In June 2017, Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi gifted the Lisa Sainsbury Library with a set of four books printed in Paris in 1818. Entitled ‘Le Japon’ (see note 1 for the full publication title), each palm sized book contains 13 to 15 images in addition to the illustrations at the front and back pages of the book. Collectively, the set features 60 images. At the time of receiving the books, Sir Hugh asked us to both scan and find the original source of the printed illustrations. Since then, I have scoured other historical sources and documents as well as received new insights and guidance from a number of generous people. In this article, I would like to outline some of the initial findings about the images.
In the first three volumes of the four-volume set contain seven images referencing ukiyo-e woodblock print images. I would first like to draw your attention to the image from volume II. According to Dr Alfred Haft, Project Curator in the Japanese Section of the Department of Asia at the British Museum, this image is based on a 1784 woodblock print by Kitao Masanobu (the psyedonym of Santō Kyōden) titled Yoshiwara keisei shin-bijin awase jihitsu kagami (A Mirror of New Yoshiwara Courtesans with Samples of their Calligraphy).
The original woodblock print includes two kyōka or ‘mad verse’, which is a form of satirical poetry popular in the late 18th century. The Paris volumes not only reproduces the figures and the interior, but also the calligraphic text found on the woodblock version in great detail. Compared to the Japanese phonetic alphabets included in Engelbert Kaempfer’s History of Japan, which was first published in 1727, the version found in Le Japon are reproduced with greater and more accurate detail. The original image by Masanobu is a large format Ō-ban diptych where each print measures approximately 39cm x 26.5cm. Compared to this grand scale, the engraving in Le Japon without the margin space is a diminutive 9.5cm x 12.5cm size. The size difference suggests that the engravers weren’t simply reproducing a 1:1 tracing of the original print, but had to use sophisticated ways to generate a high quality reproduction at a much smaller size.
The volumes were produced at a time prior to the invention of modern photographic machinery and technology, though using optical apparatus for copying images were already in practice. Individuals such as the Dutch painter Vermeer (1632-1675) used early photographic technology in ingenious ways, in Vermeer’s case to create underdrawings for his paintings (see note 2). Although the engraving in Le Japon is not a print from a light sensitive photographic plate, the level of details depicted suggests that some form of optical photographic technique was used in its making. All seven prints that constitute Masanobu’s woodblock printed book are all used in Le Japon and interestingly, all but one are reproduced as a mirror image. These suggest that the original image was viewed using some optical tool that rendered the visuals in a reversed way. Below and above are some examples of Masanobu’s prints and Le Japon prints as a mirror image shown side-by-side.
As the long title of the book, Le Japon, ou, Mœurs, usages et costumes des habitans de cet empire suggests (see note 1 for the full title), the volumes contain information cherry picked from many different resources available on Japan in Europe. Therefore, I began investigating the images with the thought that if studied carefully, the original source of the images seen in Le Japon can be found not only in ukiyo-e prints but also in other printed materials. After some trawling, I have been able to identify most of the original images on which the illustrations in Le Japon are based. Below are some comparative examples of the original source images and the images found in Le Japon. They are listed in chronological order using the publication date of the original source. You can see that some of the images are reproduced in mirror image.
Publications that some of Le Japon illustrations reference:
By Montanus, Arnoldus, 1625?-1683
Publication date: 1670
The History of Japan
By Kaempfer, Engelbert, 1651-1716
Publication date: 1727 (The copy held in the Lisa Sainsbury Library is an edition published in 1728)
Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde
By Picart, Bernard, 1673-1733
Publication date: 1789
Atlas zur Reise um die Welt unternommen auf Befehl seiner Kaiserlichen Majestat Alexander des Ersten auf den Schiffen ‘Nadeshda’ und ‘Newa’ unter dem Commando des Capitains von Krusenstern
By Kruzenshtern, Ivan Fedorovich
Publication date: 1810 (German edition)
Bemerkungen auf einer Reise um sie Welt in den Jahren 1803 bis 1807
By Langsdorff, G. H. von (Georg Heinrich), 1774-1852
Publication date: 1812
What becomes clear through viewing the images is that Le Japon copies follow one of the three following patterns: a true and very close rendition of the original; a true rendition of the original in mirror image; or a collection of selected images from the original. There is one exception. Images from Atlas Japannensis by Montanus. The original was published in the latter half of the 17th century and was considered to be the key text on Japan prior to the publication of Kaempfer’s The History of Japan. Atlas Japannensis was translated into English, German and French, and several editions of the original Dutch version were printed and distributed across Europe. Images in Atlas were referenced and cross referenced up until the beginning of the 20th century. With other images being so faithful to the original, it is unlikely that the illustrator of Le Japon took artistic liberty when copying Atlas Japannensis. Instead it is likely that the illustrator was referencing a copy rather than Montanus’ original publication. My search, therefore, continues in identifying the original sources of the images used for Le Japon. If the readers of this article are aware of similar images, do please get in touch.
I would like to close this article by mentioning a series of eight portraits of Japanese men in Le Japon. One of the figures reveals an interesting story. Details of this will be revealed in the next e-magazine.
Librarian, Lisa Sainsbury Library
With special thanks to
– Dr Alfred Haft at Japanese Section of the British Museum
– Mr Toshinori Egami at the Library, International Research Center for Japanese Studies
– Northern Region Literature Collection, Hokkaido Prefectural Library
Funakoshi, Akio. Hoppōzu no rekishi. Tōkyō : Kōdansha, 1976.
Hayashi, Shōtarō. Ainu-e to sono shūhen : Hayashi Shōtarō bijutsushi ronshū. Sapporo-shi : Hokkaidō Shuppan Kikaku Sentā, 2010.
Hokkaidō Kaitaku Kinenkan ed. Egakareta Hokkaidō :18-19–seiki no kaiga ga tsutaeta kita no imēji. Sapporo-shi :Hokkaidō Kaitaku Kinenkan,2002.
- The full publication title is: Le Japon, ou, Mœurs, usages et costumes des habitans de cet empire: d’après les relations récentes de Krusenstern, Langsdorf, Titzing, etc., et ce que les voyageurs précédens offrent de plus avéré, suivi de la relation du voyage et de la captivité du capitaine russe Golownin
- Steadman, Philip. Vermeer’s camera: uncovering the truth behind the masterpieces. Oxford : Oxford University Press. 2001
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