Okumura Masanobu (after), a wooden printing block for two illustrations from the album Yūkun Sennin ('Courtesans - Immortals')

Edo period, around AD 1710

Cherry-wood printing block, carved on both sides

Printing blocks for Japanese colour woodblock prints were usually cut from mountain cherry trees, which have a hard wood that can be cut with fine detail, and withstand the wear of taking hundreds, even thousands of impressions. They are cut vertically from the trunk, following the grain. Chisels and mallets, and gouges were used to clear away background areas of wood. Knives were used to cut the fine detail, leaving narrow ridges of wood in relief to print each of the lines. From the 1740s onwards a simple registration system, called the kentō, was used to print colours and patterns inside the black outlines. This consisted of one right-angled cut in a corner and one straight cut near one long edge of each block. Each different colour generally required a separate printing block. Full-colour printing using from ten to twenty blocks became standard after 1765.

This block is a rare early survival from around 1710, the period when only the black outlines of a design were printed, and any colouring was added by hand afterwards. Both sides of the block are carved with two separate designs of courtesans and immortals by the ukiyo-e artist Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764), but inexplicably the artist's signature has been cut out of the block after printing. The block is relatively thick and the cutting deep compared to later examples. One side shows three types of prostitute - a bikuni entertainer, a Yoshiwara courtesan and a young male prostitute - drinking sake from a large tub, a parody of the 'Three Vinegar Tasters'. The other side shows a courtesan with the Immortal Gama Sennin, whose attribute is a toad, and has the title Yūkun Gama sennin ('Courtesans' version of Gama Sennin').

A copy of the completed album is also in The British Museum's collection.

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More information


L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


Height: 245.000 mm (approx.)
Width: 490.000 mm (approx.)

Museum number

JA JA 1938.11-12.53

not found on MERLIN

Gift of Harold Yates


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