The Heritage of Hiroshige

Heritage of Hiroshige cover
Cover of “The Heritage of Hiroshige” with Japanese-style binding

Japanese connoisseurs are inclined to wonder at the fast-growing demand in the Occident for good examples of the art of ukiyo-ye color printing. Why, they ask, should Americans and Europeans pay great prices for these prints when, for a little more money and the expenditure of a little more pains, they can buy original paintings—if not the very greatest artists, at least men whose productions are above the mediocre?

It is a curious little problem, but the solution is by no means difficult. We collect Japanese prints for the same reason that many of us prefer a coin of Syracuse to a relief by Phidias, Botticelli’s lovely drawings of children to his paintings, the Great Anthology to Oedipus, the Vita Nuova to the Divine Comedy. We love these things because they are simpler, nearer to ourselves than the masterpieces, because we cannot understand the greatest things.

Heritage of Hiroshige cover back
Back cover of “Heritage of Hiroshige”, with roundel of a dragonfly

The San Francisco firm of Paul Elder & Co. has obtained an enviable reputation by its publications of illustrated works on Japanese art.

So wrote reviewer “L. C.” in the New York Times on 15 September 1912 about Dora Amsden’s Heritage of Hiroshige. The book tells the story of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) as seen through the art collection of John Stewart Happer (1863-1936). For Dora Amsden (1853-1947), it was her second work on Japanese art for Paul Elder, following Impressions of Ukiyo-ye in 1905.

This is a very handsome book, and the paper, binding, and art reproductions are high-quality. Although Elder was known for skimping on production costs for many of his books, he clearly did not do so here. Two different bindings are known (see photos).

Heritage of Hiroshige cover2
Alternate binding for “The Heritage of Hiroshige”

L. C. finishes his Times review with a bleak portrait of Japan in 1912:

There is something very saddening about these books, now appearing so frequently, dealing with the old arts of Japan. It was only a little over a half a century ago that Hiroshige died, and in that half century Japan has become a “great power”—and has lost her arts, her poetry, her romance, and her happiness. Some Japanese are trying to organize a “revival” of the ancient arts of their country. It is a vain hope, a beating of the wind. Modern “civilization” acts on art and on romance as a biting acid on a delicate substance, a miasma that withers and destroys. A hundred years ago the Japanese, despite the suppressions of the feudal system, were undoubtedly the happiest people in the world. Today the factories in their cities grind hundreds of thousands into neurasthenia and death more pitilessly than any cotton mill in the Southern United States. They are paying for their “progress”—and they are paying dear.

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Title page of “The Heritage of Hiroshige”
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“The Heritage of Hiroshige” p8-9
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“The Heritage of Hiroshige” p36-7. The image is the well-known memorial portrait of Hiroshige by Kunisada

On the Laws of Japanese Painting

Laws of Japanese Painting cover
Cover of "On the Laws of Japanese Painting"

One of the little joys of researching obscure century-old books is when the equally obscure author suddenly springs to life. So it was with Henry P. Bowie, author of On the Laws of Japanese Painting, published by Paul Elder in 1911.

The book is a more than just the laws of Japanese painting; it also discusses calligraphy, ink, animal and vegetable sources for different colors, signature seals, and even how to properly view the artwork (from a distance of one tatami mat, and not from a standing position). There are 65 plates (a very high number for an Elder publication). The production doesn’t quite measure up to the content: the typography feels too ‘industrial’ and printer John Bernhardt Swart peppers the text with florid ‘st’ and ‘ct’ ligatures.

Henry Pike Bowie (1848-1921) was born in Maryland, but his family moved to San Francisco soon afterwards. He studied law with the attorney Hall McAllister (after whom McAllister street in San Francisco is named). He seems to have done well for himself as a lawyer, but did even better for himself as a husband: in 1879 he married the wealthy and twice-widowed Agnes Poett Howard, retired from the law, and went to live with her at her estate “El Cerrito” in Hillsborough.

Laws of Japanese Painting title
Title page of "On the Laws of Japanese Painting"

In the 1880s, Henry and Agnes approached Makoto Hagiwara to build a garden and tea house on their estate. (Hagiwara would later design the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 1894 California International Midwinter Exposition. He is also often credited with introducing America to the fortune cookie.) They named their garden Higurashi-en, meaning “a garden worthy of a day’s contemplation.” Among the signature plants is a silver-green, five-needled Mikado pine, said to be given to Bowie by Emperor Meiji. (The estate was subdivided long ago but the garden still exists at 70 De Sabla Road in San Mateo, although much reduced in size. The current owners purchased the neglected property in 1988 and have gradually restored it. The garden is now on the National Register of Historic Places.)

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"Laws of Japanese Painting", page 1. The headband shows flowers and leaves of the peony.

When Agnes died in 1893, Henry Bowie took a trip to Japan, and enjoyed it so much he returned the next year. It was a turning point in his life: Bowie would subsequently live in Japan for extensive periods and become fluent in Japanese. He studied many aspects of Japanese culture, including painting and the Shinto religion. In 1905 Bowie co-founded the Japan Society of Northern California and served as the society’s first president (the other co-founder was David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University). In 1909, Bowie dedicated a memorial gate in the garden, designed by Sekko Shimada and Suikichi Yagi, and built by Japanese craftsmen brought over specifically for the project. The gate was designed to honor the valor of Japanese sailors and soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.

In 1918, he sailed for Japan as special emissary of the U.S. Department of State. Shortly after returning in 1921, Bowie fell ill and died at the age of 72. When his will was read, all were shocked to learn that half the estate was left to his wife Komako Hirano, and his two sons Imao and Taweo. No one in California knew that Bowie had married and started a second family in Japan—although it was common knowledge in Japan and the Japanese newspapers ran prominent obituaries. Bowie’s stepson George Howard unsuccessfully contested the will in 1922.

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"Laws of Japanese Painting", page 6-7. The design is leaves of the icho plant, placed in books to prevent bookworms.
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"Laws of Japanese Painting", page 46-7. The art is the pattern known as "bamboo and the swelling sparrow"


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"Laws of Japanese Painting", plates X and XI

Impressions of Ukiyo-ye

Impressions Ukiyo-ye cover
Cover of “Impressions of Ukiyo-ye”. At lower right are three kanji that read “ukiyo-ye”; followed by a tomoye with a ‘roof’, which has no meaning.

Japonisme was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, and Paul Elder’s carefully constructed bookstore-as-art-object was, in many ways, built upon the Japonisme sensibility. Dora Amsden’s Impressions of Ukiyo-ye was the first of several Elder publications about the art of Japan block printing. First published in serial form in Elder’s house magazine Impressions Quarterly between September 1902 and December 1903, it was reissued in book form in 1905. Elder was no doubt satisfied with the double entendre “Impressions,” suggesting both hazy romantic views of Japan as well as the physical image of a printer pressing his paper to the stone.

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) means “pictures of the floating world,” and refers to a style of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings from 17th- to 19th-century Japan. The subject matter is often landscapes, historical scenes and folktales, kabuki theatre, sumo wrestlers, birds in the trees, and, of course, attractive women. Ukiyo-e had a huge effect on the West’s notion of Japanese art in the late 19th century. In particular, the French Impressionist movement was strongly influenced by Japonisme.

Impressions Ukiyo-ye title
Title page of “Impressions of Ukiyo-ye”

Impressions of Ukiyo-ye is bound in a Japanese style, with visible external cording on the spine. The book uses thin rice paper, printed on one side only with the pairs of leaves left unopened. Plates of ukiyo-ye scenes are inserted on white coated stock. The papers covering the inside of the boards contain pulped bark, a method that Elder used on several occasions.

Amsden’s book was notable enough to warrant a review in the New York Times Book Review of 8 July 1905. However, reviewer Charles De Kay was not overly impressed: “Miss Amsden has good-will and certainly is far removed from the ordinary denseness which fails to understand an alien point of view; yet it can scarcely be said that she offers a new departure in the estimate of Japanese art.”

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“Impressions of Ukiyo-ye”, page 44

I can find little information about Dora Amsden (11 Jun 1853-12 Jun 1947). Her brother Charles Watson Jackson was the brother-in-law of Thomas Dykes Beasley, who wrote Paul Elder’s book A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country. Dora is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.

"Impressions of Ukiyo-Ye" with presentation box
“Impressions of Ukiyo-Ye” with presentation box. Photo courtesy of Michael D. Panaro Books.


In Japanese mythology and folklore, Ebisu (恵比須) is the Japanese god of fishermen, workingmen and good luck, and is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. Although slightly lame and deaf, he is happy and auspicious. He is often displayed with Daikokuten and Fukurokuju, two more of the Seven Gods of Fortune, in shopkeeper windows.

Paul Elder published this doggerel about Ebisu exactly 100 years ago, as a greeting for the Christmas season of 1910. It is a large format piece—25″ wide—that folds in thirds to a 8.5 x 10″ finished size. Cutouts reveal photographs of the front and back of a pottery Ebisu figure. It’s unclear whether Elder also sold the figurines along with the greeting.

The poet was William O’Connell McGeehan (1879-1933) a sportswriter and editor of the New York Herald Tribune. He wrote primarily about boxing (which he euphemistically called “the manly art of modified murder” or “The Cauliflower Industry”). The Herald Tribune sent McGeehan to Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 to cover the famous John Scopes trial, no doubt sensing a metaphorical boxing match between the attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. McGeehan had written Ebisu long before, while he and his wife, journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell, were still reporters for newspapers in San Francisco.

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Title page of “Ebisu”
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W. O. McGeehan’s poem “Ebisu”
Ebisu p4
Ebisu sculpture, with more poetry
Ebisu p5
Back of Ebisu sculpture, with more poetry