Album of One Hundred Birds by Kōno Bairei

Kingfisher from One Hundred Birds by Kōno Bairei

The title introduced in this edition is the Album of One Hundred Birds by Kōno Bairei at the request of its donor, Sir Hugh Cortazzi. The title contains images by Kōno Bairei, a prominent artist in the Kyoto art circle in the early Meiji period (1868-1912). Published in 1881, the three-volume album set contains dual chrome woodblock printed images bound in Eastern-style. Unfortunately, only the first of the three albums is housed in the Lisa Sainsbury Library. Inside the album, a single bird species accompanied by a plant (mainly flowers) that is native to the depicted creature’s habitat is presented over each spread. Each album contains some 30 images, and the set together features a total of 100 birds and flowers. The portrayed birds range from familiar wild birds, such as duck, geese and Japanese bush warblers, domesticated birds including canaries and parrots, and exotic birds including peacocks that are seen only in zoos. One of the striking features is the realism Bairei employs to depict the specimens. Ornithologist A.S. Cheke enthusiastically writes that ‘his large birds are mostly excellent, unmistakably identifiable and accurately to scale’ in his article ‘A note on the Album of a hundred birds by Kōno Bairei, a nineteenth-century Japanese artist, with new light on the ‘Avis Indica’ of Collaert’ (Cheke, 1983). The images of the Lisa Sainsbury Library’s volume could be accessed from the link here.

Cover of One Hundred Birds by Kōno Bairei.

The artist Kōno Bairei was born in Kyoto in 1844, 24 years before the Meiji Restoration. In 1852 at the age of nine, he enrolled to study under Nakajima Raishō, a Maruyama school painter. Maruyama school traces its lineage to Maruyama Ōkyō, a legendary Kyoto artist who heavily promoted the importance of drawing from nature. Bairei’s ability to depict birds that ornithologist praises as being ‘excellent’ is much the result of his time spent at Maruyama school. In 1871 under the auspices of Raishō, he studied under Shiokawa Bunrin from the Shijō school of painters and forged relationships with literati artist who also influenced his style. By 1893, two years prior to his death, Bairei was appointed as one of the Imperial Household Artists and was a highly esteemed figure in the Kyoto art circle. In fact, some have argued that Bairei is the face of Meiji period Kyoto art circle. In the academic journal Bijutsu Kenkyū published in 1936, there is an article that states ‘in no exaggerated terms, Meiji period art history in Kyoto begins with Bairei. Such was Bairei’s influence on Japanese art history’ (Bijutsu Kenkyū, 1936). The contemporary world remembers Bairei less as an artist and more as a leading figure in developing the art world. He trained many artists including Takeuchi Seihō and dedicated his efforts in establishing the country’s first art school, Kyoto Art School, which evolved to form today’s Kyoto City University of the Arts (Tottori Kenritsu Hakubutsukan, 2009).

There is an advertisement promoting the Album of One Hundred Birds in a newspaper published at around the same time as the album’s publication. The ad, which can be accessed from National Institute of Japanese Literature’s Publishing and Advertisement Database in Meiji Era was published in the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun on 25 November 1881. The ad notes that ‘the products we make in our country mimic the art and taste from overseas as reflected in our ceramics, lacquer wares, metal wares, wood and basketry work, ivory work and textiles. While the motifs often involve the love of birds and flowers, there is a fundamental lack of outstanding albums containing images that serve as a model. Albums of literati paintings demonstrate outstanding techniques of distilling pictorial details, however, they are not suitable for craft motif application. There is a master by the name of Bairei, a true Shijō school painter in Kyoto, who produced a set of illustrated albums that sets the standard for our national products and will no doubt serve as a key reference for craftsmen to keep on their work tables.’ (National Institute of Japanese Literature archive) In the following year on 24 May, the same Tokyo Nichinichi newspaper included another advertisement, only that in this edition, a larger ad space that nearly covered the entire page is used. The promotional text pitches the albums as a useful illustrated handbook for applied craft makers and artisans working in the export market.

Geese from One Hundred Birds by Kōno Bairei

The advertiser is listed as Ōkura Magobē, the publisher of the album. Magobē was an entrepreneur who built the foundation of the renown Western porcelain dinnerware brand, Noritake, and toilet and sanitary ware manufacturer, TOTO, and also founded the high-end porcelain company Ōkura Sōen who supplied dinnerware to the Imperial Household. Born in Edo (present-day Tokyo), he began his career originally as an illustrated woodblock print seller. From his early days as printseller, Magobē followed what would become Ōkura Sōen’s corporate motto of ‘best of the best’. He sold high-quality polychrome prints from some of the most established artists including Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Utagawa Hiroshige III. He would take these prints to Yokohama to sell to foreigners settled in the area. It was on one of his trade days in Yokohama where he met the future founder of Noritake, Morimura Ichizaemon. The two met sometime between Yokohama having opened its port in 1859 and foreigners’ settlement areas completed in 1863 (Sunagawa, 2000). At the time, Morimura had no links to ceramic manufacturing and made a living selling various souvenirs to foreigners. Morimura was born in 1839 to a merchant family selling armoury. He lived an extravagant lifestyle before he gained training to become a trader by Fukuzawa Yukichi, whom he met around 1859 (Ueda, 1994). In 1869, Morimura enrolled his half-brother, Toyo, who was aged 13 at the time to study at Keio Gijuku (present day Keio University) to become a merchant. Once graduated, he sent Toyo to New York to open a Japanese souvenir store on 6th Avenue called Morimura Brothers. In the business at the height of Japonisme, a period when all things Japan were considered highly fashionable, the Morimura Brothers were incredibly successful. At the beginning, the company mainly dealt in antiques, however seeing that ceramics were always the best sellers, the focus shifted to selling new ceramic wares. The success of their ceramic trade led to the creation of Noritake. Morimura, in 1865, sends his half-sister Fuji to marry Ōkura Magobē. Magobē helped procure goods for exporting to Morimura’s store in New York while running his own illustrated book and print shop. It was in his interest to produce products that would appeal to foreigners caught in the Japonisme craze. The Album of One Hundred Birds by Kōno Bairei is a result of such commercial ambition.

The Album appears to have been very popular. In the UK alone, copies of the Album are housed in a number of established museums and libraries including the V&A, The British Museum, Cambridge University Library, Oxford Alexander Library, Leeds University Library, Manchester University Library, Mitchell Library in Glasgow and Birmingham Reference Library. If you go to Geffrey Museum in Hoxton, London, you can see several framed prints taking from this album at Drawing room in 1890. Please see its room here. In 1884, a three-volume sequel was published to attest to the original publication’s success.

Hirano Akira
Lisa Sainsbury Library Librarian

Special thanks to Dr Shenxiao Tong, the Edinburgh University Library


Cheke, A. S. (Anthony S.). ‘A note on the Album of a hundred birds by Kōno Bairei, a nineteenth century Japanese artist, with new light on the ‘Avis Indica’ of Collaert’. In Archives of Natural History. 1983. 11 (2). p. 291-297.

‘Naigai ihō : Kōno Bairei Isaku Tenrankai’ in Bijutsu Kenkyū. 1936. 52. p. 36-37.

Tottori Kenritsu Hakubutsukan. Kyō no nihonga : kanshō gaidobukku. Tottori Kenritsu Hakubutsukan. 2009.

National Institute of Japanese Literature. Publishing and Advertisement Database in Meiji Era. Retrieved May, 2017, from http://dbrec.nijl.ac.jp/PADB_IA0012918

Sunagawa. Yukio. Seitō ōkoku o kizuita chichi to ko. Shōbunsha, 2000.

Ueda, Minoru. ‘Morimura Ichizaemon no kigyōsha katsudō to keiei rinen’ in Nagoya Bunri Tanki Daigaku kiyō. 1994. 19. p. 9-20.


Kuniga, Yumiko. ‘Seihō no shi Kōno Bairei’ in Bessatsu Taiyō : Nihon no kokoro. 2013.9. 211. p. 150-153.

Muramatsu, Shōfū. ‘Kōno Bairei’ in Honchō gajinden. volume 2. Tōkyō : Chūō Bijutsusha, 1924. p. 397-440.

Strange, Edward Fairbrother. Japanese Illustration a History of the Art of Wood-Cutting and Colour Printing in Japan. London: George Bell and Sons York Street, Covent Garden, 1897.

Suzuki, Keiko. ‘Kindai Nihon shuppangyō ni okeru Ōkura Shoten’ in Eigakushi Kenkyū. 1986. 18. p. 101-113.

Kyōto-shi Bijutsukan. Kyōto nihonga no nagare: Sansui kara fūkei e : Bunrin, Bairei, Seihō : tokubetsuten. Kyōto: Kyōto-shi, 1995.

Miyagi-ken Bijutsukan, and Kyōto-shi Bijutsukan. Kyōto gadan no hana: Kyōto-shi

Shiga Kenritsu Kindai Bijutsukan, and Kyōto Shinbunsha. Kōno Bairei to sono ryūha : Kyōto gadan kyoshō no keifu. 1990.

Bijutsukan shozō meisakuten zuroku. Sendai : Kahoku Shinpōsha. 2009.

Kyōto gadan no runesansu : kindaika to Bairei, Seihō. Kyōto: Kyōto-shi Shakai Shinkō Zaidan, 1982.

‘Ōkura Magobē-ō no jiseki’ in Dainihon Yōgyō Kyōkai Zasshi. 1992. 30 (355). p. 116-118.