Writing Desk with Ivy-Covered Path Design

  • Azuchi-Momoyama to Edo period, 16th–17th century
  • Maki-e lacquer on wood
  • H-11.5 D-34 W-54.7
    Miho Museum
Catalogue Entry

Momoyama period, 16th century
Height, 11.5cm; width, 54.7cm; depth, 34.4cm

A small writing desk coated entirely in black lacquer. The writing desk formed a set with an inkstone box as writing equipment displayed in the shoin writing alcove in the Muromachi period. They would also have been used as a small table during poetry recitations or renga writing gatherings. The rectangular form of the top board is fitted with brush stops at both sides, and four legs have been attached at each of the board's four corners.

This writing desk has a top board decorated with the Utsunoyama scene from the 9th chapter of the Tale of Ise. This chapter recounts the scene where a nobleman (Narihira) is heading away from Kyoto along a narrow, ivy-covered lane on the gloomy mountain hillside of Utsunoyama. Along this path, Narihira encounters a mountain ascetic heading towards Kyoto, and he entrusts a letter to a woman in the capital to this monk.
The Imperial Household Agency's Sannomaru Shozokan Museum owns a writing desk and inkstone box of the same period decorated with this same motif, but the Sannomaru works are decorated with an uninterrupted use of ikakeji ground, gold takamakie, gold and silver metal fittings, and cut gold leaf to create a magnificent effect completely differing in taste from the present desk.

The present writing desk has an extremely stylized rendition of the "ivy-covered path" theme arranged across the top of its central surface. An abstractly rendered path is scattered with ivy drawn in a karakusa-like vining pattern, while the portable shrine box placed on the far left of the image suggests the presence of the mountain ascetic.
Technically, this image was drawn in red lacquer, and then gold powder was sprinkled on this design to create a hiramakie effect. In some areas, this gold powder has fallen away, exposing the underlying red lacquer underdrawing. There is also, however, ample use of the then-popular forms of Kodaiji makie with an enashiji pictorial pearskin ground and tsuke-gaki (thin makie lines are drawn on top of a previously laid makie surface) and kaki-wari (drawn lines are not covered with makie, but rather are left blank) depictive detailing. AH