Netsuke horses at the British Museum

I'm walking back along Drury lane passing the shops and cafes, the road bursting with vans, cars and cyclists and a dustbin lorry pushes up next to me. I pull myself away from the chaos and pause for a moment to look at a curtain of pink ballet shoes suspended from a shop window - then quickly along Museum Street, into Great Russell street and I arrive at the British Museum. This time I'm early and I wait in the room of Chinese ceramics. I'm making sure I don't miss out on the full two hour time slot. It will be busy in the study room today. There are also viewings for Japanese woodblock prints and a painted hanging scroll of a roaring tiger.

The Study Room

Lucy is looking after the study room today and has already put the box of netsuke on the table for when I arrive. Each one is carefully laid in tissue paper. She brings me a pair of blue plastic gloves, allowing me to handle the netsuke. I carefully pick out one of the standing horses which is curled round in the shape of a horseshoe. Head curved towards its front hooves, back arched with tail between its legs and front and back hooves touching making a natural hole for a toggle. I am able to see the netsuke from all angles and when I turn it upside down, delicately carved heels of the horses hooves are revealed. This standing horse is not made for standing but for hanging so I lay it down to draw. Lucy informs me that they have ways to stand the netsuke securely for photo shoots. This enables the photographer to get a good close up of a standing horse standing!

Horse Tales

It's only by drawing that I spend more time looking and become more present and these impossible postures remind me that these objects are the carver's interpretation. Was this netsuke carved from observing a real horse or from a collection of sketches or paintings or from memory? My drawing is an interpretation of the object and my carving will be another step removed like a visual game of Chinese Whispers until the final print will be something quite different to the original.

I put the standing horse back in its tissue paper and gently take 5 Horses into the palm of my hand. This netsuke of 5 Horses huddled together is less than 4cm in length and I'm not sure how to begin the drawing. There is so much detail in such a tiny space and when I turn the netsuke upside down, a jigsaw puzzle of tiny hooves surround the inscription of the carver's signature.


Time ticks quickly so I make two small sketches of the 5 Horses and move on to the Seated Horse with its head curled into its hooves. Sitting on its hind legs and back curved over onto its front legs reminds me more of how a dog would sit. It also reveals how little I know about the anatomy of a horse and I ponder for a moment - how does a horse sit?


I sketch the seated horse and then another standing horse with a bulbous muzzle and tail whipped around the side of its body pressing into its ribs. It's like a caricature of a horse and my drawing exaggerates this even more.


Finally I take the last netsuke from the box and make a drawing in the short amount of time I have left. If I was to view this netsuke only from underneath, the cluster of delicately carved hooves may give a clue that this is a protective mother Goat sheltering its Kid.

Edinburgh - Sea Tea Textiles and Whiskey

I cycle the streets of Edinburgh in the sunshine, exploring the city starting at Peter's Yard cafe by Middle Meadow Walk for Swedish breakfast, then into the centre, up the Royal Mile hill towards Edinburgh Castle. I'm surprised by the lack of bike racks in the city as I see so many people cycling around but I eventually manage to find a lamp post and walk up the rest of the hill to Edinburgh Castle with views of the blue sea and the buzzing city, rooftops and roads and patchwork gardens. Inside the walls of the castle is St Margaret's chapel. Colourful textiles are laid over the alter representing the many qualities of the once reigning queen. It's still early and not many tourists have arrived yet so I make the most of the cool and peaceful space before exploring the rest of the castle a quick cup of tea and a taste of local whiskey. Back on the bike to The Fruit Market Gallery for lunch and 'Possibilities of the Object - Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Brazilian Art' exhibition.

In Search of Netsuke

I arrive at the National Museum of Scotland in search of Japanese netsuke. I'm directed to the Asia department which is quite tiny. They don't appear to have any netsuke. I'm sure I saw them on the website so ask the guide. He is not sure and points me in the direction of the Japanese Porcelain exhibition. Being optimistic I take a look. It's a tiny exhibition of Japanese ceramic pots from the late 1800s early 1900s but no netsuke. I continue to wander around the museum and find myself in a large room full of stuffed animals from monkeys and pandas, lions and tigers, polar bears and foxes, giraffes and deer. It's a dramatic landscape of dynamic shapes. Each animal frozen in action. I wonder where they once lived and how they died and how they came to be here. It's a curious place. This is Animal World and in the middle of this sea of animals stands a gigantic elephant with tusks as long as my own body and I'm reminded of these beautiful creatures continuing to be poached for their tusks only to be cut up for the benefit and demand of the consumer. I think about the netsuke and how many elephants were killed in the process to make these objects. Back at the information desk I speak to a member of staff to discover the gallery where the netsuke are displayed is closed as part of their redevelopment programme and won't be open until 2016.

Japanese Woodblock Prints at the National Gallery Scotland

It's easy enough to get lost on a bike round a busy city when the sea looks like a stones throw from the top of the hill. I cycle down the hill on my way to the National Gallery Scotland. Instead of turning left I continue straight down the hill towards the inviting sea and into Dublin Road. Dublin is my second home and although Edinburgh faces the North sea I can almost feel the Dublin air in my lungs as I breathe on my bike past the rows of Georgian terrace houses.

I climb back up the hill to the National Gallery. Through the revolving door and into the main gallery. It's hot and stuffy. I peel off my layers, hang my helmet round my bag. I'm surrounded by overwhelming mass of dramatic intensity. An overload of war and battle scenes. I race through the stifling crowd and head straight down the stairs for Scottish Art Gallery to be greeted by tranquility. A beautiful deep blue mountain in luscious landscape by the Scottish painter David Young Cameron. The gallery leads me away from the drama and into a quiet haven, through a dim lit peaceful corridor of Scottish landscapes. I can breathe again.

As I walk back up the stairs I notice I haven't seen any prints, only paintings. I ask at reception if there is a print room. Yes but you have to book an appointment. I am only here today and wonder if there is a possibility of seeing some Japanese woodblock prints today. The receptionist makes a call. She looks positive. Yes it's possible and she books an appointment for me in half an hour with Katrina.

The Print Room

A young woman has opened the door to reveal the print room. Katrina shows me where to write my name and address and to take a pencil and paper if I wish but "NO PENS" she says. I envisage the accidental collision of pen and paper. The pen gliding across an orange sunset, eventually making it's heavy dark eternal mark upon a delicate pink blossom tree. She pulls out a big green box from the shelves and on to the table. Inside the box are original Japanese prints. Katrina has studied Japanese woodblock prints from the Ukey-o period and is very knowledgeable as she talks me through each print. Each print is mounted between stiff cardboard with a sheet of plastic between the mount and the print. She lifts the mount and removes the sheets of plastic to reveal the tactile quality of delicate handmade Japanese paper. Most of these designs are by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The colours in the prints have faded and would have been much more intense when they were first printed. She explains how some of these prints are obviously reproductions and you can tell from the inaccuracy of the registration. But this is over ridden by the precise intricate fine detail in the carving. It's the first time I have seen original Japanese woodblock prints so closely. It's magical.


When we have finished looking through the box of prints Katrina brings out another big green box. This time I can look through the prints by myself. I ask if I can take photos without a flash. That is fine. The prints are mountainous, watery landscapes, bridges and rivers, people walking and working in fields and towns under deep blue skies, the rain beating down on dark inky pavements. I take a photo only to find the memory is full. Maybe it is a blessing as with no camera I spend longer looking at the prints. I absorb each scene, the delicate carving, the trees, the waves, the tiny houses, the textures, the mark making, the colours overlapping, the bokashi effect. I take a break and delete some old photos from my camera. I manage to take a few photographs of the prints and make a note of the ones that really resonate.


Shin-hanga (new prints)

I ask Katrina where all the original woodblocks are stored. She says that there aren't many left as after an edition was made, to keep the value of the prints, they would destroy the blocks. I find the wood block a piece of art in itself and I'm shocked that this was the normal procedure after spending so much time making such intricate carvings.

When I have finished looking through the second box, Katrina pulls out one more box. Inside is a huge pile of extremely delicate unmounted prints. There are many modern images (Shin-hanga) of wildlife - birds and frogs and dragonflies and it's difficult to tell which ones are ink sketches and which ones woodblock prints. Some are printed on paper as fine as tissue with holes and tears and I'm afraid to touch them incase they disintegrate. We decide to leave this box alone and I hope that someone will take time to carefully mount them so one day they can be viewed properly.


I thank Katrina for giving me the time to explore the prints and we say goodbye. Downstairs in the main hall the sun has disappeared. Behind the great glass window panes the snow is falling reminding of the beautiful print 'Night Rain at Makura' by Hiroshige.

Netsuke - Ox (& the Art of Listening)


I discovered Onbeing at the beginning of the year. I have no recollection of the thread in the web that brought me to Kristas Tippett's website but ever since I found it I am a complete fan of her heart warming inspiring interviews with poets, thinkers, speakers, makers, teachers.... from all over the globe.

I'm listening to Gordon Hempton's soundscape of nature's silence 'A Hike through the Hoh rainforest.' He takes us on a guided walk along the trail through tall tree, ferns and moss, a winter wren twittering, a river echoing of the edge of the valley and the call of a Roosevelt elk. In his conversation with Krista Tippett he talks about the art of listening.

"Listening is not about sound - If you ever find yourself listening for sound, that's diagnostically a controlled impairment. Simply listen to the place and when you listen to the place you take it ALL in - We're about to enter into a giant driftwood log -Sikta Spruce log, the material used in the crafting of violins - when the wood fibres are excited by acoustic energy -in this case its the sound of the ocean itself - the fibres actually vibrate and inside you get to listen to nature's largest violin.” Gordon Hempton - Onbeing


Shiko Munakata & Kiyoshi Saito

While I carve my second ox, I wonder where this magnolia wood was growing and how many years it stood rooted in the earth before being cut into blocks. The death of the magnolia tree. The aliveness of mark making. The transforming of tree to print. This time I leave more wood, less carving, more outline and I am more gentle as I listen to the sound of the hangito cutting into the block. I love how Shiko Munakata really listened to the wood when he was carving. He let the wood speak as there is no right and wrong, just the doing of it and the way Kiyoshi Saito, another master of the Creative Print Movement (Sosaku Hanga) embraced the texture of wood grain when printing flat bold areas of colour.

"Flat areas of colour and the texture of the woodblocks' grain communicate the essentials of the nature of bold and harmonious designs. Saito's simple style possesses great freedom and spontaneity, and there is an international avoidance of elegant refinement. " Masterful Images - The Art of Kiyoshi Saito. Barry Till.

"The nature of the woodcut is such, that even a mistake in its carving will not prevent it from its true materialization." Shiko Munakata


I have returned to using the Japanese carbon ink as I am not yet used to the smell of the sumi ink. I use dry Japon simile paper and rub the baren over the woodblock. The plastic cream baren is hard and unforgiving of the slightly uneven surface where I had put too much pressure on the wood with the bone folder. I use my shredded bamboo baren and the next print is much cleaner. This ox is better than the last one but still with its many imperfections. I stick a sample into my notebook along with the previous samples.


I wonder whether sketching these netsuke from 'life' will make a difference. The central archives department at the British museum have forwarded my request on to the department of Asia and sent me their email so I can contact them directly. I send another email to the department of Asia and wait for their reply.

Christmas Steps Steps Quarter - celebrating local creativity

In the three years I have had the studio, I have never managed to fully engaged with the area where my studio is situated. I have usually rushed into the studio printed and rushed home. My New Years Revolution was to make more time for my studio. Now that I am keeping to my word and spending more time here I am thrilled to be here. Christmas Steps Arts quarter is a creative and vibrant part of Bristol buzzing with independent shops & creative businesses from galleries, cafes & restaurants, a bookshop & florist, antique and jewellery shops, clock shop & apothecary, vintage clothes & independent hair dresser, music & art shops.

Bristol Fine Art

In a major clear out of my studio I find a small paper bag of unused purple pigment. It must be about 10 years old. I pull it out of the cupboard and lay it on the table. I'm not sure what's the best way to use this so decide to pop up to the nearest art shop for some advice.

Usually I cycle everywhere in Bristol. It's the fastest way to travel through town, speeding past the traffic, knowing you will make it to your destination in time. But today I decide take my time and walk. I walk slowly from my studio to Bristol Fine Art I look over into the skyline over the rooftops and my eyes follow the chimneys of the tall victorian buildings as they wiggle their way down the hill towards the centre of town.

I arrive at Bristol Fine Art and ask the owner, Nick, about the pigments. Nick advises me to mix the pigment with gum arabic so I can experiment printing with the pure pigment instead of my cheap watercolours. He opens up a box on the floor with bottles of pigments that have just arrived. He shows me a bottle of blue rocks which have been hammered into small pieces at the factory. It's cobalt blue. Beautiful iridescent glowing rocks. A moment to wonder at the magic of this planet. This is cobalt blue in its natural source, luminescent in the jar like treasure. Nick will go through the box later and see what other colours have arrived. These are for display only. I can't wait to discover the rest of the pigments he has ordered. I buy the gum arabic and head back to my studio.

Amelie and Melanie - Japanese Antiques

On my way back I am looking in the windows of the shops on Park Row. (Put in right order) A hair dresser, a Kimono shop, ceramic gallery, and behind the glass of the next shop on a shelf sit a group of tiny netsuke. This Japanese antique shop is across the road from my studio, right on my doorstep, and I haven't taken notice before. Was I really rushing around that much?


I ring the doorbell. A young woman answers and lets me in. I introduce myself and ask if it is possible to see the netsuke collection. Her name is Mel. She brings me into the back of the shop, disappears for a moment and comes back through with a box full of tiny Japanese netsuke. They are beautiful and delicately carved objects. I mention Edmund De Waal's book. Of course she has read it and agrees the netsuke play a crucial yet small part in Edmund's search for his roots. I ask if there would be a possibly to draw the netsuke. She sees no reason why not but they will be busy at Antique fairs over the the next couple of months. She gives me her card with contact details.


Later I pop back over to give her a card with my details. I ring the bell. A woman opens the door. It's not Mel. It's her business partner and mother Ammy. I ask her to pass on the message to Mel. Ammy goes into the back of the shop and brings out a red photo album. Inside are photographs and sketches of netsuke. These are her sketches. She hasn't looked at this album for years and hands the photo album to me so I can draw from these while they are away.

I am so grateful and extremely excited and head back to my studio. I sit down, make a cup of tea and flick through the album of netsuke. I'm drawn to the photograph of the netsuke man with a fan.

Photograph of Man with Fan netsuke


Bristol Design

These tools are new and extremely sharp but soon they will be in need of a good sharpen. A few doors down from Amelie and Melanie is Bristol Design - they sell wood cutting tools. I open the door and am greeted by a woman behind the counter. I ask her for help with sharpening stones. They have many second hand sharpening stones. The other customer waits patiently as Gail gives me advice on the sharpening stones. Most of them are oil stones in handmade wooden boxes. After much deliberation I finally find one I like. The surface is smooth and flat and is a fair price. The conversation sparks interest from the other customer as we all discuss sharpening stones and ultimate frisbee championships.

I get back to the studio and find the purple pigment sitting on the table. I spoon some of the pigment on a saucer and mix in the gum arabic and nori paste and brush the colour onto an experimental carving of a fish. It's a delicate colour that prints, not the strong purple powder in the bag but mixed with a little nori gives it a little translucent softness.