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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Clinch Of The Blade

( Original Published 1913 )



The finest ornamental metal-work ever done in the world was the tsubas, or sword-guards, made in Japan between the years 1586 and 1868. The word " tsuba " is short for " tsumiba," which meant " the thing which clinches the blade." And " tsuhamono " is a derivative, which came to mean a " man-at-arms."

The sword-guards made during the warlike period in Japan (from the date of the Norman Conquest here to the time of Drake) were simple, and little decorated. The blade was then the important thing. In the icy steel born of fire the Samurai beheld the mystery of life coming out of death. The sword was the symbol of honour and manliness. In its unclouded sheen they recognised the purity and chastity of the loyal. The most precious dowry a bride could bring was the honoured sword of her ancestors, and some old Japanese dramas had their plot in the quest and recovery of such a blade.

A Samurai's sword was part of his personality; Taiko-Hideyoshi, the Japanese Napoleon, saw the swords of his generals lying on a table in the antechamber of his room, and so expressed was the individuality that he could recognise to whom each sword belonged. Next in importance to the blade itself came the tsuba.

The Choice to Collect.-I began to pick up Japanese sword-guards years before I could know anything about them scientifically, by distinguishing periods and styles. It is difficult even now for one who is no Orientalist to do that. Books on the subject are so few and poor that one has to study them intuitively, and divine more than they tell. The sword-guards one sees for sale over here almost all belong to the modern period-that is between the years 1586 and 1868. In the latter year Japan began to Europeanise herself, and soon after that came an Imperial edict prohibiting swords from being worn. The tsuba then became a thing of the past, and tsuba-making is a dead art now.

You can take your choice between collecting the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century tsubas, steel, perforated, and little decorated in relief, or collecting late seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century tsubas, the ornaments which clinched the blades of swords for dress and parade. Or you can pick up examples of each sort, which is what I do myself. You will avoid the clumsy, common things detached from Japanese " Tommies' " swords that were worn in the sixties of last century-cast-iron things, small or smallish, not hammered into strength or wrought into beauty, but at the best embossed a little with vague and rusty designs.

These, or imitations of them, too flimsy to take in anybody, surely, are the sort that are being sold in " Japanese art " shops in London to-day for a shilling or eighteenpence apiece ; but these futile counterfeits are almost the only forgeries yet performed.

The Earlier Sort.-They are steel, the earlier sort, and perforated ; they are not heavy ; a heavy, solid tsuba concentrated the concussion of a blow near itself, and the blade was likely to snap at the hilt. Although they are all perforated, more or less-that is, the ornament and the design of the ornament largely consist in omission--the designs were free, they gradually became more elaborate, and they show on the unperforated portions of the tsuba some ornament in relief or inlay. Undercutting, and carving of the edges of the perforations, began late during this period; never cast aside a tsuba which suggests that the iron has been carved by a pocket-knife as if it were wood.

The Later Sort.-These date from 1688 onward. War no longer raged, steel was no longer essential, soft iron could be used, and also copper, brass, and amalgams, as the material of a tsuba ; so that the metal and colour of a tsuba help you to assign it a date. Colour became an important element in the workmanship, and all possible alloys were used to give hues. " Picture-style " and " colour-painting," names given by the Japanese to tsuba styles of this period, suggest the striving after pictorial effect. Inlaying and chasing imitated brush-strokes, and even landscape; never neglect a tsuba which shows Fusiyama, the sacred volcano, in the background-to collect " Fusiyama " tsubas would be a capital short " line." About the middle of the eighteenth century they began to inlay tsubas with precious stones, and coral even ; until then the inlay had been gold, silver, copper, and brass. From the late eighteenth century until the end in 1868, there was artistic decadence, though still wonderful workmanship; effect was too much striven after, the material became unimportant, and all grew to be over-loaded and bizarre, unsuitable for clinching a blade.