Dissecting A Japanese Print Album

Dissecting A Japanese Print Album

I was recently contacted by Lynette, a woman of Japanese descent, who had inherited an album of woodblock prints from her grandfather. 

Her grandfather’s name was Katsuki Butsuda, he loved photography and took several selfies as he traveled the West Coast working from the orange groves in Southern California to canneries in Alaska . He eventually settled in Tacoma, WA, around 1918.  Here is a 1917 photo of him in a cannery. Lynette also provided the old kanji for ‘Butsuda’. 

woodblock album owner

Her grandfather was given the old album of Japanese prints, probably before 1925. During the Japanese internment, the album was likely kept with his other belongings in the basement of a Japanese Methodist church in Tacoma. Fortunately the album was recovered after the internment and eventually it was passed down to his grandchildren.

Lynette wanted to see if I could separate some of the glued prints from the album for her and her siblings, and if I was interested in purchasing any of the prints they didn’t want.

Some may argue that keeping the album intact would be the best option. But the significance of the different prints in the album was only for the original collector, and how could Lynette and her siblings display and enjoy the prints in their homes if they were kept in one dusty album?

Lynette had definitely done her homework. She had a spreadsheet of her research of the prints, along with photographs of each, which was great help. Online sources she consulted included: The Tokyo Metro Library, Waseda University, Ukiyo-e.QandA (http://www.ukiyo-e.se/wwwboard/wwwboard.html), and MFA in Boston. The majority of the prints were by the artist Kunichika but there were also prints by Kunisada II, Yoshitoshi, Yoshitora, and Yoshiiku. Below is an example of her well-organized research. 

spreadsheet of japanese prints

The album was a typical album of prints that was kept by Japanese of the Meiji Era. Most prints were originally sold in loose single sheets, or as a diptych or triptych. The prints would all have had a border around the edges, often printed with the publisher and artist information. Unfortunately, most blank albums were smaller than the print size, so prints were trimmed down to the edges and the borders were thrown away. In order to keep the prints in the album, they were glued with a water based glue onto the album pages. In this way, a collector could buy the prints they were interested in and then assemble them into an album to enjoy. 

gluing of album pages

The album had been kept well, considering it was completed in the 1860’s. It was easy to see that the original owner was a fan of kabuki plays since all the prints were of kabuki actors in various performances and roles. 

album prints

The edges of the prints were a bit worn and battered, but the print colors were quite vibrant. I quickly ascertained which prints could be easily separated from the backing and which prints were so firmly glued that it didn’t make sense to attempt to remove them. Although the glue was water based, many of the prints had “analine-based” inks that I thought would run or bleed if they got wet. Using my exacto I was able to carefully separate out the prints that Lynette and her siblings wanted. The remaining prints I acquired, and will have them for sale on the Crosseyed Gallery website. 

prints from album


kunichika print from album

I was grateful to have the opportunity to work with the print album and learn it's history. Lynette plans on adding the prints she chose to her eclectic art collection. 

yoshitoshi album printwoodblock print glued in albumtwo album printstriptych in album

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