Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide]. artist UTAMARO.
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].
Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].

“Without Precedent in Concept and Fulfilment”–Hillier

Utamaro’s Shell Book

Shiohi no tsuto [trans.: Gifts of the Ebb Tide].

Eight double-page color-printed woodcut illus., luxuriously heightened with gold, metallic dusts, & embossing. One leaf of preface (blank verso pasted onto upper cover, nine folding leaves, one leaf of postface (blank recto pasted to lower cover). 8vo (orihon), orig. blue patterned wrappers with waves (rubbed), orig. block-printed title slip on upper cover (slip a little frayed). Edo: Juzaburo Tsutaya, 1789.

First edition of perhaps the greatest of all Japanese illustrated books. “Even among Japanese books, the ‘Shell Book’ must be considered remarkable, hardly another has quite the same concinnity of subject, text and illustration…Its title is a poetic one that strikes the chord for the whole work — Shiohi no tsuto — ‘Gifts of the Ebb-tide.’ The poems were contributed by the members of a poetry club…

“After the foreword, comes the first print which is introductory to the main theme, the shells themselves. It is a picture of people gathering shells along Shinagawa bay at ebb-tide, and what more charming beach scene exists in art? The retreating sea, indicated by the most fragile washes of ultramarine, is ribbed with a perfectly apt blind-printing that casts minute shadows like shallow wavelets…

“Then follow six [double-]pages that are designed to bring our eyes closer to the shells, as though on some propitious day the tide had been unusually prodigal and strewn the sand with a hoard of different treasures. The sea, receding to the top of each page in wine-coloured lines of conventional wave form [a characteristic of the third edition and not present in our copy] lays glinting as if the water had indeed just washed over it. Stranded as if by the cast of the last wave, are the ‘Gifts of the Ebb-Tide,’ shells of a wide variety of creatures, of fluted shellfish and whorled snail, ‘awabi,’ mussels, scallops, ‘cherry-blossoms’ and other shells of quaint shape and translucent colour…

“Every device of the printer’s art and artifice is used to embellish the shells. Gold and mica dusts overlay faint tinges of rose that shine through with a suffused glow, the nacre of the awabi has an iridescent lustre, tiny garlands of button-like shells glimmer and sparkle with a wet sheen, others have the fragility of a dragonfly’s wing, with fretted shining surface; furrowed or encrusted, silvered or gold-dusted, the shells almost trespass into the realm of the lacquerers’s art, with its subtleties of variegated texture and inlay work…

“As the first plate was the induction to the pages of treasure-trove, so the last is a sort of epilogue. The party has returned from the beach and the girls sit in a circle around shells arranged in concentric rings upon the floor, representing a certain stage in the popular shell-game called kai-awase…

“J.J. O’Brien Sexton, whose word on such matters is to be respected, wrote of this book [in the Burlington Magazine, March 1919]: ‘From a technical point of view, it is in my opinion, the finest example of wood-engraving and colour-printing that the world has ever seen’.”–Hillier, Utamaro. Colour Prints and Paintings, pp. 59-63–(& with two illustrations from what is now known as the third edition).

“One of the most beautiful books ever published…How does an artist make his most beautiful book more beautiful? By paying close attention, thinking like a printer, preserving successes, drawing new effects out of the matrix of blocks, and adding subtle details. The first edition of Gifts of the Ebb Tide was a triumph. No one had ever drawn shells with more authority, more sensitivity, more painstaking detail. No printers had used such a variety of textures, and none since the days of Harunobu had employed such a range of colorants or produced such an array of special effects…The third edition is less carefully printed…Its distinctive feature is a wavy band of color printed over the verse on the shell prints.”–Roger S. Keyes, Ehon. The Artist and the Book in Japan (New York Public Library, 2006), p. 114–(describing & using for the frontispiece, dust-jacket, and a plate in the catalogue illustrations from the NYPL’s copy of the second edition).

It was thought until recently that the purple wavy line over the verse on the shell plates indicated the first edition, but thanks to the latest research of Roger S. Keyes (see above), it is now considered to be an indication of the third edition. Hillier in 1987 was already equivocal and wrote in his The Art of the Japanese Book: “Impressions are known without the wave-line at the head of the prints of shells, and they are usually considered to be of a later issue, though there seems to be no incontrovertible proof of that supposition. The absence of the wave-line is thought by many to improve the designs which, with their full complement of wave-lines and metallic overlays, tend to be somewhat cluttered” (p. 421). He chose a copy without the wave-lines to be illustrated.

A nice copy, with mica and metallic dust details and the use of gold in the final shell-game scene. It should be noted that the heavily wormed Hyde copy of what is now considered the third edition brought $49,500 in 1988 (Christie’s NY, 7 October, lot 130).

Price: $150,000.00

Item ID: 6228

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