In 2018 the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) received a gift of some 1300 Japanese woodblock printed books that range in date from the early seventeenth century to the 1930s. This large and varied collection had been assembled over the preceding half a century by the noted American photographer Arthur Tress (b.1940). While Tress resides on the West Coast of the United States, his attention was drawn to Penn when he read Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market (2014) by Julie Nelson Davis, Professor of Art History at that university. He was so taken by Professor Davis’s approach that he contacted her in 2017. Conversations convinced him that Penn would make a good home for his collection. Within a year, the terms of the gift were agreed and the books had been transported to Philadelphia. The Tress Collection joins a of constellation of outstanding collections of Japanese books on the East Coast. They are at the Freer-Sackler Gallery in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the New York Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
This Third Thursday Lecture was not a lecture but a conversation between Tress and Davis that engaged with a number of topics including the illustrated book in Japan, Tress’s approach to collecting, and the relationship of his book collection and his photography. Davis also outlined the ways in which Penn intends to exploit this extraordinary resource for university teaching, scholarly research, and outreach through well-researched exhibitions.
One of the treats of this Third Thursday Lecture was the opportunity it provided for us to view examples of Tress’s outstanding work as a photographer. He did do some photography in Japan but what was particularly striking was the way in which imagery in the Japanese books he collected influenced his own work. We learned that an alumnus of Penn donated 2500 Tress photographs to his alma mater; an exhibition had been promised in the near future that will combine Tress’s photographs with related spreads from his books.
Handing over the collection to Penn in 2018, did not put an end to Tress’s collecting. With a sparkle in his eye, he informed us that since 2018 he has collected a further three hundred books, and that he is still going strong. In his book purchases Tress is guided by his eye, the eye of an artist. It was a rare opportunity to be able to listen to him discourse on his long engagement with these book, to understand something of their appeal to him. He has collected across the entire spectrum of printed material produced in early modern Japan. Rarified collectors would look down on some of the humbled volumes he acquired. For him they all form part of the larger picture. The resultant wide range of material he collected enhances the value of his collection as a scholarly resource. He also collected multiple copies of some titles, which assist in understanding the operation of commercial print industry in early modern Japan.
The Tress collection is in the library at Penn, not the University Museum. That strategic decision assures maximum access to the books for students and researchers.
Davis spoke to us from Philadelphia, Tress was in California. This rewarding dialogue between the scholar and the collector on opposite sides for the continental United States before a global audience opens up exciting new possibilities for future Third Thursday Lecture.
Dr. Ellis Tinios
Visiting Researcher at Ritsumeikan University
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