Word and image are combined here to create a poem-picture in the classical style. Two phrases (kurete yuku and shirane domo) allude to a waka [Japanese poem] included in the Shin Kokinwakashu [New Collection of Ancient and Modern Verse]:
haru no minato wa
kasumi ni otsuru
Uji no shibabune
As spring comes to an end
I don’t know where it is going
But now I feel it is like
the faggot-laden boats tumbling
into the mist on the Uji River
The imagery on the box complements the poem. On the lid, for example, low hills are shrouded in bands of mist. Cherry trees have begun to lose their petals and bundles of faggots lie on the ground, waiting to be shipped downstream. The Uji River in Kyoto, indicated by the familiar bridge on the front of the box, runs around all four sides. The image of brushwood-laden boats is realised in three-dimensional form as shakudo attachments drifting on the river on both of the long sides.
The poem is by Jakuren (ca. 1139-1202), a Buddhist priest and classical poet who helped compile the Shin Kokinshu, the eighth Imperial poetry anthology, completed in 1205. His lay name was Sadanaga, and he was adopted as a child by his uncle, the famous court poet Fujiwara no Toshinari (Shunzei). Eventually he took holy orders, but throughout his life he remained active in court poetry gatherings and also travelled extensively. His best poems evoke sabi [an atmosphere of loneliness] and he is thought to have written some of the most memorable verses of his day.
The maker of this present box Ogawa Shomin was born in Edo in 1847 as Keijiro, the son of a metalworker named Chuzo. He was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to the maki-e specialist Nakayama Komin (1808-1870), becoming independent in 1868. He studied briefly with the Rimpa painter Ikeda Koson (1801-1866). He later used several go (art names) including Seishu, Seiami and Hakuan. He exhibited a piece of lacquer at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. He was awarded the Ryumonsho [dragon prize] at the first Domestic Industrial Exposition of 1877 and the Myogisho [exquisite technique prize] class three at the second Exposition of 1881. Around this time, after viewing the collection of the Shosoin in Nara, the 8th century repository of objects dedicated to the Emperor Shomu (701-756), he became interested in reviving classical lacquer styles and played an active role in the mid-Meiji revival of traditional lacquers. He was further commissioned in 1882 by the Japanese government Museums Department to make a copy of the 12th century National Treasure Katawaguruma makie tebako [a tebako with ox cartwheels in a stream] now in the collection of Tokyo National Museum. In 1888, his similar work won the silver medal in the Nihon bijutsu kyokai [Japanese art association] exhibition in Tokyo and was acquired by the Imperial Household. In 1890, Shomin became the first head of the lacquer department when the Tokyo School of Fine Arts was founded. At about the same time he was also one of thirty leading lacquer artists who helped found the Japan Lacquer Industry Society with the idea of improving the standards of their craft.
A similar example previously in the collection of the Meiji Emperor was sold in Christie’s New York, 17 Sept. 1997, lot 222. This is published in Stephen Little and Edmund J. Lewis, View of the Pinnacle: Japanese Lacquer Writing Boxes: The Lewis Collection of Suzuribako, (Honolulu, 2011), p. 190-193, no. 74. Other works by Shomin are in the collections of museums including the Tokyo National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.