netsuke monkey

Awagami International Miniature Print Exhibition 2017

Year of the Cockerel 酉

In May I applied to the Awagami International Miniature Print Exhibition 2017. I submitted two prints. 'Monkey Wearing Short Gown' celebrating the year of the Monkey, 2016. To celebrate the year 2017, I carved a cockerel of a netsuke from The British Museum. I usually make a visit to a museum or gallery to make a sketch of the original netsuke but as I was eager to get the prints to Awagami Factory. I searched The British Museum’s online collection and found a photograph of a netsuke cockerel carved by Yoshinaga around the late 18th C. The original netsuke is made from wood with eyes inlaid in dark horn. 

Carving the block and printing the cockerel

酉     とり     tori



I carved the cockerel from Japanese magnolia wood to print an edition of 75. Both prints, the cockerel and the monkey, were posted to Awagami Factory. The prints were received and will be on display at the Awagami’s Hall of Awa Japanese Handmade Paper Museum for their 2017 exhibition - October 7th - 29th October. 

"The exhibition will feature a total of 1,347 miniprints submitted from 1,010 artists hailing from 54 countries.” A.I.M.P.E

"In Japan, since the Edo Period, the Tori no ichi, a market fair  has been held on the Days of the Rooster in November (to welcome the New Year) at various Otori-jinja shrines found in all parts of Japan. This fair is sometimes called by the familiar name of Otori-sama. The patron deity of good fortune and successful business is enshrined at Otori-jinja shrines. Open-air stalls are set up selling among other things, kumade rakes (symbolic of the rooster’s feet)  for ‘raking in wealth and good fortune.’This good-luck rake is made of bamboo and is decorated with masks and koban (old gold coins)."

Find out more about cockerel / rooster symbolism at: Japanese Mythology and Folklore

Netsuke - Monkey Wearing Short Gown


New Year

A few months ago I visited Bristol Museum to draw netsuke. One of the netsuke I chose was Monkey Wearing Short Gown. I am carving and printing this netsuke to reflect the forthcoming Chinese New Year (Year of the Monkey) and Japanese Buddhist and Shintō Lore.

By the time Buddhism reached Japan (mid 6th century AD), the monkey and monkey lore were already common elements in Buddhist legend, art, and iconography. Thereafter, monkey worship in Japan grew greatly in popularity, especially among practitioners of Taoist Kōshin rites introduced from China and among followers of Tendai Shintō-Buddhism.
— Copyright Mark Shumacher

Dampening Hosho paper

I have seen a few different methods for dampening hosho paper and I notice I do it differently each time. I still haven’t worked out which is the best method but today I lay a sheet of dampened newsprint on the top front of the hosho paper. Then a sheet of dry newsprint on top of the damp newsprint. Then the hosho, then the dampened newsprint, the dry newsprint and so on. The recommended time to leave the paper in the newsprint is 2 hours minimum. Today I leave mine for only an hour before printing but after making a test print I am happy with the results. I’m aware the temperature of the room can affect the dampness of the paper too and it is warm in my studio but it’s working so far so I’m going with my own intuition today rather than follow the technical gurus.


Carving Monkey

As I carve Monkey I am thinking about a quote from a book I am currently reading which resonates with my desire to keep these prints as simple as possible.

No matter how magnificent these objects were, I found the fewer I placed in the house, the more beautiful it became. I removed more and more, eventually leaving the thirty-six square meters of polished floorboards in the main room completely bare. With nothing except the ‘black glistening’ of the open floor, the house took on the majesty of a Noh stage.
— Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Carved Block Washed and Ready to Ink

I wash the block, removing the gampi paper and ink from the printer, leaving just the bare wood ready to ink up. I make a test print and soon realise the uncarved surface surrounding the carved monkey is obstructing the baren from producing an even pressure on the monkey. Once the rest of the wood is removed my fingers are numb from the intense gouging. This tool is only 6mm wide. It is time to invest in the right tool for the job!


Another test print and the outline of the monkey is ragged. I clean up the edges with a combination of the 3mm and 6mm gouge tool and make another test print. I haven’t made registration marks for any of the blocks so far as the blocks are so small. All my printing is done by eye which is fine for now as I want to keep these as single colour prints. To print using more colours I will need work on bigger blocks to allow space for the registration marks without obstructing the baren.

Carved Block Inked and Ready to Print

I dampen the block and add a little nori paste to the Japanese carbon ink. As I brush the ink across the wood the ‘black glistening floor’ from Alex Kerr’s house in ‘Lost Japan’ stretches before me. This 'Monkey Wearing Short Gown’ appears to be quietly sitting still in the centre of this woodblock but its spirit is leaping onto the black glistening stage.

Monkey worship in Japan peaked in the Edo Era, but has declined significantly since then. Even so, the legacy of monkey faith is easily spotted in modern Japan. One can still find old stone statues with monkey motifs in many Japanese localities — statues that are weathering away, unprotected from the elements. – Certain Japanese shrines (Hie Jinja locations nationwide) and temples (Shitennō-ji in Osaka) continue even today to perform the Kōshin rites for those who still believe (most are elderly Japanese), and lucky charms featuring the monkey are still easily found at Japanese temples, shrines, and trinket shops. The color RED is often associated with the monkey, for it signifies the dual role of the monkey as protector against disease as well as patron of fertility.
— Copyright Mark Shumacher

Original netsuke 'Monkey Wearing Short Gown' from Bristol Museum. Unsigned.


Mark Shumacher

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

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.