When I first became interested in Japanese prints I was a teenager, so I couldn't afford to go out and buy an Utamaro or Hokusai broadsheet, as much as I would have loved to. Initially I relied upon reference books to get a feel for the artists and their respective designs, learning as much as I could about the subject without any access to the actual prints. Some of the oldest books on the subject, such as de Goncourt's Outamaro, published in 1891, had no illustrations at all, but others had a fair number. I was fortunate to live relatively close to a large reference library, which became my second home for quite some time, to the extent that the staff could anticipate which books I wanted from the stacks before I opened my mouth to speak, in the same way that those who work in the restaurant trade remember the dishes ordered by their regular customers without prompting. Of course, there's no substitute for feasting your eyes on the prints "in the flesh", and I was very keen to get my hands on the real thing. They say you never forget your first time, and that was certainly true regarding my first encounter with a "real" Utamaro. I remember the particular design... that of Fukurokuju having his head shaved by Daikoku, from the seriesEdo shiire Ôtsu miyage (Souvenirs of Ôtsu Purchased in Edo); not a typical Utamaro design, but the point was that it was an Utamaro. I wasn't quite sure whether I should study it, or kneel before it and bow my head. I can't say I've entirely got over the desire to do the latter when in the presence of a truly great print. Certainly, at the last part of the sale of the Henri Vever collection (which took place at Sotheby's, London, in 1997) being in the presence of the design of a beauty smoking, from the series Fujo ninsô juppon (Ten Physiognomic Classes of Women), which I'd waited to see for an hour or so as demand was so high, had me walking on air and left me speechless for a couple of hours. It must be said, however, that the number of good prints that find their way onto the market these days is not terribly high, and even the cheaper designs, which may not be the finest but at least offer a beginner a starting place from which to build up some understanding of Japanese prints, seem much harder to locate.
When I started collecting, I began with book illustrations, mainly because they were cheap and readily available. My first was a Hokusai purchased at an antiques fair for the meagre sum of eighteen pounds... which I still have today. Eventually I worked my way up to Utamaro and those broadsheets I'd coveted for so long, but I still enjoy buying book illustrations even now, especially the more humorous ones, as they have so much character and charm. Some of my favourite prints were bought for a few pounds and have more sentimental value than financial. I've never bought for investment... I've always felt that you can't go far wrong if you stick to what you know, and to what brings you pleasure.
Causes Gina Collia-Suzuki Supports
The World Wildlife Fund
Cancer Research UK