The 91-Percent Sized "Willow Bridge" Print by Koson
To the world of Japanese shin-hanga woodblock print collectors, this appearance of a 91-percent-sized "Willow Bridge" print by the artist Koson (Shoson OHARA, 1877-1945) may likely be somewhat unsettling. This striking 1927 "bijin-ga/snowscene" image titled "Willow Bridge" ("Yanagi-Bashi no Yuki") was originally published by Watanabe Publisher in 1927, appeared in the 1930 "Toledo, Ohio Exhibition," and has long been a favorite and sought-after image of Koson print collectors worldwide.
Seemingly undocumented however, is a slightly smaller-sized version that has apparently escaped the attention of other writers, including no mention having been made in the recently published 2001 seminal Koson reference, "Crows, Cranes and Camellias: The Natural World of Ohara Koson."
It Took the Eyes of Another Collector....
Somewhat to our chagrin however, it took the watchful eyes of one of our faithful customers to call the uniqueness of this print (from our own Ukiyoe-Gallery print inventory) to our attention. When shipped to our (unnamed) "east coast collector" who has proven to be quite a student of Japanese prints, this collector immediately pointed out that our #CG-727 "Willow Bridge" print was somewhat SMALLER than another copy also held in his personal collection. Despite having previously been in our possession for a number of months, this slightly smaller sized print was so convincingly and accurately produced that its smaller size simply escaped our earlier notice!!
At first (with this previous "inventory copy" no longer in our possession), we could hardly believe what this collector was telling us, but he then offered to send BOTH his own and our "Willow Bridge" prints for our further study. (As a clarifying note, this "east coast collector's" early "A-sealed" (first edition) print is currently now also for sale.)
Sure enough, these two "look-alike" prints were clearly of different sizes--both are pictured setting side-by-side immediately below.
Koson's SMALLER "Willow Bridge" #CG-727 print and Koson's "A-sealed" (first edition) "Willow Bridge" #MM-01
Technical Specifications of Both Prints
Immediately apparent is the fact that this slightly smaller-sized "Willow Bridge" print itself bears NO publisher's identification on the print itself. Although we had earlier (and incorrectly) assumed that it was simply an "un-sealed" Watanabe Publisher print, clearly now this seems to NOT be the case.
As for size, the ORIGINAL 1927 Watanabe-published version of "Willow Bridge" measures a "full oban" size of 9 3/8 x 14 1/8 inches (238 x 362mm); whereas the "same-as" smaller 91-percent version is "aiban" at 8 1/2 x 13 inches (218 x 350mm).
Another "clue" which differentiates these two versions of "Willow Bridge" from one another are slight differences seen in the carving. Most notable is the "irregular" (curvy) shadow's edge seen running down the right edge of the snow-covered tree......which then appears to be a much "straighter" (lacks the curves) shadow edge in the smaller version.
About the only other "clue" we have to go on is our "best-guess" opinion that clearly this smaller print's paper is NOT new. From our experience of handling and examining hundreds of prints on "old paper," we are therefore estimating that this smaller print is most likely of the circa late-1930's to c1960 period.
Again, immediately apparent is the fact that this slightly smaller-sized "Willow Bridge" print bears no publisher's identification on the print itself. Although we has earlier assumed that it was simply an "un-sealed" Watanabe Publisher print, clearly now this seems to NOT be the case.
To state our opinion now very clearly: We do not believe that this "91-percent-sized" was carved or published by Watanabe. Due to the fact that modern-day printings of "Willow Bridge" are not available for sale from Watanabe, it is therefore logical to assume that this print's original (1927) set of woodblocks must have either become destroyed or damaged to the point where they could no longer be used. However, to speculate that Watanabe would have then subsequently re-carved this block-set in a 91-percent-sized version simply makes no sense at all.
So, "who" then is the publisher of this print?? At this time, we just don't know.....simply have no idea..... But..... "whoever" produced this "little gem" was good. Very, very, very good indeed......
Clearly, the workmanship exhibited in both the carving and then the printing is very well done. The print's lines and tiny details are crisply carved, and the "bokashi" shading and "gauffraged" areas of the printing are top notch.
Best guess.....?? Most likely this 91-percent-sized copy is just that--a COPY. Made to capitalize on the popularity of what was clearly a very popular and very well-selling print of the 1930's and 40's.
Other Copies of "Willow Bridge" Prints
Next, we immediately set out to check our few other copies of this "Willow Bridge" print--having been tricked before, we wanted to take a closer look this time. Pictured then, just below, are all four copies of "Willow Bridge" that we currently had on-hand at the time of writing this article.
Pictured from left to right, they are: 91-percent-sized "subject print" of this article, "A-sealed' (original edition) copy loaned to us by "Florida collector," our "6mm-sealed" #CG-557 "Willow Bridge" print; and another "6mm-sealed" (personal collection) copy.
Four Copies of "Willow Bridge" -- One "Small" and Three Originals
Fellow Koson Collectors -- What About YOUR "Willow Bridge" Print...??
As with our recent "Unknown 'Kasuga Shrine' Print of Hasui" article, although certainly not precise, one rough "measurement" of a given print's rarity is the "number of sightings" reported by collectors over an extended period of time. Our friend Marc Kahn uses this "rarity factor" method at his Shotei.com website to compare the assumed "pre-earthquake" vs "post-earthquake" prints. Again, as we currently have no other accumulated data to point to, we will speculate at the time of this article's writing that this "91-percent-sized" version of "Willow Bridge" is likely quite rare. But to learn more, we do need YOUR help.
As a collector, it's clearly very easy to determine if YOUR collection's copy of "Willow Bridge" is a full-sized Watanabe-published copy or another "91-percent-sized" (undetermined publisher) copy: Simply MEASURE your print's image size.
If your "Willow Bridge" print turns out to measure 8 1/2 x 13 inches (image area only), we'd love to hear from you. And, if instead, you've got the larger 9 3/8 x 14 1/8 size we'd also like to add you to our accumulated data base too.
The "Rarity Factor" -- Your Help is Needed....
Over time, contrasting the relative "frequency" of these differently sized "Willow Bridge" prints will give us a better idea as to the relative "rarity" of this smaller-sized print. And hopefully, these encounters with fellow Koson collectors' prints may eventually lead us to someone who may perhaps have their smaller print still in an "original folder" or have some other "publisher's information" still attached.
Hence, to help gain some perhaps useful additional information about the relative number of copies which exist of this print, we would like to encourage any Koson collectors worldwide who may own this "Willow Bridge" print in their collections to kindly contact us.
Smaller "Willow Bridge" Print Placed on Top of Full-sized Version
Possible Dating of this Smaller Print
At present we have no means by which to precisely "date" this smaller "Willow Bridge" print, however as mentioned above we are speculating that it most likely is from the early-1930's to 1960 period. This "best guess" estimate is based solely on the apparent "aging" of this print's older paper. With a bit of luck, hopefully another Koson collector will come forwards with additional information that may be retained with other copies that must certainly be in circulation worldwide.
Valuing Such "Variant" Designs
A firm point which this author wishes to make is that our various studies of “variant” or perhaps “copied” designs is in NO way intended to diminish or “place a lower value” on such prints which are believed to have been done later as copies. From our perspective as collectors of Japanese prints, ALL woodblocks are viewed as being magnificent works of art and are deserving of our study and admiration. Indeed, in some cases “variant designs” can be even MORE highly sought-after due to their rarity or the “unique perspective” which they offer to the study of Japanese prints.
The only closing comment we will make is that our years of collecting experience do occasionally yield some interesting observations and discoveries. However, in this case, it took the observant eyes of one of our own customers to bring this matter to out attention.
Hence, a private "Thank you" to our unnamed "east coast collector."
Coincidentally, during the final editing of this article, two additional "6mm-sealed" copies of this "Willow Bridge" printing have come into our inventory. As both of the newly obtained copies are full-sized versions, this of course further strengthens our opinion that the smaller "91-percent sized" version is likely quite rare.
Both of these two additional copies are for sale, and are pictured immediately below. Additionally, we should perhaps add--despite the fact that we've just added these two copies to our website's available inventory, over time "Willow Bridge" has remained a fairly "difficult" print to obtain.
Two more copies: "Willow Bridge" #BG-422 and "Willow Bridge" #BG-424
Literature (and print) sources used in preparation of this article include:
Above "A-sealed" "Willow Bridge" Print courtesy of an unnamed "east coast collector."
"Crows, Cranes and Camellias: The Natural World of Ohara Koson", by Amy Reigle Newland, Jan Perree, Robert Schaap, Hotei Publishing, Netherlands, ISBN 907482238X.
(c) Thomas Crossland and Dr. Andreas Grund, August 2003
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