Ichinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba

Ichinomiya Nagatsune

periodMid Edo (ca. 1780)
designationNBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu Tsuba
Echizen no Daijo Minamoto Nagatsune (kao)
dimensions7.4 cm x 7.2 cm
price -sold-

What Somin is in the East, Nagatsune is in the West. Traditional Japanese saying

Ichinomiya Nagatsune is one of the all-time greats in the manufacture of sword fittings. His name has been handed down with renown as one of the three great masters of Kyoto, and he was a peer in time, skill and style to Yokoya Somin. Somin's development of katakiri-bori was paralleled by Nagatsune who advanced the art form and applied various embellishments of colored metals to what would otherwise be monochrome katakiri-bori designs. For this use of a variety of metals he is quite famous, and we need to remember that at his time this was pioneering work that was breaking free from the traditional and dominant styles of the Goto school which catered to the taste of the daimyo.

His favorite style was katakiribori with gold, silver, and copper. In particular, his katakiribori with a bright color hirazogan technique is different from Somin’s katakiribori work, and this is Nagatsune’s original style [i.e. Nagatsune invented it]. Iida Toshihisa, NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Nagatsune was born to the civilian name Kashiwaya Chuhachi, and his father was a sake brewer. His training began with simple metal gilding under a silversmith named Nagayoshi. After this, he advanced to study painting and tosogu manufacture. His lineage traces back through his various teachers to the Goto main line, connecting at Goto Kojo.

In 1719, in Kyoto,was born one of the finest chasers of Japanese metal-work, Nagatsune, who was the founder of the Ichinomiya School. At first apprenticed to a metal gilder, he later became a pupil of Takanaga (Yasui) and Furukawa Yoshinaga. His early work is signed Setsuzan. Not only was he a very clever tsuba maker and producer of the smaller sword-fittings, but he also was a painter, having studied under Maruyama Okyo and Ishida Yutei. He evidently did not expend all of his skill in glyptic art on sword-mounts, for G. Jacoby, H. Joly, and S. Hara all mention a cover which he made for a brazier (shuro) sent by the daimyo of Tsuchima to the king of Korea, who in turn offered it to K‘ien-lung, the Chinese emperor. Helen Gunsaulus, Japanese Sword Mounts in the Collections of Field Museum

Ichinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba Box 2

Though Ms. Gunsaulus put his place of birth in Kyoto, it rather seems to be Suruga in Echizen province and 1721 rather than 1719. When he began his career in fittings manufacture he used the name Setsuzan and later changed to Nagatsune. There are 34 Juyo examples of his work today, and three of those have this early signature. The Kinko Meikan ranks him at Meiko, which is the second from topmost ranking.

Nagatsune received two titles in his life, first was Echizen no Daijo around his 50th year of life (ca. 1771). This was subsequently upgraded to Echizen no Kami though when the second was granted is not clear and this particular bit of information is hard to verify as he was still signing with Daijo a year before he died. For fittings makers this is very unusual to receive such titles, and is typically something associated with sword makers.

He used various materials but in particular he was a master of shibuichi, which takes its name from the ratio of silver to copper (one in four). Shibuichi can be made with a fairly wide range in this ratio, and when formed well and patinated reveals a gorgeous crystalline structure which gives the base a beauty that is very different from the dark black of good shakudo.

The renowned collector Mitsumura Toshimo greatly respected Nagatsune and accumulated over 30 works by this maker. They are otherwise rarely seen and highly sought after.

Nagatsune's Charming Animals
Nagatsune's Charming Animals

[Nagatsune] learned the art of sketching from Ishida Yotei who was a student of the famous Maruyama Okyo, and his outstanding talent is demonstrated in his paintings and sketchbooks he left. As described in the dictionary of Japanese painters published in 1927, he amused the public by sketching bamboo shoot, horsetail, snail, frog, etc. Later when he became more skillful in drawing, he begun to depict dragon, lion, and people in his uniquely clever ways. His depiction of people was particularly excellent of movement, and his best favorite was small animals.

Nagatsune's specialty technique-wise was takabori-iroe to begin with; he also combined low relief (usunikubori) and iroe and/or zogan, or katakiribori, which he was really good at, and successfully applied a kind of brush painting technique to produce a variety of darkness of ink to the metal surface by means of carving. It should be noted in this connection that katakiribori was innovated by Yokoya Somin who was a most outstanding master artisan in the middle of the Edo period. The innovator used the new technique all by itself, whereas Nagatsune combined it with flat inlay using gold, silver, and shakudo to add more ornamental elements to his work. Kashima Susumu, Token Bijutsu

At the beginning of his creative life, Nagatsune signed with the mei Setsuzan (雪山). After this when he switched to Nagatsune, he seems to have signed using block script first. Over time if we look at examples we can see an evolution where he begins signing partially in grass script (just the tsune character at first), then both characters of his name, and then in what seems to be the final example of his life he signed the entire thing in more flowing characters. I can't find any examples of the block script that don't include Echizen no Daijo. Nagatsune seems to have varied his signature a lot over time, and it's not absolutely clear if he stuck to block or grass script as a rule for certain periods. There are dated grass script mei from the very end of his life and a couple years before that, but also block script that comes between them. And the name change from Setsuzan to Nagatsune remains an open question. As some Setsuzan works show his fully developed character and skill, it may be that the reception of the title corresponds to his name change. Some books have it that the niji partial grass script forms of the first type are earlier work than the block script. We do know though that he mixed up his signatures after this point from the dated signatures.

Nagatsune Mei Variations
Nagatsune Mei Variations

Nagatsune left behind a sketchbook with a vast array of ideas and designs, to which he would annotate how he intended to sign a piece along with the various materials and inlays that would be required. The last great master and possibly the best of them all was Kano Natsuo was in the possession of this sketchbook, and he derived much of his inspiration from Nagatsune and copied his katakiri-bori technique and designs. The sketchbook has luckily survived and copies are available for purchase today.

It can be summarized that Natsuo first learned from earlier masterful works as well as from works of more recent masters of various schools such as Goto, Yokoya and Nara. He also studied the works of Kono Haruaki, Goto Ichijo, and Toryusai Kiyotoshi, and mastered the best of different workmanships to establish his own style and school. It seems obvious that Natsuo's utmost respect was gained by Ichinomiya Nagatsune because he was found to have owned the basic design sketch book drawn by Nagatsune. NBTHK Token Bijutsu English

In particular, [Natsuo] admired Nagatsune’s work, and collected his sketch books, and he supposedly studied these all of the time. This kozuka uses Nagatsune’s special style which has a one quarter polished surface or ji, and has katakiri-bori, and he used all kinds of colors with a gold hirazogan (high inlay) technique. This shows Nagatsune’s elegant style, and has Natsuo’s famed empty spaces, and has simple sharp curves, and this shows poetic and fantasy images. Iida Toshihisa, NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Nagatsune died in 1786 at the age of 66, leaving behind fantastic works, many of which display a whimsical sense of humor on top of his pioneering style and great skill.

Ichinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba OrigamiIchinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba Shifuku

Tokubetsu Hozon Tsuba

This lovely tsuba was a recent discovery in Japan, coming from a private collection just now (August 2020). It received its Tokubetsu Hozon papers in August of 2019 and has not yet gone to Juyo. This tsuba has been requested from me to go into a Japanese exhibition in Tokyo between November 2020 and January 1st, 2021, and will be available for worldwide delivery afterwards.

In construction, this tsuba is a rare work in shibuichi with nanako. The majority of Nagatsune's work are katakiribori. He rarely opted to make any tosogu like this though the shibuichi material is his forte. It is clear at a glance, however, that his execution of nanako is superb.

The base shibuichi material is complemented with shakudo, gold and silver. In this we can see Nagatsune's habits for making use of various colored metals. The signature side is a night sky with a silver moon and I point out that the use of negative space like this is similar to zen paintings. Westerners sometimes need to stop and think twice about this kind of presentation as a result. On the opposite side, a pheasant is hiding behind a tree and the result is quite charming. As is written above, Nagatsune had a place in his heart for small renditions of animals.

I had previously requested for help from my readers here and George Miller sent in what the symbolism of this tsuba means. It is basically a love poem for someone who has gone far away.

I believe that the theme of your tsuba is a famous poem by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (a real poet from the mid 600’s [Asuka jidai] that was later deified as the God of Poetry and Scholarship). That poem was included in the Hyakunin Isshu a classical collection (from around the 1200’s [Kamakura Jidai]) of Japanese waka by one hundred famous poets. That anthology of poems was also used to create a card game called uta-garuta (with a woodblock print of the artist and his/her poem on each card), which is still in limited use in Japan today (that’s why many people from Nagatsune’s time period would know this poem from the 600’s).

Ashibiki no yamadori no wo no shidari-wo no naga-nagashi yo wo hitori ka mo nemu

The waka has many interpretations and translations into English but basically says: How long is the tail of a mountain pheasant [that droops like a branch]? Not as long as the nights that I must spend alone. The part in square brackets is included in a few translations and interpretations but not most.

Even though an actual Kiji’s tail is quite long, I believe that the one on your tsuba has been stretched longer than reality to allude to this waka, and the solitary moon evokes the poem’s melancholy. George Miller

These things are always a learning experience and show why we should not be too quick to judge a maker like Nagatsune and his reasons for doing things, but instead should research into what the meaning is. In this case, the extra long tail I feel is symbolizing an extra long parting between loved ones, and the opposite side, the empty night featuring only a crescent moon is now very clearly interpreted as the emptiness one feels inside and maybe in this case, the loneliness is felt for someone who will never come back. Now I look again at the shy and cute pheasant with the extra long tail, and it makes me think Nagatsune made this at the end of his life for someone he lost.

Thank you very much George, this is not the first time you have been my tosogu sensei and not the last I hope! The real lesson is that we cannot just simply appreciate the work, but these tosogu artists are very often attempting to talk to us and send us a message from centuries back and it is up to us to do the work to decode that message. When we do, we will get much more out of the work.

After all Nagatsune signed his full name on this tsuba in grass script and this is his habit from the end part of his career. In a similarly signed Juyo example, he added the age of 65 to it putting that example at 1786. This one is in grass script for both characters of his name, and contains Echizen no Daijo title, so we are able to place this in the last 15 years of his life for certain and most likely in the last few years by the signature style.

Nagatsune is one of the must-have master craftsmen for tosogu collectors, and one done in this style makes it quite rare and collectible. It is in excellent condition, with no wear on it, but it has accumulated a little bit of verdigris which I will have cleaned up before delivery to the eventual buyer.

It comes in a custom fit box, and I just had a new shifuku made for it in TOkyo. I highly recommend this tsuba for tosogu collectors of all levels.

Ichinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba Kurokawa Institute Tsuba 1Ichinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba SketchbookIchinomiya Nagatsune Tsuba Kurokawa Institute Nagatsune

Reference Example

Together the signature and mei matches up with an example that is owned by the Kurokawa Institute (Kurokawa Kobunka Kenkyujo), a museum in Hyogo, Japan. I think they are potentially a separated daisho but it's hard to know for sure. The Kurokawa Institute tsuba is smaller at 7.18 x 6.87 cm so it would be the sho, and both are signed uramei.

If they are a separated daisho it may have been done by intent of the maker as part of the theme of separation. And in looking at it again, the tree in this has grown taller, branched, and the bark has become wrinkled. The pheasant is gone. And on the reverse, the tree has broken, and fallen and is becoming deadwood in the night. Without the dai above to introduce the beginning of the story, this sho tsuba is hard to understand. But together they make a complete story of complete loss and heartbreak. Since Nagatsune is perhaps the most clever of all artists to make tosogu, I do not put it past him that the separation of the two tsuba that were meant to be together is one more thing he did on purpose to complete this artwork.

The design of the sho appears in Nagatsune's sketchbook, this copy I have here is black and white but Nagatsune liked to document the colors he would be using and so what metals were required. Interestingly the design also contains an age statement to the right of the mei, something he did not carry through into the final work. In this case it gives us some priceless information, which is that he wrote in the sketch Gyonen rokujugo sai (行年六五歳) Made at the age of 65. This falls neatly into my analysis above and places these tsuba at the very end of his career.

The Kurokawa Institute holdings constitute a major high quality collection, and include 27 Juyo Bijutsuhin swords, four Jubi tosogu, 9 Juyo Bunkazai swords, one Juyo Bunkazai tsuba, and two Kokuho swords. The Kokuho items are a Rai Kunitoshi tanto from the Tokugawa Shogun holdings, and the meibutsu Fushimi Sadamune.

This tsuba is also listed in Ogawa Morihiro's book Art of the Samurai.

Art of the Samurai

I loaned this tsuba to the Yamanshi Museum in 2020 and it was featured in an exhibition they did and they have it documented on Facebook (somewhere...)