Poetry Contest of Forty-two Matches, a handscroll painting


British Museum

British Museum

This scroll depicts the story of how, when the Japanese capital was at Nara (710-794), the emperor paid a visit to the Tōgū Palace in the fourth month and was struck by the beauty of the blossoming cherry trees and lakeside willows at the Nanden (Southern Hall). He began to compose verses inspired by pairs - comparing, for example, spring and autumn, a moonlit night and a snowy morning, passing showers and wind in the pines - and judged which of each pair was the superior. The night was passed with his courtiers, making music and developing a total of forty-two poetic themes. In the scene illustrated, the emperor sits within the room, a koto (lateral harp) beside him. On the veranda are several courtiers wearing black eboshi (court hats), and holding fans, with two court women also in attendance. An ox-cart is drawn up on the right, and to the left can be seen the blossoming cherry trees.

Mono-awase ('pairing things') was a popular aristocratic pastime from the Heian period (794-1185) onwards, with participants demonstrating their refinement by passing judgement on the relative merits of poetic imagery.

The stylized clouds used here as a compositional feature suggest that this painting was produced at the end of the Muromachi period (1392-1568). It appears to be an example of ko-e ('small pictures'), miniature scrolls produced for the amusement of younger members of the court. The scroll bears false seals, applied later, which read 'Tosa' and 'Kikusui'.

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  • Title: Poetry Contest of Forty-two Matches, a handscroll painting
  • Date Created: 1550/1599
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 15.80cm; Width: 1166.50cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Subject: poetry
  • Registration number: 1960,0409,0.3
  • Production place: Painted in Japan
  • Producer: Painted by Anonymous. Formerly attributed to Mitsunobu, Tosa
  • Period/culture: Muromachi Period
  • Material: paper
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Purchased from Kegan, Paul & Co. Previous owner/ex-collection Lane, Richard