Image of Japanese print Newly published perspective view of Shinmei shrine, Shiba


Edo in Colour

Prints from Japan’s Metropolis

Selling the city

The city of Edo (modern Tokyo) was established in 1590 as powerbase of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan’s de facto rulers during the Edo period (c. 1603–1868). By 1720, Edo’s population had swelled to more than one million, making it the largest city in the world. Print powered this flourishing metropolis. As artists, publishers and printmakers collaborated to publish single-sheet prints and printed books of the highest order, discerning audiences consumed this affordable art. With the city standing as muse, maker and market combined, print sold Edo’s image as it shaped its identity.

Back to Edo in Colour

Newly published perspective view of Shinmei shrine, Shiba
Tamagawa Shūchō
Japan, 1789–1801
CBL J 2657

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  • Image of Japanese print showing shop of Nishimuraya Yohachi

    Shop of Nishimuraya Yohachi
    Torii Kiyonaga
    Japan, after 1787
    CBL J 2424
    Edo’s publishers oversaw the process of printmaking from conception to retail. Each had their own trademark. The trademark of publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi—a triple swirl under a mountain—can be found on prints from early colour actor portraits to Hokusai’s '36 views of Mount Fuji'. As with many Edo publishers, Nishimuraya produced both single-sheet prints and printed books. This image was originally prepared as an illustration for the book Colours of the triple dawn.

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  • Image of a detail from a Japanese scroll showing leisurely activities by the waterside

    Leisurely activities by the waterside
    Miyagawa Chōshun
    Japan, beginning of 18th century
    CBL J 1123
    The floating world was a space outside the strict social order imposed by Japan’s Tokugawa rulers. Its theatres, teahouses, festivals and recreations were enjoyed by low-ranking merchants and artisans as well as those of samurai class. ‘Pictures of the floating world’—ukiyo-e—were created as both paintings and prints, meeting the needs (and means) of different audiences. Here, men of wealth and taste relax in waterside pavilions accompanied by gorgeously attired beauties, male and female.

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  • Image of a preparatory sketch of actors

    Preparatory sketch of actors
    Torii Kiyonaga
    Japan, 1785
    CBL J 2426
    This preparatory sketch by artist Torii Kiyonaga shows a design for an actor print. Edo’s actors had huge followings and print both fuelled and fed on their celebrity. The artist’s sketch was copied out onto fine paper to create a block-ready drawing. The block-cutter pasted this face down onto the woodblock. By rubbing away the back of the paper, the block-cutter could see the design.

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  • Image of Japanese print making tools

    Printmaking tools
    Specialist block-cutters and printers worked with publishers and artists to create Edo’s printed arts. The most important of the block-cutter’s tools were the knives used to cut the outlines. Chisels and gouges were then employed to remove areas of wood according to the design. In printing, rice-starch paste and inks or colourants were applied to the block. Setting a sheet of paper across its surface, the printer applied pressure to the back of the paper with a round printing pad or baren.

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  • Image of a Japanese printed book showing technique of cursive brushwork

    Technique of cursive brushwork
    Tachibana Morikuni
    Osaka, 1749
    CBL J 1630.3
    While single-sheet prints of floating world subjects were closely associated with Edo, commercial book publishing first found its feet in the more established cities of Kyoto and Osaka. In the 18th century, new forms of wit and fashion made their debut in Edo. Its residents too began to seek out books made in the city and sharing its interests. Gradually, publishers of popular books in Edo overtook their more established rivals.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Young women’s fashion: Flower patterned furisode

    Young women’s fashion: Flower patterned furisode
    Okumura Toshinobu
    Japan, 1716–36
    CBL J 2437
    Fashion and print enjoyed a close relationship in Edo. This hand-coloured print echoes images in contemporary printed books of designs for kimono patterns. Nikawa, an animal glue, has been added to the printed black ink. Nikawa’s burnished sheen gave the ink a luxurious finish similar to glossy Japanese lacquer. Such prints are known as urushi-e or ‘lacquer pictures.’

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  • Image of Japanese print showing actors Segawa Kichiji II and Bandō Hikosaburō II

    Actors Segawa Kichiji II and Bandō Hikosaburō II
    Torii Kiyohiro
    Japan, 1756
    CBL J 2452
    Images with two or more printed accent colours became popular in the mid-eighteenth century. Because the palette of these works often features pinkish-red, they are known as benizuri-e or pink-printed pictures. Separate printing blocks were prepared for every colour. Registration marks (kentō) were cut into each block: an L-shaped indent at the block’s corner and a straight indent on the long edge. These guided the paper into place, aligning the printed colours.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing poet Minamoto no Kintada Ason

    Poet Minamoto no Kintada Ason
    From an untitled series of 36 Immortal Poets
    Attributed to Suzuki Harunobu
    Japan, 1767–68
    CBL J 2480
    Full-colour printing was an Edo innovation, with images built up through multiple layers of printed colour. From 1765, full-colour prints were popularised for commercial sale by artist Suzuki Harunobu. Harunobu was acutely business minded. He dubbed these prints Azuma nishiki-e or ‘eastern brocade pictures’ (Edo being in the east of Japan).

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  • Image of Japanese print Newly published perspective view of Shinmei shrine, Shiba

    Newly published perspective view of Shinmei shrine, Shiba
    Tamagawa Shūchō
    Japan, 1789–1801
    CBL J 2657
    This print shows the bustle of the annual ginger festival at Edo’s Shiba Shinmei shrine. Asides in popular literature suggest that the market for print surpassed distinctions of age, gender or status, much like the crowds on this festival day. To the right, a selection of prints hang from the rafters of a stall. Pictures of actors and wrestlers can be made out among the prints for sale.

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Chester Beatty
Dublin Castle
Dublin 2
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