Bristol Museum

An Artist’s Date with Adela Breton

Celebrating Easter Sunday with a walk around Bristol in the sunshine. I usually travel everywhere by bike so today I decided to slow down and just walk. I stopped and looked at things a little more closely than usual. The bees in the flowers. The ripples on the water from boats passing. Signs on buildings I’ve never seen before. Dogs walking their people! It was a quiet Sunday but I still managed to bump into a familiar face and we walked together. We walked and talked along the docks and parted as we reached the centre of town. I made my way to Bristol Museum to see their latest exhibition.

Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour

In the late 1800’s, archeological artist and adventurer, Adela Breton, travelled around Mexico with her guide Pablo Solorio making copies of the wall paintings in temples in Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacan and Acancéh. She painted the copies with watercolours which still hold their vibrancy today as the original wall paintings begin to fade over time. 

"Adela Breton always carried a sketchbook with her, giving a 'diary' of her travels. This one has sketches of landscapes, flowers and ruins of Mexico and Canada. It includes sketches made on her climb up the volcano of Iztaccihuatl, in snow and across glaciers, up to 15,000 feet above sea level - Adela Breton also carried a notebook at all times, and made notes of lectures, objects she saw in museums, and books she read." Bristol Museum

I was especially drawn to Adela’s sketchbooks of the places she visited on her travels. I have kept sketchbooks for many years and am mostly inspired to draw when I’m travelling and sitting in cafes. In the last couple of years I've been sketching antique netsuke from museums to make a collection of mini woodblock prints. Today after walking in the sunshine and looking through the sketchbooks of Adela Breton, I was eager to sit down, open my own sketchbook and take in my surroundings. The cafe where I was having lunch was the perfect spot. 

When I finished my lunch and my sketch, I walked home remembering the paragraph from Julia Cameron’s book Walking in this World.

“Walking and talking humanize my life, draw it to an ancient and comforting scale. We live as we move, a step at a time, and there is something in gentle walking that reminds me of how I must live if I am to savour this life that I have been given.” Julia Cameron
Clockwise from top left: Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Adela Breton's notebook of the Maya calendar. All three from Bristol Museum. A sketch I made today at Pinkman's Bakery, Bristol. 

Clockwise from top left: Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Adela Breton's notebook of the Maya calendar. All three from Bristol Museum. A sketch I made today at Pinkman's Bakery, Bristol. 

Netsuke - Bristol Museum Sketches

Twenty Netsuke in a Box

I have two hours booked with Kate Newnham to draw netsuke this morning at Bristol Museum. Kate has brought a box of netsuke into the office. A couple of weeks ago I sent Kate a list of netsuke that I would be interested in drawing from Bristol Museum's collection. This included a recumbent Buddhist lion, a monkey with scrolled ears and a stubby tail, a recumbent stag, a crouching tiger, a lion and cub, two tortoises, three monkeys clambering over a giant peach, a rat in a rice-bag, a rat with brass eyes and a monkey wearing a short gown. I pause for a moment and wonder how many more animals I would need to fill Noahs Ark. Inside this box are twenty different netsuke animals cushioned in their own tiny boxes.

Rabbit with Red Eyes

Kate has found almost all of the netsuke I chose from the collection and brought another netsuke I might be interested in. It's a rabbit with red piercing eyes and a smooth pale ivory body. I'm reminded of Edmund De Waal's Hare with The Amber Eyes and then my thoughts move to a more clinical laboratory scene of red eyed white mice ready for dissection. This thought is heightened by the pair of white gloves lying next to the box. I think about Edmund De Waal's collection and the many people who have held his netsuke in their hands and the conversations they have sparked and the memories held in these tiny objects. I wonder if the netsuke being kept in a museum over time might lose their memories as they are kept in a box and only occasionally handled with gloves. Will these conversations eventually come to a end?

Four Views of Rat with Brass Eyes Crouched over a Chestnut

Kate puts on the gloves and asks me which one I would like to draw first. I look back into the box of netsuke. It's difficult to make a choice as they are all so beautiful. After closer inspection I feel drawn to the Rat with brass eyes crouched over a chestnut.


I start drawing a side view of the rat with half of its face turned towards me. One brass eye stares back at me from its carved coat of grey. I pick up the rat. These gloves keep our connection at a distance. It's difficult to handle such a small object with gloves and my hands feel like paws - although I have seen a cat handle a small mouse with much more finesse. I carefully hold the rat in one hand while drawing with the other. What is lovely, is the space and silence to view the detail in this rat. To have the time to be able to see the rat from all angles. Every single part of the rat is carved beautifully - its tiny claws clasping the chestnut. I make two more drawings.

You look at the etymology of tact and all you have there in that beautiful word is the feeling of holding something, of touching something. That’s the root of tact - so what I want to talk about is touching silence. Touching the experience of being with someone and finding a silence in connection with them because that is what tact is.
— Edmund de Waal On Tact

Five Views of Rabbit with Red Eyes

I move on to the rabbit and make five drawings. Each from a different view as I did with the rat. While drawing each view I think about Hokusai's Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji. He was given this project so that they may help those who wanted to learn landscape design.

For example, its shape seen from Shichirigahama, or in the distance, from Tsukudajima, etc... - they may well be more than a hundred, and are not restricted to thirty-six designs.
— Hokusai - Mountains and Water, Flowers and Birds by Matthi Forrer.

It would be possible to draw a hundred views of these netsuke as the detail is so fine and there is always something new to discover. Someone learning the anatomy of Japanese netsuke might be thrilled by this concept!


One View of Monkey Wearing Short Gown

Kate puts the rabbit back in the box. I scan the box of netsuke and this time I'm immediately drawn to a tiny monkey with a melancholic expression. A downward gaze, not shouting for attention - unlike the piercing red eyes of the rabbit and the bright brass eyes of the rat. This monkey is pensive, self contained and quiet. I'm almost unsure whether to disturb it but I'm drawn to this netsuke so Kate gently lifts it from the box. I don't pick it up. It seems quite happy sitting in the centre of this big sheet of paper and I start to draw. Two hours have passed and I don't have any more time to draw from a different view and this feels right. I have given this monkey lots of space and make one small drawing right in the centre of the page.

Solitude matters and that for some people it is the air that they breathe. And in fact, we have known for centuries about the transcendent power of solitude. It’s only recently that we’ve strangely begun to forget it. If you look at most of the world’s major religions, you will find seekers — Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad — seekers who are going off by themselves alone to the wilderness, where they then have profound epiphanies and revelations that they then bring back to the rest of the community. So, no wilderness, no revelations.
— Susan Cain - The Power of Introverts - TED TALK

Thank you Kate and Bristol Museum for giving me your time and space to draw the netsuke.

Netsuke at the Bristol Museum

I popped into The Bristol Museum this week to find out about their netsuke collection. So lovely to be greeted by printmaker Melanie Wickham in the main reception. She pointed me in the right direction for their online collections, the Eastern Arts Gallery and contact details for Kate Newnham (Curator of Eastern Art and Culture at Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives). I headed upstairs to the second floor to check out their tiny collection of Japanese netsuke in the Eastern Arts Gallery.

Eastern Art Gallery

The gallery is abundant with Chinese ceramics from the Ming, Tang and Song dynasty. A small group of Japanese netsuke labelled 'Miniature zodiac animals from Japan' sit in a Dragon themed glass cabinet. A crouching tiger, a monkey eating some fruit, a horse lying on its side curled up like a cat, a hare wearing a dress holding onto a cylindrical object and a coiled up sea creature. I have no pencil on me so I take a quick photo to remind me what is here. Taking a photograph is useful and there are positives to drawing from a photograph especially when the lens magnifies the detail. What is fascinating about seeing the real thing, is the intricately carved detail which flows around the entire netsuke. The detail in these tiny objects is breath taking and when I stop for a couple of hours to draw these netsuke, I take the time to appreciate what is in front of me, allowing more of an intimate connection with these beautiful works of art.


Booking a Netsuke Drawing Session

I head back to my studio and check out The Bristol Museum website. I find a list of 240 netsuke without images. All of these netsuke are in storage so I send an email to Kate Newnham to find out more about their netsuke collection with a view to drawing some of the netsuke animals from their online list.

A few days later I received an email back from Kate who has booked me in for a netsuke drawing session later on this month.

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.
— Ruskin from Alain de Botton's - The Art of Travel.

Netsuke at The British Museum

I set my alarm for 6am and spend the night tossing and turning and worrying that I won't wake up to catch my bus to London. And so predictably I wake up fifteen minutes early and watch the count down to 5.50am then crawl out of bed into the shower, quick bowl of cereal and out the door. The last minute indecision about which sketchbook to bring is resolved by bringing them all including the heavy hardback one which I had dismissed the night before. So I start the journey with a slightly heavier bag stuffed with sketch books and snacks and all set for the British Museum. My appointment is at 11am. After two buses and a tube adding up to four and a half hours and the last half mile walk with Google maps whispering directions in my headphones I am finally here. I am late and running up the steps of the entrance into the museum.

Inside The British Museum I am overwhelmed by unexpected beauty. I haven't been here for years and I had forgotten how magnificent this place was. A modern Greek palace with its bright limestone walls and a curved glass roof curling with the core of the circular stairs. Contributors names engraved on the cylindrical wall of the staircase. This is The Great Court. It is light, spacious, majestic and I feel immediately tranquil for a moment until hoards of school children come herding through the main hall.

Sketching The Okimono of Turtles

To find the Asia study room I follow the curve of the stairs and round past the book and gift shop right to the back of the main hall and up a few flights of stairs. I take a left into a deserted room full of Chinese ceramics. Tranquility is unbroken here. I gently pull the enormous glass doors leading to the study room. I ring the bell. Lowri greets me at the door. I sign my name in a big name book and Lowri offers me a place to sit. She opens a cupboard and brings out a large plastic box, brings it over to the table and asks me what I would like to draw first. The Okimono of Turtles are popping their heads up through the tissue. Lowri wears gloves to handle the netsuke and places it on a sponge mat it in front of me. I had seen The Okimono of Turtles on the British Museum website but it is so much smaller in reality and much harder to see the detail. I have been so used to drawing from close up photographs where the netsuke have been enlarged at least double their original size. I take out my pencil and start sketching. I haven't warmed up or settled in properly yet and The Okimono of Turtles is a bit challenging for a first drawing. The turtles are piled on top of each other like pancakes. I have over complicated the drawing and can't see how this will work as a print. I can simplify it later so I take a break and move on to The Foxes.


Sketching The Foxes

This time I'm pleased with the drawing and enjoy the simpler form of this netsuke. I prefer the shape of the foxes huddled together wrapping their paws and tails around each other. Their long noses and curling bodies weaving in rhythmic form. I turn the sponge to get a different view of the Foxes and make two more little drawings. My drawings are small but not as small as the netsuke which are only 4.5cm high.


Sketching The Tanuki

The Tanuki (a type of Japanese racoon) is a lovely rounded character with its paws on its pot belly (described on the British Museum website as Tanuki beating belly.) The first sketch is plausible but the second looks more like a chicken or maybe a penguin if you rub out the pointy ears and the third is not far off a pig. Time seems to be racing so I move on to The Dog.


Sketching Sitting dog with paw raised

I can't believe my time is nearly up and I still have two netsuke to draw. The dog is tiny. Only 3cm high. I make four little sketches of the thin little ribbed dog from different angles. It's ears flop over its head turning away towards its circle curling tail.


It's almost one o'clock and no time to sketch the little palace. Lowri offers me an afternoon slot as the study room is quiet today but this afternoon I have made plans to visit Laura Boswell and Ian Philips woodblock print and lino print exhibition at the R K Burt Gallery. I thank Lowri and head through the room of Chinese ceramics on my way out pausing to look at the beautifully glazed Northern Song Ru stonewares. Then up the stairs to see the netsuke case in the Japanese gallery.

Japanese Gallery at The British Museum

The Goldfish, the Sleeping Rat and the Kirin are all there behind the glass. I try to take photographs but the light is too dim, again producing grainy, blurred photographs. I open the big wooden doors into the Japanese gallery and immediately in front of me is replica of a wooden tea house with tatami matting and paper sliding doors. Unfortunately you can't step inside the tea house for a rest or a cup of tea so I move on past the earthenware figurines, bronze bells, tarnished mirrors, spearheads, ceramic tombs, vessels, wooden statues of buddhist deities, hand scrolls of the sutras and landscapes, masks, shrines, jars, tea pots, tea bowls, Samurai armour, illustrated books, woodblock prints, paintings.

Two smaller glass cabinets hang on the wall above steps to modern Japan in the next part of the gallery. Both cabinets hold a small collection of netsuke. One with netsuke animals. A monkey clasping its leg, two horses entwined into the shape of a heart, an eagle gripping a tanuki in its claws, a curled up snake , an ox with calf, a deer holding up one hoof and a tiger baring its teeth with its tail whipped round to front of its chest. The second cabinet holds netsuke people. A Chinese official, Dutchman and cockerel, Ainu woman and child, Monkey trainer and monkey, Okame bathing and Naked Chinese woman.


I continue into modern Japan and find a woodblock carving on cherry wood of Stonehenge. 'Woodblock for Stonehenge by Night' carved and printed before 1916 by Urushibara Mokuchu who had come to London to teach woodblock printing techniques at the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition of 1910.

I carry on back down the steps towards another staircase. Halfway down the stairs a huge silk scroll hangs on the wall with a couple resting beneath a trellis of moonflowers sharing a cup of sake. "Evening Cool beneath Moonflowers" by Yokoyama Kazan.


A reminder its time for a drink and a bite to eat. I head out into the main hall for a quick snack and then to the bookshop. I find a book about Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan by Noriko Tsuchiya and Japanese Netsuke by Julia Hutt with an introduction by Edmund De Waal. I buy the books and make my way to the R K Burt Gallery.