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Understanding the marking on Kutani ceramics

Published on : 19 June 2018

The intention of this Newsletter is to give the reader a good view of what can be found written on the back of a Kutani ceramic. Naturally this is mainly true for pieces made by talented painters or kilns and do not really apply to mass produced table wares which may just have a simple Kutani mark. Without going in a very detailed or complicated explanations, we can globally classify the marking found on the Kutani ceramics into large categories, (I use basically this type of classification in the database) :

1) Fuku mark - 福
Generally written in a square, this is the oldest mark and very specific to Kutani. Although some old Imari pieces may have fuku marks….I refer there to ko-kutani and their origin which might be, by itself, the subject of one other Newsletter.
Fuku marks are still in use today. However it is very difficult to identify the kiln or the painter just from the mark. There are many variations depending on the writing style (regular, semi-cursive or cursive styles…).

2) Generic Kutani mark
We can call a mark ‘’generic ‘’ when it does not include the name of a kiln or painter. There are several types of generic marks which may indicate different type of locations, areas, city names, etc... It is therefore also not really possible to identify the exact producer. This mark can be either in a square or double square or not.
- Kutani - 九谷, this is the most generic mark – but be very careful sometimes for older pieces the box may have the names of the painter or the kiln written as well as a description of the piece.

This is a tentative list of the main geographical identifications.

- Kaga kutani - 加賀九谷 - or Kaga no Kuni - 加賀国, Kaga being the old name of the Prefecture (Kaga Han, North part of Ishikawa Prefecture today). Kutani ceramics were called Kaga ceramics end of 19 century.

- Kayo - 加陽 or Kashu - 加州 - one other version of Kaga, This name, Kayo or Kashu being the old name of Kaga province.

- Kutani Kinjo - 九谷金城 - Kinjo being the old name of Kanazawa city.

- Dainippon Kutani- 大日本九谷 - Kutani Great Japan – (Meiji period).

- Nihon Kutani - 日本九谷 - Kutani Japan.

- Yokohama - 横浜 - for Kutani pieces decorated in Yokohama for export,

- Kobe - 神戸 - for Kutani pieces decorated in Kobe for export.

- Tokyo Nippon

3) Kanji marking
Fortunately in some cases we can get much better information in addition to the above geographical identification, we may get: :

- the name of the kiln or the shop which has commercialized the piece.

- in some other cases the name of the painter who did the actual work.

- there are rare cases where you get both the name of the kiln/producer and the name of the painter.

- and more exceptional the date of production.

On the other hand there have been so many kilns producing Kutani wares around Meiji period that it is difficult to identify every kiln, shop or painter (several thousands). We can find today some exquisite pieces of a very high quality which have been painted by unknown painter although we have just their pen names, there is no record of their past activities which in some cases lasted only a very short period of times. I have in mind someone who started red detailed painting with a very high technique only after retirement and having managed a clock repair shop all his life. Fortunately this was not so long ago and we could manage to find out who he was, as people still remember. If this happened 100 years ago there is no way to find out.

Regarding the different manufacturing places, there are several terms which can be found :

- Kama - 窯 - Kiln, rather common.

- Shoten - 商店 - Shop, They are generally merchants who seconded painting to independent painters and exported the ceramic. They were just business men!

- Honten - 本店 - Main branch.

- Do - 堂 - Trading firm/Merchant, also very common, but be careful many independent painters used also this term for their signature or pen name.

- Ken - 軒 - Factory, rare.

- Tei - 亭 - House, rare.

- Sha -舎- Company.

- En - 園 – Garden.

Then finally whether it is a potter name, a kiln or a shop name, it is generally followed by the expression:

- Sei - 製 - Made by.

- Zo - 造 - Made by.

- Seizo - 製造 - Made by.

- Ko - 工- Made by.

- Ga - 画 - Painted by.

- Hitsu - 筆 - Drawn by.

Finally a last indication can sometimes be encountered at the end or beginning of the marking:

- oite - 於 - at the begining of the marking with Sei - 製 or Zo - 造, meaning "made at" or "made in".

- kore tsukuru- 製之- can also be found at the end of the marking, meaning " this painter made this".

- Kin Sei - 謹製 - after the painter name, Respectfully made by...

All these above indications can be combined. Now a last point to consider, Japanese kanji are written from left to right (European way) since Meiji period. They were written from right to left before. So most of these old marking follow this old fashion, but there is really no exact rules. In addition kanji can always be written from top to bottom. Horizontal (in both directions) and vertical writing can be used simultaneously.

5) Signature in a square or not
This is a rather modern way for a Kutani painter or shop/kiln to sign a piece, let say since around Taisho period. Either the kiln or the painter is well known, he will be using in this case a specific marking which can be identified. Quite often a stylistic writing of his potter’s name or kiln’s name in a square. Then it is only question of experience and practice to recognize the origin and it might be quite difficult for beginners. All these marks below are from very famous painters!

4) Other types of marking
There are 2 other alternative types which can be encountered :

- Blank pots marking. Some kilns which are producing only blank pots mark their production with an underglaze signature also sometimes with embossed or engraved mark. It is interesting when we can see that the blank producer is sometimes from a complete different area or even country (like you can see below : Italia, Limoges - France, Fukagawa - Japan or Klosterle - Czech).
It means that some rich customers did not hesitate to order blanks from overseas and have their service decorated in Kutani.

- Embossed or engraved marks:
Some painters or kilns have chosen to sign their pieces by an engraved or embossed mark:

General comments

One key point to understand is that Japanese painters or potters are using several types of names. Each one has a Family name. But this family name may change in the first part of his life. Adoption was a common practice in the 19 century up to 18 or 20 years old especially if the family had no male descendant and there are often marriage organized between Sensei’s (master/teacher) daughter and Deishi (student) who can be adopted or may change name to enter in the family.
Later, the artist may select or receive a potter or painter name, called "Go" or 号 in kanji. He may use several Go in his life. We refer here in the database as a Pen name.

Be careful with identical English potter Pen names, Kanji writing might be different and therefore belonging to different persons. Seizan is a good example, there are 8 different painters called Seizan in the database using 5 different kanji!

Some painters are also calligraphists, but this will be the subject of one other Newsletter….
Last comment, we use here the term ’’potters’’, but in fact 90% are just painters, who buy their blanks to specialized kilns. Very few kilns are producing both blanks and enamel over glaze.

Kiln’s owner are called Kamamoto (窯元) and generally give their name or pen name to their kiln. They may be potters, painters or just business men.

Bouvier Georges