Netsuke Deer - Delicate and Far

'We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions…Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before…when we feel a kinship with an object, it is because the values we sense that it carries are clearer in it than they usually are in our minds.' Alain de Botton & John Armstrong - Art As Therapy

In the basement of Bristol Museum there are drawers of miniature objects in the shape of a buddha, a demon, a god and goddess, a mother with her child, a farmer, a monk, fishermen, buffalo, frogs, horses, rats, fish, monkeys, snails and worms and many more. They lie sleeping in these drawers. These objects are antique Japanese netsuke.  

I make visits to Bristol Museum with my sketchbook and pencil to draw these unusual and beautifully carved objects. When I arrive I’m taken to the basement. The drawers are gently pulled open and the netsuke are woken up. There are at least a two hundred netsuke here. I choose a few netsuke and spend a couple of hours drawing. Then back in my studio I transfer the drawing onto a woodblock, carve the block and then make a print. On my most recent visit I’m drawn to a frog, an ox and a deer. The netsuke animals hold a particular magic for me. 

‘We don’t just like art objects. We are also, in the case of certain prized examples, a bit like them. They are the media through which we come to know ourselves, and let others know more of what we are really about.’ Alain de Botton & John Armstrong - Art As Therapy



SHY in their herding dwell the fallow deer.

They are spirits of wild sense. Nobody near

Comes upon their pastures. There a life they live,

Of sufficient beauty, phantom, fugitive,

Treading as in jungles free leopards do,

Printless as evelight, instant as dew.

The great kine are patient, and home-coming sheep

Know our bidding. The fallow deer keep

Delicate and far their counsels wild,

Never to be folded reconciled

To the spoiling hand as the poor flocks are;

Lightfoot, and swift, and unfamiliar,

These you may not hinder, unconfined

Beautiful flocks of the mind.


Poem by John Drinkwater

Deer Netsuke - Miniature Woodblock Print

Original antique netsuke sketched at Bristol Museum.

Original antique netsuke sketched at Bristol Museum.

"Deer are considered messengers to the gods in Shinto, especially Kasuga Shrine in Nara Prefecture where a white deer had arrived from Kashima Shrine as its divine messenger. It has become a symbol of the city of Nara. Deer in Itsukushima Shrine, located in Miyajima, Hiroshima, are also sacred as divine messengers. In various parts of Northeast Japan, a deer dance called "Shishi-odori" has been traditionally performed as an annual shinto ritual." Wikipedia