Hokusai and ‘The Great Picture Book of Everything’: the latest research

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For almost 200 years the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) has been astonishing the world with his famous colour woodblock print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (1831), popularly called The Great Wave

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Under the Wave off Kanagawa (‘The Great Wave’), from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji. Colour woodblock print, Japan, 1831. Purchase funded by the Brooke Sewell Bequest with support from Art Fund.

Hokusai was 72 when he designed this print and had already enjoyed success for most of his career. Even so, he never rested on his laurels. Following the success of The Great Wave and many other prints in the early 1830s, he continued to paint and draw, always seeking new ways to translate a ceaseless flow of ideas into ever more inventive compositions and brushwork. 

By the end of his life, Hokusai had produced thousands of prints and paintings, and designed illustrations for nearly 270 books. He was passionate about drawing until the very end of his life, as he revealed in his celebrated last words, ‘…if only heaven would grant me five more years, then I would become a true artist.’ 

Visitors to a temple marvel at Hokusai’s gigantic painting of Bodhidharma, founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. From Iijima Kyoshin (1841–1901), Biography of Katsushika Hokusai, vol. 1. Copperplate printed book, Japan, 1893.

Thanks to the diligent research of Hokusai’s first biographer, Iijima Kyoshin (1841–1901), we know more about the master than most other artists of his time, but there are still discoveries to be made. A case in point is the British Museum’s recent rediscovery of one of Hokusai’s important late works, a group of more than 100 rare, finished drawings that Hokusai prepared for a picture-encyclopedia titled The Great Picture Book of Everything (Banmotsu ehon daizen), produced in the 1820s–40s.

The process of making woodblock prints: block cutting and printing. Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Artisans. Colour woodblock print triptych, Japan, 1857. Gift of Sir Hickman Bacon

Usually after an artist had completed a drawing for a print or book illustration, the block-cutter pasted the drawing to a woodblock and cut through it with a chisel to transfer the design to the block for printing. The original drawing was destroyed in the process. Artists did not usually sign the original drawings for book illustrations, so if for some reason a book was not published and the final drawings survived, as with The Great Picture Book, then identifying the artist is particularly challenging and requires close study of known published works and confirmed paintings. 

A recent estimate suggests that 80% of Hokusai’s drawings are held in Western collections, meaning they have gone relatively unstudied by art historians in Japan. This part of his vast output requires extra attention, extensive consultation with scholars around the world and ‘slow looking’, or thoughtful visual examination and detailed comparisons. Researchers need to ask which collection holds an example of the artist’s work sharing a similar subject, figure or line? How did the artist’s technique or approach to composition change from one period, subject or work to the next?  In decades past, art experts relied on detailed, hand-written notes, archives of photographic prints and highly trained memories to answer these questions. The advent of digital technologies and the nearly instantaneous, global exchange of scholarly information has meant that, while the questions remain the same, they can be addressed at an accelerated rate and with increased assurance.

Box for storing Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything. Wood and marbled paper, around late 1800s. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest, in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch, with support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation).

The drawings for The Great Picture Book are brushed on thin sheets of Japanese paper around the size of a postcard, pasted onto a slightly larger piece of heavy card. They are stored in a beautiful wooden box made for them possibly during the late 1800s and inscribed with the title and Hokusai’s name. Two drawings bear the seal of Henri Vever (1854–1942), a French designer of Art Nouveau jewellery and Europe’s leading collector of Japanese art in the early 20th century. The drawings were apparently sold at a Paris auction in 1948, and then entered a private French collection, where they seem to have remained unknown to anyone with a dedicated interest in Hokusai or Japanese art. Then in 2019, they emerged at another Paris auction, and were purchased by Israel Goldman, from whom the Museum purchased them. 

Tim Clark standing in front of a print of 'The Great Wave' by Hokusai, gesturing toward the detail.
Tim Clark discussing The Great Wave during the Museum’s 2017 exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.

At the forefront of research into the newly rediscovered drawings is Tim Clark, Honorary Research Fellow and former Head of the Japanese Section at the British Museum. Restrictions during the pandemic proved less of an obstacle to his studies than might be expected, owing to advanced technologies such as sophisticated image databases, including the British Museum’s Collection online. Tim’s investigations have taken him (digitally) around the world to collections in Europe, Japan and the United States, as well as back in time to the 1600s and the earliest days of the Japanese picture-encyclopedia.  Bringing decades of experience in the field of Japanese art to bear on the study of the drawings, Tim also collaborated with other specialists in the fields of Japanese art, history and culture. The experts include the late Hokusai specialist Roger Keyes (1942–2020), curator and art historian Asano Shūgō of the Museum Yamato Bunkakan in Japan, Yasuhara Akio formerly of Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, and Sarah Thompson, Curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), A bolt of lightning strikes Virūdhaka (Ruriō) dead, illustration for The Great Picture Book of Everything. Block-ready drawing, ink on paper, Japan, 1820s-40s. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest, in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch, with support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation).

The illustrations for The Great Picture Book are exquisite but have presented research challenges. First off, they were stored in their box in no particular order. In other words, they were a seemingly random group of 100-plus drawings, with an Indian deity followed by a bird or animal, followed by a Chinese warrior or another deity. The museum numbers represent only the order in which the drawings emerged from the box, not their intended sequence within a book. Undaunted, Tim and Akio began by transcribing and translating all the inscriptions on the drawings and identifying each subject. With this information they recognised that the drawings sort into three main subject categories – Buddhist India, ancient China, and the natural world. At the same time, Tim learned that the title, The Great Picture Book of Everything, placed the drawings in a lineage of Japanese picture-encyclopedias stretching back to the middle 1600s, and even further to older encyclopedias compiled in China. Precedents for many of the natural subjects occur in these earlier books. 

On the one hand, these parallels established a link to works by other artists in the past. On the other hand, they raised another challenge, because many of the subjects in the drawings – notably the narratives in the India and China sections – do not appear in earlier picture-encyclopedias. The presence of these narratives suggests a strong interest in foreign lands at a time – the Edo period (1615–1868) – when Japanese people were not permitted to travel outside Japan.

Preparatory sketch for A bolt of lightning strikes Virūdhaka (Ruriō) dead, from Album of Hokusai Sketches (called the Curtis Album). Ink and colour on paper, Japan, 1820s-40s. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Another challenge was establishing a firm connection with Hokusai. The old biography of the artist by Iijima Kyoshin provided one piece of crucial evidence. Among a number of letters by Hokusai that Iijima transcribed is a note that the artist sent in the mid-1840s to the publisher Sūzanbō, acknowledging receipt of payment for three drawings he had produced for a book titled The Great Picture Book of Everything. This letter had long puzzled scholars before the Museum’s rediscovery of the drawings. A second, similar note also survives.

 Another aid to understanding The Great Picture Book has been an album of sketches attributed to Hokusai in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. This album includes preliminary drafts of several of the British Museum’s drawings, including one showing the dramatic death by lightning of the Indian king Virūdhaka. Tim’s research has further shown that three volumes of finished Hokusai drawings in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also form part of The Great Picture Book. The Boston volumes comprise subjects related to the natural world and Japan, complementing the contents of the British Museum’s drawings to form part of a substantial picture-encyclopedia. Comparison with Hokusai’s published works of the 1830s–40s, which include many subjects and motifs seen throughout The Great Picture Book, are also important.

Inside the exhibition Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything.

The past two years have taught us a lot about Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything, and new information emerges on an almost daily basis, as the quality and interest in the drawings inspire new lines of research. Even so, questions remain. What was the intended order of the drawings and is the British Museum’s group complete? Do other related groups of drawings survive? Why was the book not published? And what role might Hokusai’s daughter Ōi, a famous artist in her own right, have played in the production of the drawings? Ōi lived with and looked after Hokusai for the last 20 years of his life, and the two are thought to have collaborated on other works. 

The Museum has developed an advanced digital research technology, ResearchSpace, which helps to track and address these questions. For an online version of the current exhibition, with enhanced connections to other related works by Hokusai, see the project page.

You can see these exquisite drawings for yourself – all 103 of them – on display in our special exhibition, and learn more about the fascinating research that is still going on behind the scenes.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything is open until 30 January 2022. Book tickets and find out more – final tickets selling fast. Membership is the best way to enjoy our special exhibitions – join today.

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