Ancient Japanese woodblock set

The final, 12-color print and one of the woodblocks from this incredible set.

As I’ve been exploring the world of hand-made printing techniques of various kinds, more and more I find myself looking at, investigating and writing about woodcuts. There’s a good reason for this, apparently!

 From The Old Print Gallery’s website: “Of all the forms of expression in printmaking, the woodcut is the most ancient. Its early beginnings in Egypt and China came from the use of wooden stamps designed to make symbolic or decorative impressions in clay and wax. With the development of paper on the Chinese mainland in the second century A.D., the stamping devices gradually evolved into wood blocks.”

So woodblock printing actually predates paper. The earliest use beyond the stamps in clay and wax mentioned, was for block printing fabrics. 

With paper, Japan pushed the art form forward with elaborate multi-colored hand printed artwork.  From the British Museum’s website:

“Thanks to the refined technique of woodblock printing, Japanese society during the Edo period (1615–1868) enjoyed a rich supply of books and pamphlets, pictures and artworks.

“The technique is particularly associated with pictures of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo-e) – those celebrated, full-color depictions of courtesans, actors and famous places that collectors have long admired and that the Impressionists embraced as a source of inspiration.”

So they liked their celebs and glamour! Not much different from now, really.

Of course the prints are beautiful and highly collectible. Not as popular or well known, however, are the woodblocks themselves. Their interest for artists or collectors is mostly on a technical level, to be admired for the craft of their creation and use.

In that spirit, I present this highly esoteric item that I found online in my research, a complete set of Japanese woodblocks by an artist named Utamaro (1705-1806) from the 18th Century. It comprises five separate woodblocks, most carved on both sides. It’s worth noting, of course, that a complete set like this, of such age, is pretty rare. When I first found this page, the set was up for sale for over $5,000. Apparently is has now been sold.

The set also includes a print made from the blocks, a portrait of a young woman blowing a poppin, whatever that is!

It is the blocks themselves though, that are most intriguing. They’re clearly well-used, smeared with dried ink and crusted with scraps of paper, remnants of what were the original drawings when they were glued to the wood prior to carving. The print was made with twelve colors, including two blocks for the black linework. As can be seen, some blocks were used for more than one color.

There are lots of examples online of various woodblocks either for sale or for display and study. This set really stands out as a complete example of a valuable art form.

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Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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