‘Hokusai’s Great Wave: Reflections of Japan’

Celebrating centuries of cultural and artistic exchange between Japan and the west. During 2020, exciting new research was undertaken into the traditional woodcut Japanese prints in the Worcester City collection. This research has revealed more about the artists and stories behind the Japanese characters and scenes depicted. The exhibition explores the impact of traditional Japanese techniques, style and motifs not only on western art but on one of Worcester’s most famous exports – Royal Worcester Porcelain. This exhibition was made possible with a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.



Japanese Woodblock Prints in the Worcester City Collection

Scroll through the image prints above.

Japanese Woodblock prints – ukiyo-e – were popular affordable artworks, produced in large quantities for the citizens of Japan’s bustling and vibrant cities, reflecting the lives, interests and favourite entertainments of the ordinary people. Popular subjects include Kabuki actors, illustrations of well-known tales, city views, and beautiful women. Although they were not considered to be Fine Art when they were made, once they started to appear in the West in the late nineteenth century, these images caused a sensation. They were unlike anything ever seen before, and gave immense inspiration to artists, designers and craftspeople of the period.

Ukiyo-e were cheap, mass-produced artworks, mostly bought by the urban classes for home decoration. They were commercially made in workshops – the artist would create the design, then the publisher’s team of craftsmen would carve the blocks and carry out the printing. It was collaborative work, and artist, woodblock cutter and printer were all seen as artisans rather than artists. The artists’ names and the names of the schools that trained them were something like modern brands. Different schools produced different types and ranges of prints, and the artists often took the name of the school as part of their own name, in the manner of a brand.

The ukiyo-e in the Worcester City collection mostly date from the early to mid nineteenth century. Many are by artists from the Utagawa school, which was the most successful ukiyo-e school of the day, training a large number of artists, and characterised by vivid colourful prints of beautiful women, battle scenes, and Kabuki actors. It is not known how they were acquired or who collected them, but the likelihood is that they entered the collection in the 1870s when all things Japanese were fashionable and exciting, with a style and composition unlike anything seen in the West before. There was an intense desire among art-lovers and art students to see some of these images for real.

Jump into Japan Trail

Join us on the Jump into Japan Trail

How well do you know Japan? Find out if you’re an expert with our fun, fiendish quiz. Look for 8 anime characters hiding in the museum. Each one holds an answer to one of the questions on your sheet. Match the number on your activity sheet with the number on the anime character cards, and write in your answer. £1 per trail, no booking required. A downloadable version of the trail sheet is available here.

Activity Sheet 1
Activity Sheet 2

Kids will be able to search around the gallery spaces for answer cards, and will receive a prize for completing the trail sheet. Follow the link below for the page of our current Superhero trail – you’ll see that there’s an option to download a digital version of the trail sheet, or purchase one for £1 in the MAG gallery.