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 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.

Netsuke at the Royal Festival Hall

The train is sighing and heaving and trees blur behind rain scratched windows. I'm drinking a hot take-away tea while reading a book 'Names for the Sea, Strangers in Iceland' by Sarah Moss. My fingers seem to take longer to thaw as I hold the book of ice. It was glorious sunshine yesterday. I'm heading back into the city of London as the clouds darken. The rain is persistent.

100 Miniature Masterpieces

The first and last stop is The Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. It's too wet and too cold to keep trekking through puddles and be rain soaked without an umbrella or raincoat. I stay here to keep warm and dry. I was hoping to draw netsuke at the V&A today but instead I'm drawing from the book I bought yesterday at The British Museum. 'Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan' by Noriko Tsuchiya. I flick through the book containing photographs of netsuke in human form, immortals, ghosts, masks, animals and manju. I am interested in the animals and pick out one of the oldest netsuke in the museum (about 1700). 'Elephant and man in the form of a seal'. The photograph of the netsuke is at least three times the size than an original netsuke making it so much easier to draw and kinder to the eyes. I don't have the option to turn the netsuke and view it from a different angle but I can take as long as I like as there is no time restriction here.


Drawn with Music

I feel relaxed drawing the netsuke while listening to music on my headphones. The Royal Festival Hall is buzzing with people working and chatting and the music doesn't shut it out, it just softens the edges. A one-to-one language course is in full flow at the table behind me. A couple on the far table are in deep conversation with paint pots, brushes and paper and lunch all piled up together. A man sits with his smart phone, a woman with her lap-top. Two woman with pads of paper and paper cups also in deep discussion. Downstairs people are piled in the cafe. The rain continues to fall as I move on the 'Reclining Goat' by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu. Then 'Horse' - unsigned, 'Hare with Loquats' signed by Yamaguchi Okatomo and lastly 'Sleeping Cat' - unsigned.


When I've finished I look back through the sketch book and compare drawings. These are much larger than the ones I drew at the British Museum. It will be fun to carve them and see how they print. I pack up my books step out into the rain and head for the tube.

Netsuke - Tiger (Signed Okatori)

This tiger by Okatori has big heavy eye lids and a swirling tail curled up on his back. His markings are carved slithers of wispy leaf like patterns. He crouches with his hind leg reaching up to his mouth, licking his paw - a yoga pose definitely to aspire to!

I sketch what I can from my dark grainy photograph and scan the sketch, print on tracing paper, rub the image onto the block, carve the tiger and ink up.

Two bottles of ink sit on my studio table like two characters, a bright green squat rounded shape with a black cap and a tall black cuboid with a red cap. I have been using the little green bottle of Japanese Carbon ink which smells of cool mint. Today I am going to try the tall bottle of Chinese sumi ink. The smell is pungent almost like stale blood. I recently read 'Colour' by Victoria Finlay. Each chapter is titled by a colour. In 'Black' she explains the origins of producing ink from soot and sometimes from dead bodies and I wonder what concoction this bottle is holding as I find it hard to get used to the overpowering smell.

Wood Tiger

Before inking up the wood I look at the carved image. I can't make out the shape at all. First I see a dog, then a monkey and then finally my eyes adjust to the lines and a tiger emerges from the grain. I am still printing on dry paper as I just want to get a quick idea of the kind of print this wood will make. If it's a bad print at least I won't have wasted time dampening Hosho paper. Fortunately the first print on Japon Simile does reveal a tiger and not one to be messed with. His eyes are staring wildly, much more than the one behind the glass at the V&A. It's the biggest print of the mini prints so far (9cm x 7cm) which shows that tigers really do need their space.


"Although the tiger is not native to Japan, it has been widely used as a motif in Japanese art because it is one of the 12 animals of the East Asian zodiac which derives from Chinese cosmology. The 12 animals, one for each year, were used in a fixed order that was repeated every 12 years. The traditional order is rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and boar. The rat, monkey and tiger were among the most popular of the zodiac animals. A tiger netsuke might be used over the new-year festivities for the year of the tiger, as well as at any time throughout that year." V&A online collections

Japanese Woodblock Printing Courses

I have so many questions I want to ask about this process and a few months ago I had booked a one to one day course with printmaker Laura Boswell. Laura had kindly offered to come and teach at my studio in Bristol but unfortunately due to unforeseen family matters we had to cancel the date. I hope to try and book in with Laura again some point in the future. For now I look forward to her exhibition at R K Burt Gallery in London with Ian Phillips from 12th - 22nd May.

In the mean time I have been looking at alternative Japanese Woodblock Printing courses. I had decided it was too far to travel to Edinburgh Printmakers a few months ago when I was researching courses but today I'm feeling adventurous. Paul Furneaux will be teaching the course at Edinburgh Printmakers. I came across Paul Furneaux a few months ago and really like his work. His approach is very free, direct and expressive. Here's a video showing the process of dampening paper for printing.

I ring the college to find out more. There is one space available...I click the book online now button.


Laura Boswell

R K Burt Gallery

Paul Furneaux

Dampening Paper video

Tiger by Okatomi (430-1904 Dresden Bequest)

A Collection of Netsuke

I am daydreaming about visiting Edmund De Waal to sketch his netsuke collection. I love the idea of making these unobtainable objects available as mini prints allowing the possibility of each netsuke, with its own story to tell, find its way into somebody's home. Rather than block my vision, daydreaming of meeting Edmund and his netsuke, I explore some of the netsuke collection from his website gallery and begin to sketch.

Netsuke - Fox

I am drawn to the 'Fox' and ’A Bathing Woman in her Wooden Tub’ and make a quick sketch in my notebook. Edmund has written the dimensions in the description. Netsuke are tiny. Many of the netsuke in the collection are between 3 and 4cm height. I make some drawings keeping the dimensions in mind. It feels right to try and keep these mini prints as close to the size of the original netsuke as possible.


To make these prints I'm going to carve them on some birch plywood I sourced from Robbins Timber Yard a few years ago using a cheap set of Japanese woodcutting tools from Bower Ashton Art College. I have bought some Japanese carbon ink mixed with a small bit of nori paste both from Intaglio Printmakers so I'm ready to go...

Netsuke - A Bathing Woman in her Wooden Tub


I am so excited about creating mini prints of Edmund’s netsuke and so with a cup of Jasmine tea, bag of salted popcorn and raw chocolate for fuel at the ready, I lay some tracing paper over my tiny sketch of the bathing woman and re-draw her outline. She is quite plump with rounded shoulders, her black hair wrapped up and curled into a bun on top of her head. She is squatting in the wooden washing tub with a flannel in one hand and the other hidden in the tub. Her face is long and pear shaped with wide chin. Sketching is limited from a photo and I imagine being able to turn her around and see the nape of her neck or her profile but for now I am using Edmund’s chosen snapshot.

The result of this mini print is not great. It's is such a tiny print (3.9cm width) and my amateur wood carving skills make a crude print.


Woodcutting Tools

These woodcuts are very small and the wood is rough so fine details are a challenge. I am not expecting or wanting the woodcuts to be perfect but I think it will be worth investing in some better quality tools so I can make that choice. My cheap wood cutting tools have been well used for previous designs on lino so they are becoming blunt. The stone in the box seems too rough and I might make the cutters worse without any sharpening stone knowledge so I ring up Intaglio Printmakers for their advice. They have a new set of Japanese woodcutting tools with three extra V & U cutters. After discussing the difference between these and my cheap wood cutters I am swayed to order these much better quality tools. I ask about the different types of wood and add a pack of magnolia side grain woodblocks. The magnolia (HŌNOKI) is a bit softer and smoother than the plywood so it will be interesting to see the results.

Magnolia Wood / Honoki

"Honoki is rather soft. Its surface with the rough fibre produces an impression not altogether pleasing. But beginners use it mainly on account of its being easy to cut. Sakura and katsura have a harder grain, but they are more satisfactory than honoki. In olden times other kinds of wood, such as keyaki (Zelkowa serrata, Mak.), were inlaid in the block in order to give the benefit of the grain in special selected parts of the print"Japanese Wood-block Printing by Hiroshi Yoshida. From David Bull's encyclopedia of woodblock printing


Robbins Timber Yard

Bower Ashton Art College

Intaglio Printmakers

David Bull's encyclopedia of woodblock printing