Image of a Japanese print showing Fireflies at Ochanomizu

Stories and challenges of digitising the Chester Beatty’s Japanese woodblock print collection from the Edo period

16 November, 2020

During the months of July and August this year I had the privilege of digitising part of the Chester Beatty’s Japanese woodblock print collection.

The collection is from the Edo period and is often mentioned amongst our staff because of the detail and storytelling in each print. My role was to digitise this part of the Chester Beatty collection as faithfully as possible. This blog is an insight into my experience working with the Japanese woodblock print collection at the Chester Beatty including the techniques I used and challenges I encountered throughout the digitisation process.

The first national lockdown had ended two weeks prior to me returning to the photographic studio at the Chester Beatty. I was aching to be back in the studio and all the more excited to be working with such an interesting part of the Chester Beatty collection. Before the first national lockdown in Ireland began, I had only just finished some intensive training on manuscript and print handling for digitisation. At that point I was familiar enough with how to handle medium sized manuscripts containing folios made from paper and parchment and small prints. During my training I had the luxury of seeking assistance from my co-workers in the studio if required. However, in order for our department to adhere to social distancing guidelines and ensure staff safety we reformed our studio working protocol to allow only one person to work in the photographic studio at a time. Since my co-worker and I have returned to the office we have been working in the studio on a roster basis, where one person works on video and image editing tasks at home whilst the other Digital Photographer continues with photography work in the studio. This means offering and receiving assistance can be challenging. With collection safety in mind, I began working with mounted print objects, which are easier to handle compared to bound manuscripts.

When I first returned to the studio I began working with a large batch of Japanese woodblock prints, which were roughly A4 size and float mounted. The paper the woodblock prints are made of is called washi, a delicate although durable type of paper. Each print is mounted on card and hinged at the top. This allows the print to be turned over to digitise the back as required by the Chester Beatty digitisation standards. The Japanese woodblock print collection contains prints of various sizes. Some span over a metre in length and can be challenging to work with when digitising the reverse. However, the first batch of Japanese prints I worked with were very easy to handle.

Image of a Japanese print showing a Courtesan preparing to inscribe a poem slip
Courtesan preparing to inscribe a poem slip, CBL J 2001

Prior to beginning digitisation of the first batch of prints, I worked with the Chester Beatty Conservation team to train up on how to appropriately handle each print for digitisation, such as how to safely and delicately turn each print to digitise the back and return the print to the original position. I also received training on how to handle prints of various sizes. After completing my training with the Conservation Department, I practiced the handling techniques used for small woodblock prints with similar sized paper posters. I wanted to become as familiar with the required handling techniques as possible before my return to the studio.

When I opened the first box of woodblock prints my jaw dropped. Each woodblock print tells a detailed story, each print illustrates a different environment and scene in great detail. I felt drawn into the scene simply by observing the print. I couldn’t help spending a bit of time staring at the first few prints I digitised. The illustrations of people in their home or working environment as well as the illustrations of people interacting with animals such as monkeys stood out the most to me. Great detail had been dedicated to the expression and emotion on each person’s face, as well as the various animals depicted. I was particularly drawn to two prints showing monkeys wearing red robes, such as the image below showing Momotarō giving millet balls to a monkey as described in the story of Momotarō, otherwise known as the peach boy.

Image of a Japanese print showing Momotaro handing millet balls to a monkey
Momotaro handing millet balls to a monkey, CBL J 2005
Image of a Japanese print showing a Geisha seated on porch beside plum tree
Geisha seated on porch beside plum tree, CBL J 2010

Lighting each woodblock print was quite straight forward for the majority of the prints. Two Profoto flashes with 1.2m x 1m softboxes were placed on either side of the object. The soft boxes were then positioned 1.5 metres equidistantly above the object, angled at 45 degrees. The colours used in each print range from light pastels to dark strong colours as well as metallic pigments of silver and bronze. As mentioned in our previous blogs, rendering the faithful appearance of metallic colours in digitisation can be challenging even to very experienced photographers. Luckily, although the woodblock prints contained pigments of silver and bronze they were not very reflective and so not as challenging as photographing objects with more reflective gold. To show off this metallic pigmentation a technique similar to our lighting for gold was used. To accurately capture the veneer of the bronze and silver a large silver reflector was placed directly above the object and secured on top of the two softboxes. To begin with I experimented by adding a third light faced at an angle towards the reflector and away from the object. The objective of the third light was to bounce reflective light back on to the metallic pigmentation. However, after examining the end result, this was deemed unnecessary and unfortunately washed out the non-metallic pigment. Therefore, the third light was removed leaving the two lights and the reflector.

Image of a Japanese print showing Kamakura Minister of the Right (Kamakura Udaijin)
Kamakura Minister of the Right (Kamakura Udaijin), CBL J 2076

After digitising roughly 300 woodblock prints of small size, I began digitising a collection of larger Japanese woodblock prints, some of which were diptychs, triptychs or quadtychs, where a series of individual prints are mounted together to show one large picture across the multiple prints. The quadtych print spanned roughly over 1m in length. These prints will be making their way into the online collections over the coming months and along with their story will be accessible through the Chester Beatty Digital Collections.

Some of these prints will be featured in the upcoming Edo in Colour exhibition at the Chester Beatty beginning in February 2021. We hope you will be able to come to the exhibition and see the delicate beauty and storytelling of the Japanese woodblock print collection from the Edo period and enjoy them as much as I enjoyed digitising them.

Image of a Japanese print Diptych for the Drum Group (Niban tsuzuki)
Diptych for the Drum Group (Niban tsuzuki), CBL J 2783

Caroline Harding, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty

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