had made two versions of that crow print, and this month I find I can say the same thing - I have made this print twice. This time though, it was not by my choice ...

Although all my Hyakunin Isshu prints were carved on yamazakura (mountain cherry wood), since starting these surimono prints I have also been using tsuge (boxwood) for areas of high detail (faces, etc.). Because the box tree does not grow to a very large diameter, I cannot get entire 'blocks' made from box, but have been inlaying small portions into that area of the block in which the detailed part of the design is to appear. This has worked quite well, and has allowed me to carve some extremely fine detail - much finer that would be possible with cherry.

When it came time to prepare the woodblock for this print, I faced a bit of a quandary; there were three heads - each with some very fine hair carving - but the image was arranged in such a way that inlaying pieces of box would almost certainly result in visible lines appearing here and there in the print. So I decided to inlay a series of long narrow strips of box, enough to cover the entire surface of the design. I prepared the block, made it as smooth as I possibly could, and then began to carve. It worked very well, and all the delicate hair carving came out as fine as any that I have ever done. As I sat and looked at the finished key block, the product of more than a week's work, I felt quite proud of myself.

Five minutes later, after pulling the first test impression, that pride had completely evaporated. I discovered that one of the boxwood strips had absorbed moisture a bit more than its neighbours and was no longer at the same level - the block was thus impossible to print, and beyond repair ... totally ruined.

What to do? Well, there was of course only one thing to do - start all over again. I made a second hanshita (tracing of the original image), and prepared to begin anew. But this time I didn't trust my own ability to prepare a stable boxwood block, so I asked Matsumura-san, the man who has been supplying me with cherry blocks for the past couple of years, to prepare an 'all-boxwood' block. He wasn't so sure about this practicality of this idea, but I pressed him a bit and he agreed to try. When the block arrived a few days later I pasted down the design and got to work.

Carving the same image again was a very strange feeling for me, sort of an extended sensation of 'deja vu'. But it gave me an excellent insight into the feelings of a traditional carver. It was common for such men to carve the same image multiple times - different publishers would perhaps commission them to make a famous Hiroshige reproduction, for example. But because I choose all my own projects, I have never had such an experience.

Was it 'boring' the second time around? Not at all; I like carving, and the boxwood blocks are such a pleasure to work with that the repetition didn't seem to matter much. Did I do a better job the second time around? I'm not sure about that; when I compare the two proof prints, I can't see any dramatic difference. The print has turned out pretty much as I envisioned at the beginning - the three heads are carved quite finely ...

And that too is now a problem for me. I carve such fine parts of the design under a lens mounted on my bench, but when I look at the finished print, the detail is too fine for me - I know the hair is there, but I can't see it ... Whatever did the carvers do in the old days before lenses were available!

I certainly hope you can 'see' this print properly!

November 2001