Surimono 1

Surimono are a type of Japanese woodblock prints that combine a printed image with poetry. They were generally privately commissioned and “became very popular in the Edo period (1615-1868), specifically during the later eighteenth century and into the first three to four decades of the nineteenth” (Siffert 1996). 

Surimono with butterflies, by Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), 18.4x20.3cm, Musee Georges Labit, Toulouse

The poems were mainly in the Kyoka style with a line sequence of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, occasionally Haiku with a sequence 5-7-5 syllables. “Poets often commissioned an artist, usually one of the Ukiyo-e school, to create illustrations with scenes or motifs that somehow resonated with the poems” (Kazuhiro 2005:181) . The uses of Surimono were quite diverse but would often be used for New Year Greetings (Hanaoka & Pollard 2018).

Black Crow for New Year, Totoya Hokkei, Woodblock print (surimono), 1825, 20.3x18.7cm, Brooklyn Museum

I thought that I could possibly use the Surimono format of text and image to pursue my ‘topic of significant importance’ which is flowers and the threats that they face.

During my research into the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins in Barnes (2018), I came across the work of  Barbara and Zafer Baran. This gave me an idea for the format of the image to use on the Surimono, They use digital scanning techniques and “place the specimens directly onto the scanner. Light passes through the transparent leaves and petals of the plants to reveal a luminous inner structure” (Baran 2020). In 2004 their work featured on a series of postage stamps to celebrate the bicentenary of the Royal Horticultural Society (Baran, B. and Baran, Z. s.d.).

Following this I experimented with using a scanner to get a floral image. With the flower laid directly on the scanner and the lid closed, the flower is slightly compressed. The resulting image has a distinct lack of perspective and, depending on the flower, can be brightly coloured – very much in the style of Japanese prints. On screen the prints can look quite stark so I experimented with printing them on different photo papers. I found that the best results came from using bamboo paper where the colours remain vibrant and the overall effect is one of a painted or printed surface.

There is a danger when combining poems with floral images that the end product looks like something straight from Clinton’s Cards. I tried to overcome this with my choice of topic for the poem. The poems on the image are in the Kyoka style and are ‘found poems’ i.e the text is taken from elsewhere and follow my ‘theme of significant importance’. So, the poem with the Iris consists of the names of banned pesticides, the Rose has the names of plant diseases, the Snowdrop was taken from a gardening text about Mildew, the Narcissus is reporting on climate change and the text next to the Tulip is the chemical symbols of banned pesticides. I have experimented with different types of text for the poem in the five images. I think that the ‘Mildew’ poem works best along with the environmental effects on the Narcissus, the pesticides and chemical names are interesting, but the chemical symbols less so. For future efforts I will look for more of the gardening or environmental texts. 


Higher resolution images can be seen in my gallery.

In thinking about Surimono I began to consider when text was used in photography. On a recent visit to the ‘Masculinities’ exhibition at the Barbican I came across a couple of examples of this.

The first was by Sunil Gupta


The next was by Karen Knorr

I also know of recent work by the poet George Szirtes and his wife Clarissa Upchurch. They have produced a series of Clarissa’s etchings of clouds with a poetic response to the image by George.

I found it interesting that in each case the text seems separated from the image as opposed to the  Surimono  style where the text and image are more integrated. The challenge for me, I think, is to look at ways that images and text can be integrated into one overall work.


Baran, B. (2020) Dianthus # 135 (Flower Cabinet). At: (Accessed 09/03/2020).

Baran, B. and Baran, Z. (s.d.) RHS stamps. At: (Accessed 09/03/2020).

Barnes, M. et al. (2018) Cameraless photography. London: Thames & Hudson (V&A photography library)

Hanaoka, K. and Pollard, C. (2018) Plum Blossom and Green Willow: Japanese surimono poetry prints from the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.

Kazuhiro, K. (2005) ‘The ‘Surimono Artist’ Hokusai in the Society of Edo Kyoka Poets’ In: Carpenter, J. (ed.) Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing. pp.180–215.

Siffert, B. (1996) ‘Surimono in the Clarence Buckingham Japanese Print Collection: An Introduction’ In: Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 22 (1) pp.55–95.