The Vault

A 19th-Century Japanese View of London, by an Artist Who’d Never Been There

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Utagawa Yoshitora’s 1866 prints “Igirisukoku Rondon no zu” form a triptych view of London. Together, the three images depict a street scene near the River Thames, complete with thronging English pedestrians, two sailing ships, horses, oxen, and carriages.

The images would have sold fairly cheaply, in the thriving market in woodblock (ukiyo-e) prints in 19th-century Japan. Utagawa, a relatively minor artist from an extensive lineage of woodblock printers, also produced portraits of Kabuki actors, triptychs of historical battle scenes, and images of foreigners in Yokohama—one of the only places in Japan where they were allowed to trade at the time. (Here’s an 1861 print titled “Two Americans.”) Utagawa probably did not visit London, and was instead working from secondhand reports.

Curator Dan McKee writes of the dominance of the Utagawa lineage in the printmaking field at this time: “Ukiyo-e printmakers who were not related to the Utagawa School in the nineteenth century were the exception, not the rule.” While Utagawa prints have historically been disparaged for a “cluttered” compositional style, “a figural stereotype that was inelegant, oversimplified in line and false in detail and posture,” McKee writes that recent reassessments have reclaimed the prints, which were hugely commercially successful in their time.

Utagawa Yoshitora was active during the last few decades of ukiyo-e’s popularity. “There is a certain poignancy to the enthusiasm with which the [Utagawa] artists portrayed the foreign influence,” writes artist and art historian Rebecca Salter, “because it was the arrival of imported print technology which ultimately took away their livelihood.”

I first saw mention of this triptych on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog. 

The three images, arranged as a triptych. 

Library of Congress. 

Left image. 

Library of Congress. 

Middle image. 

Library of Congress. 

Right image. 

Library of Congress.