An Introduction to Netsuke - V&A


Thank you to my friend Jo for this wonderful gift, 'An Introduction to Netsuke,' which belonged to her father. I will treasure it.

This book of Netsuke from the Victoria & Albert Museum by Joe Earle, takes me back to a trip I made to the V&A in February 2015. Many of the plates in the book are ones I made prints from last year including Tigress and Young - Signed Tomotada and Tiger - Signed Tomotada. Lovely to see the underside and detail of the Tiger's paws with Tomotada's signature carved into his hind leg.

Little is known of the lives or origins of the netsuke carvers but we do know that during the seventeenth century miniature Buddhist shrines for domestic use were coming into widespread use and it is reasonable to assume that the makers of the images for these shrines would have been among the first to turn their hand to netsuke - we can learn something about the relations between netsuke carvers from their special art-names, which often share common elements. For example, among Kyoto artists mentioned by Inaba we find Tomotada, Tomotane and Okatomo. Tomatane and Okatomo were pupils of Tomotada, while Okatori was the brother of Okatomo. The strong master-pupil relationship implied by these closely related professional names has been a characteristic of Japanese arts of all periods.
— An Introduction to Netsuke (V & A Museum Introductions to the Decorative Arts).

I have been meaning to make a print of the little wooden bird too, so maybe now it is time...

Carving Tiger

I moved into my studio in March 2012. I set up my Adana 8 x 5 platen press and began to print. No computer. No digital printer. Just the simplicity of my printing press, tools, inks and paper. This was good for a time but when I recently started to explore woodblock printing I realise the beauty of combining the print world with the digital world. I was initially sketching my images directly onto the tracing paper and then rubbing the reversed side onto the wood but soon realised its limitations - if I needed to re-carve any of these netsuke I would have to sketch from scratch each time as I did with Recumbent Goat. So a few weeks ago I brought my old computer and printer to the studio, which has been a break through and another step forward in getting to grips with this process.


Every month I meet with Lilla and Meg. We carve out time and space to explore print making, stamping, make connections, conversation and share our explorations. I have brought the tiger ready to carve. I know it's going to be the most difficult one to carve so far as the image is so small (5cm h x 4cm w).

I start carving...a couple of hours later I've already taken out some of the tiger's eye. The outlines are unrecognisable. I take it home to finish and know that this little tiger is far too small for my limited experience with Japanese wood carving tools. I have lost the definition from the original sketch.


The good news is I can re-size the original image in Photoshop and print on a fresh piece of tracing paper to transfer to a new block. I notice also that the tools are not as sharp and it's time to use the slipstrop to hone the blades.

Netsuke - Tiger (Signed Tomotada)

I am working on Tiger. The ivory tiger netsuke is crouched behind the glass with his back leg raised up to his whiskers. He is in between 'Tiger' signed Ransen (A.52-1915 FOX GIFT) and 'Tiger' signed Mitsuhide (A.51-1915 FOX GIFT). On a recent trip to see an interview with Judith Kerr (The Tiger who came to Tea) at The Southbank in London. I spent the next morning visiting Japan to find a different type of tiger lurking in a corner.

Neatly tucked between Europe and China, Japan is on display. The light is dim and hauntingly spacious. Textiles, ceramics, Japanese woodblock prints, lacquer chests glow from glass cabinets and in the corner, the reason I have come here; rows and rows of miniature sculpted creatures behind glass. Japanese netsuke.

Edmund De Waal mentions in his book "for rooms covered in gold, it is very very dark". After reading In praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki (Recommended by Lucinda at Mr B's Emporium in Bath) I now understand the importance of low lighting and how gold and lacquer actually become illuminated in the dark.

"And I realised then that only in dim lit half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed - Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a simple glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light." Junichiro Tanizaki

So here I am in Japan. This is Room 45 at the V&A South Kensington. I am photographing in turn these new found inspirational objects, quietly building my own collection of netsuke. See post The Hare with the Amber Eyes, for my introduction to netsuke. I am drawn to the tigers, possibly after an inspirational interview with Judith Kerr yesterday afternoon - taking me back to my own childhood and one of my favourite illustrated books 'The Tiger who came to Tea.' It was first published in 1968, now a classic which is still so popular with children today. The entire audience, including the children, are mesmerised by Judith's eloquently spoken stories about her own childhood in Germany when Hilter came into power.

I upload my photos to the computer, blow up the tiger to full screen and make a drawing of the the tiger in my sketchbook.


I then scan the image back into the computer, re-size the tiger in Photoshop and print it out on tracing paper.


I rub the reverse side of the tracing paper onto the wood with a bone folder. What a joy to discover the ink transfers beautifully onto the magnolia wood. Much clearer than the rough plywood. This tiger is ready for carving...

Tiger (signed Tomotada 429-1904 DRESDEN BEQUEST)