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