Photo: 26th Station, Kakegawa, Akiba-yama embo. Ando Hiroshige. Courtesy Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
53 Stations of the Tokaido Road by Ando Hiroshige is on show at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery until September 4.
Japanese artist, Ando Hiroshige, was one of the best-known artists of the Ukiyo-e school of woodblock printmaking.
Ukiyo-e means pictures of the floating world, but is also known as the popular school of painting and Hiroshige is definitely popular.
His scenes of 19th century Japan now on show at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery have gone down so well that the exhibition has been extended.
In 1832, the artist travelled over 500 kilometres in a procession from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto, taking a gift of horses to the Emperor. The procession took the imperial highway, known as the Tokaido (literally East-West road), from the Shogun’s seat of power to the Emperor’s palace.
Photo: Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery was officially opened on June 11, 1874. Courtesy of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
Hiroshige made sketches along the way at rest stops and where tolls had to be paid. Over the next year, he transformed these into his most famous series of prints: 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road.
Pauline Birtwell, Keeper of Art at Blackburn Museum, says the works are special because of their sense of humanity.
"He portrayed the everyday man," she says, rather than concentrating on the ceremonial aspects of the journey.
Hiroshige was not so ordinary, though. He was the son of a fire watchman – an occupation that held a fearsome reputation in 19th century Edo. His parents died when Hiroshige was 12 and the budding artist had to take on the fire watchman role for a time while he studied painting.
His teacher interested him in landscapes, then an unfashionable subject compared to beautiful women, actors and sumo wrestlers.
Photo: 53rd Station, Otsu, Hashire-cha mise (Hashire teahouse). Ando Hiroshige. Courtesy Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
But Hiroshige’s images feel natural and immediate, giving them popular appeal, especially in the West.
Perhaps this is also because they give an insight into a country that was closed to most of the world before trade routes were opened in the 1850s – soon after which the artist himself died of cholera.
Ukiyo-e publishing was a commercial business and when a set of prints was a big success, the producer would happily satisfy public demand for more. So after Hiroshige achieved success with the Tokaido images, he produced many more editions in the same series.
The edition on display in Blackburn is the first set, called the Hoeido edition. However, the museum owns 1,200 Japanese prints in total, including Hiroshige’s Famous Views of Edo.
They are all part of the Lewis Collection, bequeathed by the local cotton magnate and philanthropist, Thomas Boys Lewis.