Collotype art reproduction of restricted 1636-1640 Tōshōsha Engi scrolls now available online

February 16, 2017
Astrid Johannah Smith
Tōshōsha Engi scrolls

In front of you sits a black lacquer box with a golden crest inlaid on the lid, tied with decorative red cords. Intrigued, you untie the cords, revealing three rare Japanese scrolls in gold Gohei paper decorative silk wrappers, tucked neatly into this beautiful housing. Of course, you want to unroll and see these scrolls! But how does one go about examining a 47-foot-long physical object? Furthermore, how can the objects be kept safe while doing so? Who are the privileged few who get to handle these rare items?

When Charles Fosselman, of Stanford’s East Asia Library, identified these objects up for potential digitization, the Digital Production Group (DPG) was thrilled to have the opportunity to help showcase such unique and beautiful objects.  The Digital Library Systems and Services team had been working on a viewer that would be perfect for close inspection of such physically enormous materials, bringing new opportunities for a greater audience to experience these hidden treasures.  From the preface in the informational pamphlet that accompanies the three Tōshōsha engi scrolls:

The originals of these picture rolls illustrating the life of Tokugawa Iyeyasu, canonized as To-Sho Dai-Gongen (or East-Illuminating Great-Incarnation, which is the post-humous name, represents the great man as living Boddhisattva) are the work of the great artist Kano Morinobu, professional name Tannyusai, who undertook it by special order of the Third Shogun, Tokugawa Iyemitsu, the hero's grandson. It is work of the most elaborate description on which the artist spent five solid years of his life. Before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the pictures were inspected by the successive Shoguns on the occasion of their periodical visits to the Temples at Nikko, but no other persons were as a matter of fact permitted to view them. Quite recently the pictures were registered among the national treasures of the country.

These delicately nuanced early reproductions were made using a collotype printing method, which uses light-sensitive gelatin colloid coated plates and photographic negatives to create fine detail. They were presented to Stanford University as a gift from David Starr Jordan, which is noted on a small commemorative plaque tucked in the box.

According to DPG’s lead photographer Wayne Vanderkuil, “The level of difficulty was nothing out of the ordinary despite their length ‒ we imaged them in a linear motion,  photographing section by section, glassing the imaging area and rolling it from left to right on either side as we went.”  The quality control steps, which the lab always takes to ensure images meet their standards, involved viewing approximately five hundred and fifty-six feet of digital image at full resolution on color-calibrated monitors. This took about two hours, including the time to crop and straighten the accompanying materials. It was important, too, to make sure the image sequence of the display mimicked one’s experience with the physical object; Wayne and Astrid Smith, DPG’s rare book and special collections digitization specialist, worked together to decide the appropriate arrangement.  With the imaging efforts of Stanford’s Digital Production Group, and the viewing environment that Stanford Libraries’ Digital Library Systems and Services (DLSS) developed, now anyone, anywhere may view the Tōshōsha engi scrolls ‒ with tremendous flexibility and ease ‒ from wherever they have access to the internet.