The early 1780s were a difficult time for the shogunate, Japan’s feudal government. Though the country was at peace, one of the worst famines on record was wreaking havoc across the land. Making matters worse, epidemics and natural disasters were rife. The peasantry was never far from open revolt.

Studies from Nature, by Kitagawa Utamaro, Translated by John T. Carpenter.
100 pages

In his late 20s at the time, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), a painter and ukiyo-e print designer, was no doubt aware of the surrounding misery. But in Edo, the capital, a dynamic metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, its impact was limited. Besides, Utamaro’s congenial social circle of young artists provided constant entertainment that must have buffeted some of the social dislocation.

In 1783, he moved into the house of a friend, Tsutaya Juzaburo (1750-97), one of the most influential publishers of his generation (the modern-day Japanese book store partly chose its name as a nod to him), thereby plunging head on into the “floating world.” It is no exaggeration to say that his life would never be the same again.

Tsutaya was a creature of the pleasure quarters. His closest acquaintances were authors and painters, some established, others dilettantes, with whom he spent many a night carousing in the tea houses and geisha establishments of the capital. Tsutaya’s bookshop, which also traded in ukiyo-e woodblock prints, was conveniently located by the main gate of Yoshiwara, home to most of Edo’s courtesans, where it catered to its gay and gallant clientele.

To the bon vivants around him, Tsutaya was a sort of Ragueneau, the colorful patissier and faithful companion to Cyrano de Bergerac, who, when not providing moral encouragement to would-be poets like him, was generously offering free sustenance to those down on their luck. Utamaro lodged with Tsutaya for more than 15 years. Many other creative types likewise benefitted from the publisher’s largesse.

Tsutaya was also an amateur versifier and specialist of kyōka, a form of witty, irreverent and humorous poetry which, in the 1780s, was growing in popularity. It perfectly fitted the times: While the country metaphorically burned, social conventions were loosening, censorship rules relaxed. These were good times for Edo’s epicureans.

Alas, it did not last. The shogunate soon reasserted itself through conservative reforms and strict censorship laws. These, however, did not prevent Tsutaya from launching one of the most consequential and successful ventures of his career: The publication of three anthologies of kyōka poetry, all illustrated by Utamaro. The first, published in two albums in 1788, was the “The Book of Crawling Creatures.” It was followed a year later by “Gifts of the Ebb Tide” and, in 1791, by the two-volume “The Book of Myriad Birds.” All were popular and sold very well. Today, original copies are exceedingly rare.

This summer, The Folio Society, a London-based publisher of fine books, released a facsimile of all five volumes in a limited edition of 500 copies titled “Studies from Nature.” The result is nothing short of glorious, and even that might be an understatement.

Folio meticulously reproduced the gaufrage on some of the original woodblock prints, thereby adding texture to water, flowers or the plumage of birds. It found innovative ways to add a lustrous shine to the wings of insects, thus recreating the effect of mica that had been used by 18th-century printers for the same purpose. It chose paper to mimic the original and it bound all volumes as they were then, Japanese or concertina-style. Finally, all kyōka verses have been translated in a companion volume, each with its own commentary, and three essays detail the historical and cultural context of the works.

At £495 (about ¥69,000), the price is admittedly steep, but not unreasonable given the quality of the workmanship and scholarship.

These tomes constitute a watershed in Utamaro’s oeuvre. Neither he nor Tsutaya — nor any other publisher for that matter — quite reached the same heights again. As a print designer, however, Utamaro’s best work still lay ahead.

From the 1790s onwards, he devoted enormous energy, obsessively at times, to the design of bijinga (prints of beautiful women). Why he became so engrossed with this topic remains somewhat controversial. A bit of a roue, Utamaro spent much time in Yoshiwara, so his interest for the demimonde should not be surprising. But bijinga were also a moneymaker, and some scholars have posited that his large output was partly stimulated by a desire to ease the financial difficulties of his friend Tsutaya, the publisher, who, in 1791, fell foul of government regulations and was so heavily fined that he lost half his wealth. Be that as it may, these prints made Utamaro’s career and reputation. Today, they can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

By the early 1800s, the shogunate had regained its footing. Despite periodic crackdowns, the publishing industry was also doing well, bolstered by demand from an increasingly literate and mobile population. By then, however, Utamaro’s best years were behind. In 1804, he had a run-in with the law that resulted in a three-day jail spell and a conviction to wear manacles for another 50. Two years later, he died.

Utamaro is justly remembered as one of the greatest ukiyo-e print designers of the second half of the 18th century. His collaborative work with authors and poets however, is far less recognized, at least in the West. “Studies from Nature” brilliantly sets the record straight.

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