Urushibara Mokuchû (漆原木虫), whose given name was Yoshijirô, was one of a group of woodblock carvers hired by the British Museum in 1912 to make
facsimile copies of a famous fourth-century Chinese scroll painting by Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-406 AD). He traveled to Paris and then to London in 1910, where he
remained almost without interruption until he was repatriated in 1942.
In his early years at the British Museum, Urushibara worked as a free lance mounter and restorer of paintings and scrolls. Through his carving
and print designs he exerted an important influence on the revival of color woodblock printmaking in England in the 1920s-1930s. His
collaboration in 1919 with the Belgian-born and British-trained graphic artist and muralist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) was perhaps
Urushibara's most well-known project, for which he reproduced Brangwyn's watercolors as large woodblock prints in a portfolio titled
"Bruges." The two artists collaborated a second time in 1924 by issuing a set of ten small prints for the portfolio "Ten
Woodcuts by Yoshijirô Urushibara after Designs by Frank Brangwyn." During the 1910s-1930s Urushibara also designed and printed his
own woodblock prints, including scenes of landscapes, flowers, and horses.
The image on the right is a print issued circa 1930s depicting red camellias in a blue vase. It is an aiban-size print on
paper measuring 346 x 237 mm, signed in pencil "Y. Urushibara" in the lower margin and sealed on the lower left of the image. (In contrast to the example above with its light-gray background, impressions are known with a black background.)
Urushibara's printing technique is subtle and refined with pale shades of gray worked into the main color areas of red (two shades), green (four shades),
and blue (two shades). He used keyblock outlines only in selected areas of the design; otherwise, the colors were applied without outline and
allowed to flow slightly for a soft edge effect (see detail above left). Color gradations were also used effectively to give
depth and texture to the camellias. It is easy to see why Urushibara's skills were so much in demand in London for
roughly thirty years and why English artists would have become interested in exploring the possibilities of color woodblock printing for
their own designs. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo
- Fujikake, Shizuya: Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau, 1957, p. 105 & fig. on the preceding page.
- Merritt, Helen: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, p. 39.
- Stephens, Amy Reigle (Ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection. London &
Leiden: Bamboo Publishing & Hotei Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 51-52, figs. 35-36.