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2000-03, 325, Diane Kraal, Japanese Woodprints

Barnettiana: Percy Neville Barnett and Japanese Colour Print Books

The Australian author-publisher P. Neville Barnett (1881-1953) died without due public recognition of his work, which included seven main volumes on Japanese woodblock prints. In the years after Barnett‘s death, his personal collection of work was found, boxed and forgotten. Barnett was the last of a class of Western art writers and purveyors who looked upon the Edo period (1603-1868) of Japanese woodblock prints in awe and with a sense of intrigue about things Japanese. They lamented the demise in the quality and purity of these prints with the onset of the great changes that swept Japan in the “golden” Meiji period (1868-1912) and on to the years leading to the Pacific War.

One of the last mentions of Barnett in Biblionews was in a series of articles by J. Dickson between the years 1982-86 [issues 254:32-4, 267:72-4 and 271:72-4]. The articles described Dickson‘s ongoing and eventually successful search for a complete set of P. Neville Barnett books.

One of the bookplates of P. Neville Barnett.

Actual size 190x138mm

Barnett‘s limited edition, private press books, or Barnettiana, are still collected, although there seems to have been a lull in the past few years in the active acquiring of his books, particularly as most of the rarest examples are with public institutions. Just recently new materials belonging to Barnett have been found. The medley of items uncovered include specially bound copies of his books, reference books, stocks of his facsimile Japanese wood-block prints imported from Japan during the inter-war period, annotated family photographs, and Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho period (1912-1926) woodblock print sets. Letters include those relating to the purchase of prints from Japan as well as a substantial collection of Western bookplates (ex-libris), a portion of which are by Sydney artists from the 1920s. These materials help us understand Barnett‘s role in the Sydney arts community and his unique contribution to intercultural relations between Australia and Japan.

This article will consider a small range of Barnett‘s Japanese print books and the impact that the discovering of his materials has on our understanding of his work. The books selected for the arti-cle from the complete list of Barnett books below are Woodcut Book-plates (1934), Japanese Colour Prints (1936), Colour Prints of Hiroshige (1937) and Figure Prints of Japan (1948).

The Book-plate in Australia Its Inspiration and Development 1930

Pictorial Book-plates 1931

Pictorial Book-plates-Souvenir 1931

Armorial Book-plates 1932

Armorial Book-plates Souvenir 1932

Woodcut Book-plates 1934

Woodcut Book-plates Souvenir 1934

Woodcut Book-plates – Coming Out

Party Souvenir 1934

* Japanese Colour Prints 1936

Japanese Colour Prints—Souvenir 1936

* Colour Prints of Hiroshige 1937

* Hiroshige 1938

PNB De luxe publications 1939

* Glimpses at Ukiyo e 1940

* Nishiki e 1941

Glimpses at Ukiyo e &

Nishiki e – Souvenir 1942

Glimpses at Ukiyo e &

Nishiki e – Souvenir revised ed. 1943

* Figure Prints of Japan 1948

Australian Book-plates 1950

Fun with Book-plates 1951

Australian Book-plates – Souvenir 1951

P.N. Barnett and his Books 1951

* Japanese Art 1953

  • * Japanese Woodblock Print Books – major works

Woodblock Prints Books

The first book to provide a clue to Barnett‘s interest in woodblock prints from Japan is his book entitled Woodcut Book-plates (1934). As with most of the Barnett books there were three types of editions: the Standard, the De Luxe edition having the same text but with extra plates and, finally, an edition of Author‘s Presentation copies. For Woodcut Book-plates, the three Authors copies were specially printed on Japanese vellum paper with gilt edges.

Woodcut Book-plates traces the history of the woodcut by high-lighting certain points in the development of this art form. A feature of this book is the tipped-in book-plates by a variety of key English artists, artists from the European continent as well as those from the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Bar-nett wrote that European designs were characterised by the turbu-lent history of that continent and so an array of “grim, weird and morbid” designs predominated. By contrast, in Australia and New Zealand “the happier side of life” predominates with designs more tranquil and reflecting optimism for the future.1 The Japanese section of this book starts with the qualification that the true Japanese equivalent of the ex-libris is the seal or han, which was all that was needed to identify either the owner or author of the book.2

It was only with the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1868 and the subsequent vogue for things Western, that the activity of designing, collecting and exchanging bookplates was established in Japan. Organisations were formed such as the Ex-Libris Lovers Society, the Japan Bookplate Society and the Tauch Ex Libris Society. The chapter on Japanese bookplates in Woodcut Book-plates includes some examples from these new Japanese bookplate societies. Barnett extolled the new and novel designs and unusual palette of colours used by the Japanese artists, describing their ex-libris designs as displaying no shadows, or giving illusion of light or shade and as being a representation of an idea as opposed to a true depiction of reality.3 They stand apart from the Western sections that have plates only in black and white or with the occasional colour wash.

It is clear from Barnett‘s papers that he never travelled to Japan, and no doubt he could be easily criticised for simply being an “armchair writer” in his appraisal of Japanese art contained in this book. However, there is evidence to suggest that Barnett had at least first hand contact with two of these Japanese bookplate societies, supported by his statement that all his illustrations for this section of his book were “entirely Japanese in origin”.In a letter Barnett wrote in 1933 he details how he wished to acquire Japanese woodblock prints but that “it was a drawn out process”. His first attempt took two years and the second took eighteen months: we are lucky that he was so keen.It is also interesting to note that Woodcut Book-plates took about nine years to complete, for it lay dormant for five years whilst his 1930, 1931 and 1932 books were written and published.Barnett recommenced his project in August 1933 in a great flurry of activity; his overriding intention was that the book not only be authoritative, but as up to date as possible. As the production of the book entailed writing to owners and artists of bookplates world-wide, the slow couriering of letters by the Post Master General‘s Department [later Australia Post] was a real obstacle and source of frustration to one situated on the “edge of the civilised world”.7

Trilogy of Books

Barnett‘s next project was to produce a trilogy of books on Japanese woodblock prints. The first was Japanese Colour Prints (1936) which is a general text, followed by Colour Prints of Hiroshige (1937), a book which concentrates on landscape prints, and finally the 1948 publication Figure Prints of Japan, a book on portrait prints.The sources that Barnett cited within the text of these books were a small but well-credentialed group of writers who produced works in the first half of this century and included researchers such William Anderson and Ernest Fenollosa.9

Barnett‘s aim was to produce a set of print books along different lines from that produced by the above Western writers. He set out to achieve this by first addressing the process of reproduction used in the books of these writers. Metzgar‘s photo-lithography for instance in his Adventures in Japanese Prints was the most “sympathetic medium” so far according to Barnett, but he wanted to go a step further with the use of facsimile woodblock prints. Barnett‘s papers give the background on how he received a wide range of sample woodblock prints from Japan from which he chose those for insertion into his books. How he gained the initial contacts in Japan is not yet clear. We do know, however, that Barnett had contact with many Australian artists one of whom was Lionel Lindsay, who collected Japanese woodblock prints as early as the 1920s.10

Barnett acquired all the woodblock prints for his books from Tokyo print shops that used unchanged, original processes. Barnett considered his market to be those not yet acquainted with the prints and he wished to entice the purchaser with the look of a “book beautiful”. He was enthused by the urge to share knowledge of the prints that had intrigued and enchanted him over many years.11

Barnett‘s trilogy of Japanese print books excites our interest not only because they are examples of fine and rare books, but also because their creation was so tragically mis-timed. Barnett‘s project was almost abandoned with the restrictions of the Second World War and became a covert activity with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The last hand-mounted book in his trilogy was finally completed in 1948 and released to a war-sensitive public where such a topic was socially unacceptable and therefore a commercial failure. The optimism and enthusiasm of Barnett‘s letters from the pre-war years lapsed into disillusionment about how the combination of the Depression, War and Australia‘s geographical isolation became almost unassailable barriers to his artistic pursuits.12

The first of Barnett‘s books in his trilogy was Japanese Colour Prints (1936), a beautiful folio-sized book with vellum covered spine and linen boards, the title is emblazoned with gilt lettering complete with delicate bamboo-motif decorated end papers. These were especially ordered and imported from Japan. Barnett produced 256 copies of this book comprising Standard, De Luxe and Author‘s Presentation editions.

Barnett qualifies Japanese Colour Prints by stating that there is no intention of voluminous text nor in-depth descriptions of particular artists. His aim was to introduce the history and characteristics of the popular art of ukiyo-e.13 Barnett is unremitting in his praise for these early Japanese woodblock artists. He sets them upon a pedestal and pens homage to “the Eastern artist … a poet giving glimpses of the living spirit …”.14 Barnett refers to Japan as a “nation of artists”, which was a somewhat stereotypical description for those days. The other message that he imparts is that of the decline in the quality of prints: “the epoch is over forever, a cherished memory … “15  Barnett places blame on the West for providing the corrupting influence on the subject matter portrayed in the new wave of prints and chastises Japan for pandering to Western desires.16

Barnett further elaborates on the effects of the opening of Japan to the West whereupon her art treasures became available “to the gaze of Europeans, Americans and Australians and others”.17  One of the pleasing features of the Barnett books is how he localises the text to Australia not only in this book, but in his others as well. One cannot help feeling a bit special with this rare acknowledgment of Australia in an art book from this era; his is one of the few early Australian literary responses to Japanese art.

Barnett classifies woodblock artists from early masters such as Sukenobu (1674-1754) through to Toyokuni III (1786-1864), who was active towards the close of the Edo era (1868). His overview of the artists demonstrates the considerable research he had undertaken in a country on the “edge of the civilised world”. His brief chapter on landscape artists of course highlights Hiroshige and Hokusai. It would seem that Hiroshige was a Barnett favourite, as evidenced by his octavo sized book Hiroshige published in 1938, featuring a lyric poem by Barnett in praise of this masters art.

In a final chapter on “Seals, Signatures and Bookplates” Barnett gives four examples of woodblock prints as bookplates, all of which not surprisingly, depict traditional subjects. The ex-libris for Barnetts secretary, Mabel McQueen, for instance, is of a de-mure geisha after a print by Yeishi. Barnett exhorts the Japanese to follow their artistic traditions and not blindly follow the “riff raff” of Europeans mass production.18  Amongst Barnetts retrieved materials are yearbooks of the Japan Bookplate Society complete with tipped-in woodblock prints of ex-libris. These books provide information on the Japanese ex-libris artists and their prints, which Barnett used in his Japanese Colour Prints. This chapter is Barnetts link back to his interest in Western ex-libris, a subject in which he was recognised as a world expert.19

The second book in Barnetts trilogy was the 1937 Colour Prints of Hiroshige. In terms of dimensions, it was the largest of his books to date (32cm x 45cm) and again featured the vellum and linen cover with the Japanese endpaper, this depicting motifs of Hiroshiges signature. Only 110 copies of this book were produced both Standard and Authors Presentation copies. This edition was dedicated to Alfred C. Davidson, the General Manager of the Bank of New South Wales in George Street, Sydney, where Barnett was employed as the librarian. Letters reveal that Davidson gave invaluable support to Barnetts endeavours, which began through a common interest in bookplates. In the particular copy of the book that I consulted there is a hand written inscription “To my friend William R. Moore 25/9/47”. Moore was most noted for his book The Story of Australian Art (1934) and his connection with the Art in Australia magazine (1916-1942).

Colour Prints of Hiroshige commences with a poem to Hiroshige written by Barnett. He used the metaphor of Christ‘s Ascension in this poem to support his rhapsodising that even after Hiroshige‘s death his art lived on: “Long since [his] earthly task was done [under this] smile of heav‘n … he mounted [and] disap-peared!”20 Barnett described Hiroshige‘s prints as revealing a “unique and penetrating discernment of Nature …”.21 Again a criticism of Barnett may be that such an emotive description may seem undisciplined today. However, Barnett was not an academic or an art critic, he was an artist who pursued and carried through an idea of sharing this art at a time when Australia was in the cultural doldrums.

Barnett again valorises Hiroshige in this book with claims such as “if the great explorers, Columbus, Drake, Vasco de Gama, Magellan, Anson and Cook had had the services of Hiroshige to pictorially capture their exploits, their voyages would long live in the memory of all”.22 As with all the Barnett books, it is the tipped-in prints that provide the uniqueness. In Colour Prints of Hiroshige print facsimiles taken from all the famous series are there, The Tokaido, Eight Views of the Environs of Yedo, Kisokaido Series, Eight Views of Lake Biwa and the Provinces Series. Further cop-ies of these prints remain in his “stockpile”.

One of the later chapters on the life of Hiroshige gives the impression of an heroic lifestyle and lofty aspirations (higher than mere mortals). Evidence suggests that Barnett did not read Japanese, but had ready access to a range of English language books about Japanese woodblock prints. Although Barnett‘s style of de-scribing Hiroshige‘s life may seem overly poetic, the key facts he relates of his life are reasonably correct for that period. For example, the facts contained in Professor Yone Noguchi‘s Hiroshige, a 1934 book on Hiroshige‘s life, are not too dissimilar.23

Finally, Barnett devoted a whole chapter of this book to the “Fifty–three Stations on the Tokaido Road” series. There is evidence which supports the opinion that he could have seen the full set in their oban size (38x 26 cm) from an early stage, as he wrote that he had seen “enough Japanese woodblock prints to know collectors will like them”.24 He was in early correspondence with Sir John Latham. Latham was President of the Japan-Australia Society, a social and cultural organisation in Melbourne, and may have seen a set through him.

The last book in Barnett‘s trilogy was Figure Prints of Japan, finally published in 1948. In the years leading to the Pacific War the prints could no longer be obtained. The book‘s delay was compounded by the rationing of other necessary materials. Unfortunately, its scope had to be made more general than specialist but, upon reading the book, it is the prints at which one marvels. As with his previous book, its dimensions are large format (32cm x 45cm), as the intention was to display the prints in full oban size. Still featured are the vellum and linen cover with the Japanese endpaper, this time with an ukiyo-e print as part of the design. Only 100 copies of this book were published: Standard, De Luxe and Author‘s Presentation copies.

Within the book are examples of the classic prints by Harunobu and Shunsho and of work by the latter artists including Kiyonaga, Utamaro, Eishi and Choki. The book even includes a (benign) actor print by Sharaku, about whom Barnett declares that it was Sharaku‘s fierce actor prints that pushed the decline of woodblock prints.25 Figure Prints of Japan was dedicated to Barnett‘s print-ers at Beacon Press in Sydney, Harrie Mortlock and Gavin Dunn, who were fellow ex-libris enthusiasts. There is a small quotation on the dedication page which says “Fleeting shadows on the shoji – angel visitants”. The quotation was actually inspired by a Tokyo published book from Barnett‘s personal collection entitled Shadows on the Shoji.26

Barnett‘s previous themes of valorising the Japanese artist as unique and bemoaning “the decadence in style and quality [of woodblock prints] in the early part of last century” are unfortunately still an integral aspect of the text of Figure Prints of Japan – twelve years on from his first woodblock book in 1936.27 However, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, Barnett was the last of the class of Western art writers and purveyors who looked upon the Edo period of Japanese woodblock prints in awe and with a sense of intrigue for things Japanese. It is the new generation of Western scholars and writers such as Jack Hillier, Richard Lane, Helen Merrit, Julia Meech-Pekarik and Richard Illing who are tackling the same subject, but in diverse and broader ways.

The key points to appreciate about Barnett are that his books still stand out as works of art compared to work of other experts of his time, that his style exudes enthusiasm which is infectious and that at the end of the day he did indeed create the “book beautiful”.

Diane Krall


  • 1   Neville P. Barnett. Woodcut Book-plates. De Luxe ed. Sydney: Bea-con Press, 1934, p.235.
  • 2   Op. cit., pp.164-65.
  • 3   Op. cit., p.169.
  • 4   Op. cit., p.173. Amongst Barnett‘s papers are pre-printed mail labels in both Japanese and English for the Japan Bookplate Society and the Tauch Ex Libris Society.
  • 5   [, 1941-1963 #367] Barnett letter to H.B. Muir 19 September, 1933.
  • 6   Neville P. Barnett. Woodcut Book-plates Souvenir. Author‘s specimen copy ed. Sydney: Beacon Press, 1934, p.19.
  • 7   Op. cit., p.17.
  • 8   Neville P. Barnett. Figure Prints of Japan. De Luxe ed. Sydney: Bea-con Press, 1948.
  • 9   Other source references included Arthur Ficke, Basil Stewart, Lawrence Binyon, W. Von Seidlitz, E.F. Strange, Sherard Osborn Julius Kurth, Louise Brown and Lafcadio Hearn.
  • 10   Joanna Mendelssohn. Lionel Lindsay. An Artist and His Family. Lon-don: Chatto & Windus, 1988, p.149.
  • 11   Neville P. Barnett. Figure Prints of Japan. De Luxe ed. Sydney: Bea-con Press, 1948, pp.17-19.
  • 12   Neville P. Barnett. Souvenir of Glimpses of Ukiyo-ye and Nishiki-e Brocade Prints of Japan. Authors ed. Sydney: T.V. Bennet and Co., 1942, p.11.
  • 13   Neville P. Barnett. Japanese Colour Prints. Standard ed. Sydney: Beacon Press, 1936, p.61.
  • 14   Op. cit., p.35.
  • 15   Op. cit., p.19.
  • 16   Op. cit., pp.98-99.
  • 17   Op. cit., p.19.
  • 18   Op. cit., p.119.
  • 19   “Publisher of Rare Books. New Zealand Author‘s Artistic Hobby” New Zealand Free Lance, 28 April, 1948, p.18. This article mentions Barnett as an international expert in ex-libris. It is one example of a number of such references.
  • 20   Neville P. Barnett. Colour Prints of Hiroshige. De Luxe ed. Sydney: Beacon Press, 1937, pp.20-21.
  • 21   Op. cit., p.29.
  • 22   Op. cit., p.81.
  • 23   Yone Noguchi. Hiroshige. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1934.
  • 24   [, 1941-1963 #367] Letter to H.B. Muir 19 September, 1933.
  • 25   Barnett, Figure Prints of Japan, p.43.
  • 26   Charlene Balcom. Shadows on the Shoji. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1939.
  • 27   Barnett, Figure Prints of Japan, p.51.


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