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These prints are really charming.

Byline: CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE

ITHINK I answered three questions correctly in this week's University Challenge - my finest moment being able to shout "Ukiyo-e" at the telly when smug Jeremy Paxman asked what was the Japanese term for "pictures of the floating world". I knew instantly that I was right because we had been surrounded by these much copied images on our recent trip.

The woodblock prints depict beautiful women, actors, sumo wrestlers, scenes from history and folk tales, travel scenes and landscapes, flora, fauna and erotica were on sale in every souvenir shop we ventured into.

There's a whole museum dedicated to them in Tokyo, but only once did we find a shop that the uninitiated could trust as being a reliable source of originals. Needless to say they were all priced out of our reach, but as is often the case, there are bargains on offer in UK auctions and antique shops.

are still in fairly plentiful supply and need not necessarily cost the earth. An average example by an anonymous or little known artist can be had for less than PS100. Like any other collecting medium, though, rarities by recognised artists with greater ability can command prices well into four figures and up to PS10,000. You just need to know what you're looking for.

Woodcuts differ from other prints because they are printed in relief to produce the boldest of images. This is achieved by the blockmaker cutting away the background of the design or picture leaving it standing proud to receive the ink. The resulting image is like a pen and ink drawing comprising powerful blocks of colour and even texture. The technique was being used in the West in the 15th century but woodblock printing in China and Japan has a history dating back a thousand years.

Japan was closed to the rest of the world for two centuries, from about 1634 until 1853, when an American Navy expedition led by Commodore Perry succeeded in obtaining a trading treaty. When Japanese goods began to arrive in the West in the 1860s, much of it was wrapped in paper printed with woodblock decoration of a type never seen before in Europe. People began to express interest in the designs and quickly a trade in Japanese woodblocks developed which turned into an insatiable demand.

As Western interest in anything connected with Japan grew - the style was called Japonisme by the Victorians - a display of the brightly coloured prints depicting everyday scenes of Japanese life became a must-have. Arguably the best known among the countless Japanese prints is "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai (c1760-1849) and the landscapes by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) but there are countless anonymous examples that are both accessible and affordable for today's collectors.

The Japanese had three main diversions in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries: "red lantern districts" where courtesans and geishas plied their trade; Sumo wrestling and kabuki, a type of theatre in which song, dance and drama were combined to entertain the masses.

While the Japanese elite watched the more highbrow musical drama called Noh, Kabuki had its roots in popular entertainment, expressing the dilemmas and aspirations of ordinary folk. Tales were usually based on traditional folklore, and dramas enacting such themes as the triumph of love over adversity, the celebration of a good harvest, or the struggles of the populace against overbearing Samurai or ruling classes.

Kabuki fans were just as eager to see their idols depicted off-duty as on stage and prints are found showing actors relaxing in their dressing rooms, applying their make-up, rehearsing their roles, particularly fight scenes or away from the theatre altogether, visiting shrines or whatever.

Kabuki prints were also a medium by which fashion and style were spread. An actor who appeared in a new kimono could start a run on that particular patterned material, while a new colour or hairstyle would be named after the actor who brought it to the stage.

Condition is an all-important decider on today's values. The value of a Japanese woodblock worth PS100-150 in mint condition can be cut to PS10-15 if it has suffered only slight fading (beware hanging them in sunlight); foxing or other damage.

CAPTION(S):

The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai (c1760-1849) and, inset, study of a half-beak fish, abalone shellfish and peach blossom by Hiroshige (1832), which sold for PS320

Kabuki actors performing on an open air stage. The print sold for PS70

Toyokuni print of an actress in a blue ceremonial dress, which sold for PS170

Plum Garden at Kameido" by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jan 25, 2014
Words:765
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