THE FINGERPRINTS OF NARUSE SEISHI.

Satsuma with a story: special pieces from private collectors.

THE FINGERPRINTS OF NARUSE SEISHI.

It's amazing how sometimes things coincide. Although work by Naruse Seishi is quite rare, we received within a short period of time two beautiful specimens from the private collection of collectors. The two vases of a British collector can be read on the page "satsuma on display-1" .  That he managed to get these vases for only 28 pounds, was an incredible part of the story.  On this page we show a beautiful tray of Naruse Seishi owned by Canadian collector, Mr Tom Pelchat. This work also has an intriguing detail, because on the tray you can see the fingerprints of Naruse. Apart from its superb quality, in our opinion this gives an extra dimension to the work. Mr. Pelchat bought it 4 years ago, and since then he has collected a lot of information about the maker of this beautiful tray. We are happy that he also wants to share all this information with us, so we can do the description of this work as adequate as possible. We understand that mr. Pelchat is considering to sell this beautiful work, but fortunately not before giving us the opportunity to show it to collectors of Satsuma and other interested visitors of this site. For more information you can contact him directly: Tom Pelchat <tpelchat59@gmail.com>  

The tray is made of porcelain and a similar tray can also be seen in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The size is the same, about 69 x 42 cm and also the painting of a temple thronged with Buddhist deities and other figures, and the border decoration filled with medallions match. It is a beautiful work of which the painting is of very high artistic value, full of Buddhist symbolism and figures in a temple or monastery surrounded by a typical Chinese landscape. Despite the amount of figures and other elements it doesn't make a restless impression. The viewer's gaze is drawn naturally to the building on the left, the walking direction of the procession, which is enhanced by the dieties in the sky and the horizontal line of the roofs and the wall in the background. As always with Naruse Seishi, the details are breathtakingly fine. A true museum piece, this tray, and perhaps even more beautiful than the one in the Victoria & Albert Museum. We don't know if Naruse Seishi made more of similar trays, nor what its origin is except that it comes from an English estate. Instead of guessing, we prefer to limit ourselves to the tray itself.

As said, there is a lot to see on this tray full of symbolism.  It shows a procession of which Kannon, the goddess of mercy sitting on a Kirin, is the central figure. In her hand she holds a lotus flower, which stands for rebirth. The Kirin is the Asian version of the unicorn, which would appear at the arrival of an illustrious ruler. Behind Kannon two men, with the appearance of Nio guards carrying a banner and a richly decorated parasol, symbols of her dignity.

Kannon is preceded by Jizo, the protector of children and travelers.  He is shaved bald and dressed as a Buddhist monk. In his right hand he holds a staff, the shakujō, which he shakes to awaken people from their delusions; in his left hand he holds a jewel, the hōju no tama,  which bestows wishes upon all who suffer.

He is accompanied by three children, each holding a gift for the couple in the building. A monk and a child have already arrived. To the left of the monk a dragon can be seen, in his three-toed claw (what is specific for the Japanese dragon) it holds the flaming pearl, as a symbol for spiritual energy and wisdom.

The cranes, in front of the building are the symbol for longevity. In the sky two female dieties, holding a koto (left) and a biwa (right). We have to guess at the real meaning of this performance. It seems as if Kannon is making her appearance to the couple in the building, but it is remains unknown who they represent.

The tray is enriched with two seals. The red seal bears the name of Naruse Sishi and his workshop, the Tohaku-en. The green seal contains in  the right-hand column the text 劉貞徳畵 which was (by a translation agency) probably rightly translated  into Chinese as Liu Zhende painting, so it says that the tray was made after a painting by Liu Zhende. That would refer to a Chinese painter. The first three characters can also be translated as a Japanese name, even multiple names, because of the pronunciation possibilities in KUN or ON reading as Ryu Teitaku or Samadori (there are more possibilities).  That would mean that Naruse Seishi made the tray after an example of a painting (or woodblock print) by an Chinese or Japanese artist. Not a strange phenomenon, this was done more often by Japanese artists.  About this artist we can't find any information and so it remains unknown (for us, suggestions however are welcome). 

The left-hand column of the green seal reads 温樹 彩色, translated as Wen Shu colouring.  Wenshu can refer to Wenshu, the buddha of wisdom who can be recognized by a book or a sword, attributes that are missing here. Wenshu could also refer to the Wen Shu painting style, which, however, is characterized by a few central elements against a plain background, the opposite of what we see on this tray.  Finally, Wenshu may also refer to the famous Wenshu monastery in Chengdu, China Because the scene seems to take place within the area of a monastery or temple it is possible that the Whenshu monastery is depicted here.

If we interpret the text on the green seal correctly, it could therefore read: "(made after) a painting by Liu Zhende on which the Wenshu (monastery) is depicted".

Forgive us our fantasy, even without it there is so much to enjoy. The details are of an unsurpassed refinement as can be seen on the pictures.  See for example the way the tiles of the black roof on the left side are painted, so realistic that it looks like you can lift the tiles. The medallions and other border decoration, everything is applied with great refinement and attention to even the finest detail. The faces are vivid and full of expression, and the personal touch of the master remains visible everywhere. Even if it is made after an example of Liu Zhende, it will certainly not be a direct copy.

Although at the Tohaku-en, Naruse Seishi's workshop, other skilled painters were employed, this tray was undoubtedly made by Naruse himself and that he was proud on the result the red seal shows us.  The signature contains both his name and the name of his workhop ( Naruse Seishi - Tohakuen sei zo), and has been worked out with great care in the shape of a Tsuba, the hand protection for Samurai swords.

Very intriguing of course, are the fingerprints that can be seen on one of the outside walls of the tray. Are they Naruse's own fingerprints? I think it’s very likely. Naruse Seishi was a great painter, and in miniature paintings he's even supposed to be the father of this genre. But he was also a great potter who is known to have put a lot of honour in firing his own work. Modelling porcelain clay is difficult because the clay is less plastic and dries quickly with a large shrinkage, making it less suitable for large pieces. The process of producing porcelain ware requires for this reason more skill than pottery, and making this tray, weighing 15 kg, will certainly not have been easy. We therefore assume that they are indeed the fingerprints of Naruse Seishi, who shaped and fired this tray himself, and that the traces of these are visibly baked along with it. Perhaps irrelevant for the quality of the work itself, but for an admirer of his work it is for sure an intriguing fact.