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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #61 - Autumn 2005
Contents of this Issue:


The very tight schedule of the Treasure Chest print series is forcing me to keep my head down this year, and watching my own prints go out the door is the only way for me to tell what season it is!

We're in the home stretch for that set of prints, but there's still time to get this newsletter ready; we have a Collector Profile, another group of David's Choice prints, and a story that should have been included back in an earlier issue - the Annual Report for 2004. But better late than never ...

To round things off we have Sadako's Corner, and a short note about the 'shape of things to come' ... perhaps there are some of you who would like to give me some input on what sort of prints to make next year?

Collector Profile

Each time I start to prepare for another of these Collector Profile stories, I wonder about who might be a suitable candidate for inclusion; and of course, the first names that pop into my mind are of those people with whom I have had recent contact and communication. This time though, I thought I would browse through the list of collectors' names, and as I did so, I realized that there are quite a few people 'hidden' in the group; because they stay for the most part quietly in the background - politely trying not to 'bother' me, I'm sure - I have no chance to get to know them properly.

So I reached right back - to a name that has been on my collector list for over 12 years (!) - and made a phone call to Mr. Takahisa Matsui, to see if I could arrange a visit and get to know something about the person behind the name.

Well, we arranged a visit alright, but unfortunately for the progress of this story, his desire to come here to see my place over-ruled my own needs, and he ended up being the 'interviewer' that day! But during our conversation when I heard him say at one point "... my own small print collection ...", I saw my chance and pounced, "Please let me visit your place; I'd love to see what you have." And that visit, for me anyway, was much more interesting and productive!

In order that their father and I could talk together in peace, his two sons were packed off into their room to play, but as it has been many years since my own two grew up, I'm quite curious about what sorts of things kids these days are playing with, so I asked them to come and show me some of their 'stuff' - Dad could wait!

And a few minutes later, I found myself doing just what I had expected to be doing during the visit - looking through someone's 'collection'. The boys weren't collecting woodblock prints of course, the objects of their attention were an amazing aggregation of dinosaur models, and game cards depicting all sorts of fantastical creatures. But what tremendous knowledge of their field they showed! When I playfully 'tested' them by covering up the names on the cards and asking them to identify the characters, they invariably snapped back the correct answer instantly. If someone were to test me similarly on my own print collection, I doubt very much that I would do as well ...

Perhaps some people would think this energy and time is being 'wasted' on such trivial content as 'monster' cards, but I disagree; I think that all brain training is good training, that all pleasure is good pleasure; and that there is no inherent difference between what they are doing and what their father and I are doing - digging into a subject and accumulating knowledge about it, just by 'playing' ... without specifically sitting down to 'study'.

Then the boys left us alone for a while, and I got a chance to see Dad's prints. The collection is a mix of a bit of this and a bit of that; the most interesting items for me were the group of Shunsho actor prints. These date from the same era as the Hyakunin Isshu of his that I reproduced, and browsing though them, and feeling the soft paper, took me back to those days. We passed a most pleasant couple of hours in the collection, and I even saw a couple of items that I would like to consider including in one of my own print series in the future.

But the main point of the afternoon was of course just for me to get to know this person a bit better; he's been collecting my prints and reading the newsletters for so many years that it would take more than a couple of hours to redress this imbalance, but at least we got a start.

When I had first asked Matsui-san if it would be OK if I wrote about him in this column, he replied - as does nearly everybody I ask - that there was 'nothing special' about him and his family. Whether he knew it or not, that's of course exactly the response I want to hear! To have my Treasure Chest on a shelf in somebody's home side-by-side with his box of collected ukiyo-e, his shelf of Chinese historical figurines, and yes, together with that collection of dinosaur models ... that tells me that my work has meaning in this society!

Thank you very much to the Matsuis for their support of my work ... and for such a long time!

David's Choice

Here are the final couple of items from the David's Choice corner at the last exhibition...

  • Scene from 'Four Seasons'
  • Type: colour woodblock print
  • Designer: Yamamoto Shoun (1870-1965)
  • Date: about Meiji 33 (1900)
  • Acquired: internet auction
  • Cost: 2,500 yen (a fabulous bargain!)

When choosing the eight prints for each year's David's Choice section of the exhibition, I of course try and make a selection with good variety; a bit of this, a bit of that. But when browsing the shelves and drawers in my print room, I find myself coming back again and again to those albums that contain the Meiji-era bijin-ga. There will never be a David's Choice selection that doesn't have at least one such print, and it seems this year we are going to have two!

I lusted after this print ever since becoming familiar with it from a reference book illustration, and when a copy came up on an internet auction some months ago, I set my alarm clock to make sure I didn't miss the chance to buy it. I was ready to pay quite a bit, but was relieved to find that nobody else seemed to be interested, and it fell to me for a ridiculously low price.

Shoun is completely unknown to the general public, but what a collection of bijin-ga he left behind! Please take the time to study this one closely - there is so much to look at: the hair carving, the textured clothing, the delicate snow, the wonderful contrast between the left and right halves of the image ..

I would love to work on some Shoun reproductions, but unfortunately, I think I will never have the chance. He lived to be 95, and under present laws, his copyrights will not expire until 2015; under the new copyright laws that are being proposed, this will extend until 2035. Well ... I'll only be 84 ... so who knows!

  • Surimono
  • Type: poetry group surimono
  • Date: Kaei 4 (1851)
  • Acquired: internet auction
  • Cost: 5,700 yen (another fabulous bargain!)

To round off this year's David's Choice selection, I have selected one of my favourite items (although I guess they are all my favourites, aren't they!), a commemorative surimono from 150 years ago.

I can save you the trouble of counting them by telling you that there are 118 poems carved and printed on this surimono, presumably selected from those submitted for consideration by members of a poetry circle of some kind.

One obvious thing that comes to mind when we look at a print like this is "How on earth could they have gone to so much work and expense for such a simple thing as a commemorative leaflet?" Well the first reason is that obviously the result was worth it in their eyes - the occasion was indeed important to them. Another reason though, is that although you and I will think "Look at all the poems! It must have taken ages to carve them all!", this sort of job was 'nothing special' for the man who carved it. Remember that in those days, the entire text of all printed books was carved and printed from woodblocks. Many carvers specialized in cutting lettering, and you can believe that they were very fast indeed. I have no way to accurately estimate just how much time a job like this would have taken, but I do know how it was done - take the hanshita sheet with the text and image and paste it in place on the wood, sharpen the knife, then put your head down and get going!

Before you know it ... you're done!

Annual Report: 2004

In one of the newsletters last year I included a story that described some of my business affairs - my basic income and expenses, and how many prints I was sending out. I think I'll do another one this year, and will perhaps make a regular habit of this, bringing you a sort of 'Annual Report' on my affairs. After all, you collectors could certainly be considered 'shareholders' in this venture, and it's only fair that you have enough information to judge whether or not the 'management' is doing its job properly!

(This story doesn't belong here in the Autumn issue of the newsletter - it should have appeared earlier in the year; there are just so many things waiting for inclusion though, that I just couldn't fit it in. Next year when it's time for the 2005 report, I'll try and get it published earlier ...)

As you can see, even though the Hyakunin Isshu and the Surimono Albums series were 'finished', they still accounted for the bulk of my income. And in fact, there is no way that I could make a living without these 'back issue' collectors.

The Beauties of Four Seasons was nowhere near as successful as I had hoped it would be; it was less than one half subscribed. That's plus/minus of course, as those prints left here on my shelves will go out as back issues slowly over the coming years, playing their part to keep me afloat (I hope!).

Where are the Collectors? ...

There are not too many surprises in this chart; of course the Hyakunin Isshu prints are of most interest to people with a deep knowledge of the poetry, and that means Japanese people for the most part! But once my theme went wider, and more specifically, more visual and less poetic, my work became of more interest to people living overseas.

I was surprised - and somewhat disappointed - to see that the overseas interest was not maintained in the Beauties series, as I thought those prints would be nearly 'culturally neutral', being of interest to people anywhere.

Income/Expense: 2004 (figures in yen) ...

It was very interesting to see that again this year, the gross income held steady at just over the ten million yen level, varying less than 1% from the previous year. This was quite a relief, as with the considerable decrease in the number of collectors of the newest series (the Beauties), I had been very concerned about maintaining a livable income.

But as the year went on, that relief was tempered by concern over the sharp increase in the expenses related to packaging materials, which shot up from 5.5% of income the previous year to more than 16% this time. Most other expenses held basically steady, but that single exception was enough to reduce my bottom line personal income for the year to the level you see on the chart. And there was a 'double punch' - because the rate at which such things as medical insurance and taxes are calculated here in Japan is based on the previous year's income, those expenses became a very heavy burden during 2004.

As the situation gradually became clear to me during the course of the year, I had to think of a way to redress the income/expense imbalance, and this is why - starting in January 2005 - I asked the collectors to begin paying the postage fees for shipping their prints. When I made this switch I half expected to meet resistance, but I needn't have worried ... not one person complained about it. This will make a tremendous difference in the income statement you will see in this newsletter next year, as I annually spend nearly a million yen on postage, and having this expense recouped will put things back to a livable level I think.

Inventory ...

It also occurs to me that I should perhaps start including one more statistic in these reports, one that I have never published before. As I mentioned above, it is a combination of newly issued prints and back issues that keeps me going, so I should make sure you all know what is available here!

Hyakunin Isshu: I have 20 complete sets of the prints set aside, to be sold only in complete sets of 100. I also have a few of the annual sets of 10 reserved for the benefit of previous collectors who 'missed' them at the time, and who would like to complete their collection.

Surimono Album: The first album has come to the end of the inventory, barring three or four sets that I have here for people who asked me to reserve one for them. Set #2 is starting to get low, but there is plenty of stock of the other three sets.

Beauties of Four Seasons: As mentioned above, I still have plenty of these prints available ...

All of these back numbers can be sent to collectors as complete sets, or as 'subscriptions', one a month, two per month, etc. etc.

Overview ...

So those are the raw economic facts of 2004, but what about the activities behind them? Well, the Beauties series was a tremendous challenge, and I think it turned out very well; I am more proud of some of those prints than of anything else I have made. When deciding to include that kuchi-e reproduction - the autumn print - I was far from sure that I would actually be able to produce it; work like that has been only rarely attempted in the intervening years since the Meiji era. But when I held the finished print in my hands, I knew that it had not been a mistake to take the challenge ...

As for daily life, I'm not sure what to say; 365 days passed by in a mix of pleasant work (plenty of that), enjoyable time spent together with Sadako (not enough of that), and good communication with family, collectors and friends.

All is certainly not perfect for me - when the temperatures drop near freezing in my home, or when I finish up the day's work sometimes near midnight, I begin to wonder "What on earth am I doing living like this?!" - but overall, there is very little stress in my life. In fact, my biggest 'problem' at the moment is the question of what kind of project to undertake next year; I have to come up with something that will be both interesting and affordable - for both of us, I the producer, and you the collector.

I'm sure this 'problem' too, will turn out to be solveable ... read all about it in the next newsletter!

Upcoming Project

At the time I am working on this newsletter, the current print series - the Hanga Treasure Chest - is just about 3/4 complete. It has been going very well; feedback from collectors has been very good, and I have managed to stay on schedule, despite the extremely tight deadlines I have been facing all year. Barring any unforseen incidents, it should wrap up as planned in late December.

So it is thus time for me to turn my thoughts toward the next project. Will I do another Treasure Chest? I can answer that question immediately - maybe someday, but definitely not right away! Making those prints has been a lot of fun, but the hours have been very long, and there has not always been as much time to spend on careful work as I would have liked.

And that is going to be an important consideration for me when choosing the next project - I don't want a 'lite' project next year; I want something that I can really get my teeth into, and that means I have to arrange the schedule to allow me to spend as much time on each print as it needs.

But there is a bit of a conundrum here; an inevitable consequence of producing prints that are more complex and time consuming is that they must be more expensive. I was discussing this by email with one of the collectors the other day, and he said clearly, "Please don't move away from the idea of making good woodblock prints at an affordable price."

I want to tell him not to worry. A basic policy of my work is that I calculate the prices of my prints based on fundamentals: what I need to pay for paper and blocks, etc., and the cost of keeping a roof over my head. When I make smaller prints (like this year), there will be more of them and they will be cheaper, and when I make more complex prints (as with the Beauties series) there will be fewer and they will be more expensive, but in the end it seems to even out and the annual cost is about the same.

The most difficult decisions I must now make for next year are: how far along the scale to move the slider (how many prints in the series), and of course, what theme to choose. But for me, one thing is certain - this coming year it is time for me to challenge, not my ability to make prints quickly, but my ability to make something very special!

If any of you collectors (or other readers of this newsletter) have thoughts on this or suggestions to make, I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about these matters - but move quickly, my decision has to come quite soon!

Sadako's Corner
Summer Lethargy

As I write this story I look out on my garden filled with dense greenery. It is mid-September, and I recently feel very lethargic, with tiredness accumulated over the long hot and humid summer. Even though I usually kept the air conditioner on at nights, I couldn't feel refreshed when waking in the morning. I enviously recall my younger days, exposing my body to the strong sunshine at the beach, and being proud of my tanned brown skin.

Once August is behind us, the typhoons come, and those wild winds blow away the remnants of summer and leave behind fresh autumn breezes. It is then that I open wide all the windows in my house and enjoy the natural air filling the rooms. It is such a pleasure to let my body feel such breezes. As I relax, I hear cooing sounds which increase the drowsiness; it seems that pigeons again this year are nesting somewhere in the garden ... This is how I fill these lazy days!

The other day David said "I am so lazy these days; I haven't done anything that would make me so tired, but I just can't seem to get to work properly ..." Well of course! It's perfectly natural to feel run-down this season. Fatigue is not so simple; it is invisible, accumulates bit by bit, and can then burst out suddenly. Many of my friends are saying that they feel tired like this recently, but Dave doesn't accept this and insists that because he hasn't done any particularly heavy work he shouldn't be feeling tired. This obstinate guy isn't open to discussing this sort of thing at all!

There is such an interesting difference between how a person sees himself and how others see him. David often talks about how easy his life is; he sometimes even seems guilty about it; he merely has to lift his head while working to rest his eyes on the the nearby greenery. "Isn't it wonderful that I can be astonished by the beauty of a bird dashing across my view?' he says. I admit that his working environment is very nice, but just thinking about the amount of work he has to deal with makes me tired - he has to complete a new print every two weeks, write and edit the quarterly newsletter, do the bookkeeping for his business, keep his website up to date, etc. And soon he has to make the decisions about next year's project, or he won't be able to move forward with it.

Honesty speaking though, I have to admit that he appears to have plenty of free time, and enjoys a slow pace to his life. It is rather I who relentlessly keeps moving, forcing Dave to sometimes say "Can't you sit still?"

The other day he said "You should have stayed a bit longer yesterday. You missed a great scene by just a few seconds!" I wonder what I missed ... For the past few years, the south side of his house is covered in summer by a wild growth of tangled greenery, and this is the venue for many natural dramas, among which the leading actors are wasps and huge caterpillars. He explained the story to me, "A gigantic praying mantis had climbed up and was patiently sitting on the vine, waiting for something to come close. In the flash of a second he stabbed out with his forelegs and grabbed a wasp. As I watched, he started to eat the wasp's head; it was amazing!"

Well, thanks for the story Dave, but it's enough for me just to hear you tell the story; that's all the drama I need!


We're coming around to that time of year again ... time to start to get ready for the annual exhibition! Even though there is still a lot of printmaking work left in the current series, I can't ignore the exhibition planning - because there will be so many prints to display this time, it's going to take some careful preparation to produce an attractive show.

The location will of course be the same as last year - the Gold Salon of the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan, in Yurakucho in Tokyo. As before, it will run from Sunday through the following Saturday, with the Gallery Talk on the afternoon of the opening day.

More details in the winter newsletter, which should be in your hands in early January, but for now, here are the basic dates to mark on your calendar:

  • January 22~28, 2006
  • 11:00~7:00 (last day until 6:00)
  • Gallery Talk: Sunday January 22, 2:00 p.m.
  • (All free admission; David will be present to meet visitors at all times.)
  • Location: Gold Salon, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan, B1 Yurakucho 2-10-1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo