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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Horses Of Soma

( Original Published 1913 )



A netsuke, a tsuba, a colour-printed woodcut, and a bowl rest on the writing-table near me, and each represents a horse.

Consider the bowl; it is Soma ware; it was made in Soma; Soma was a Principality of the old feudal Japan. The Princes of Soma were great hereditary Daimos ; Daimos were the territorial noblemen of the bygone Japan. The Prince of Soma's crest, device, or blazon-one cannot call it a coat of arms-was a horse. And therefore Soma porcelain and pottery display, in relief or painted, upon their rough, indented, outer surface, a horse as a mark. Sometimes the horse grazes, sometimes it bucks ; sometimes, tied to one short post or between two posts, it kicks up its hind legs viciously.

Should you come across a bit of " Oriental " marked with the Soma horse, better purchase it cheaply, while you can. While you can, I say, for good old Japanese ware is being more and more collected.

The Netsuke. I take up the netsuke; notice the two holes in it ; they are short channels or, rather, tunnels, through which a string was passed; in use, the netsuke a little resembled the block upon the cordage of a pulley. This particular netsuke is of wood, and was carved into the shape of a grazing horse by some artistic serf at Soma at least a hundred and fifty years ago. The patina or polish shows that it was long in use; and because of that, the fine carving of it, and the material being hard old wood, it belongs to the class of netsukes most desirable to collect. Pray do not suppose, beginner, that the brand-new elaborate things seen by the dozen in pawnbrokers' windows or " imitation shops " are the proper kind; or even the small, dirty-brown bone things, which seem to have been used by dirty people. Beware, too, of imitation netsukes, neither wood, nor ivory, nor bone, but moulded celluloid; these are too light-weight for ivory, and you may also detect them by the line down the sides which marks a joining, due to the use of the back and front parts of the mould. New Japan is forging counterfeits of old Japanese works of art, so beware !

The Soma man who carved the horse netsuke took a root of boxwood, or wood like box, cut off four thin shoots just above the root or stem, and utilised the four stumps for the legs, just where they joined the bit of root, which he shaped into the head, tail, and body of the horse. A Japanese visitor picked this out as the best of my small collection ; yet it cost me only five shillings in the Fulham Road.

The Tsuba. I picked the sword-guard out of a score, at a shop in the City, price nine-and-sixpence ; it is plain iron. But the art in it! The Soma craftsman cut it out of hard iron-you can see the marks of the knife in it, so to speak. A horse and its halter-rope, that is the subject ; the horse is bucking, much as Buffalo Bill's bronchos used to do at Olympia; the four hoofs are all in the air together, and the rope, curling round and under them, completes the circular shape of the sword-guard.

Note that fine, antique, carved iron tsubas are more sought for by Japanese connoisseurs than the later and more ornate sword-guards, inlaid with gold, silver, or copper. But again beware! Collecting is more than ever becoming a science of skilled detection. In an " art shop " the other day I spied some scores of what purported to be iron tsubas, turned into paper-weights, clips, and so forth, on sale at eighteenpence each. For eighteenpence you are offered an iron tsuba, smeared over with gilt or silver-bronze paint, and decorated by a filed-out flower ornament embossed, and riveted on. And " Aren't they selling, though! " the shoprnan said, when I questioned their origin. " Six dozen, at least, I've sold this very day."

I examined what were left ; they were not even the common cast-iron tsubas used in the degenerate days of fifty years ago, just before the Japanese ceased to wear side-arms. They were rough imitations, stamped out of soft iron by machinery-thin, fragile, and never filed, chiselled, and finished in the ancient craftsmanlike way. They are worthless and offensive counterfeits; but people are buying them; I don't believe they ever even saw Japan. But presently, with the embossed ornament taken off, when the bronze paint has worn dull, they will be selling in curio-shops to the unwary -no manner of doubt about that.

The Print. And so are modern reprints of Japanese woodcuts, as foul in colour as photographic copies of Morland and Bartolozzi prints. In the real thing now before me the Soma horse appears. It was drawn by Tsukioka Tange, an artist who lived during 1717-1786 ; the wood-engraver was Yoshimi Nyeimon, and the print was published in 1762. The Japanese lettering tells that, and the prancing horse-a rare feature in Japanese prints-suggests that the artist belonged to the suzerainty of Soma. What an artist he was ! The horse prances, the Prince leans out from the saddle with lifted whip, and the serf shrinks and scuttles away from the blow. It is all in motion, it is all alive.