Ukiyoe Sake Cup set. Destruction of the Russian Fleet

Recently I found a set of three lacquered wood sake cups from the late Meiji era, probably made around 1906-7. This set is certainly the most beautiful I have ever seen, so I’d like to introduce it to you, taking a close look at each cup. Here is a view of the full set:


Even without close-ups, one can tell that this is a special group. The designs are all hand-painted, so this is indeed a unique set. The craftsmanship here is so special that it is easy to conclude that when originally made, it was very expensive. Today I’d like to take a closer look at the largest of the three. Here is a clearer image.


The design has two ships that appear to be in combat. The larger one is firing artillery. The inscription says ‘Destruction of the entire Russian fleet,’ so one would assume it refers to the Battle of Tsushima. However, an inscription on another cup may dispute that.

Anyway, let’s look at the dramatic style of the artwork. The style of the waves clearly imitates the famous Ukiyo-e paintings of the day. Take at look at two well-known works.




You can see the similarities in the style of the waves. The artwork on the cups appears to me (an untrained eye, of course) to be as good as that in the woodprints.

Take a look at two close-ups.




Really wonderful work, don’t you think? The ships, too, are nicely drawn. The ship at the top may be the Mikasa, and the other ship could be the Russian warship Petropavlovsk, which was hit by a mine near Port Arthur. (Thanks for the help on that ship, Alex!)

The layout of this design is really innovative and extremely energetic. The crashing waves, the firing guns, the pillar of fire, and the ships being within the waves (not merely plastered on the top) give this cup a fantastic energy.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at the Mikasa warship cup.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. If you’re interested in ukiyo-e representations of the Russo-Japanese War, the exhibition catalogue “A Much Recorded War” is quite good. Just in case the suggestion might be of interest to you.

    Thanks for the interesting post, as always.

  2. I have been the estate sales business for thirteen years and I can safely say that I have never seen these kinds of images on lacquer – thanks for sharing them.

    Generally what I see are traditional themes – now I will have to go and look for other examples of topical themes…


  3. A lovely set, indeed. I wonder, however, if the larger ship on the largest piece isn’t intended to be the Petropavlovsk? The soaring flames represent the great warship striking the mine that sunk her. And, surely, in the surging wave crests we see the claws of an Imperial dragon reaching up to drag her beneath the waves! I also doubt that the artist would have missed the opportunity to include the great gold Chrysanthemum crest that decorated the bows of Mikasa (see:, and every other IJN warship.

    • You could be right about the ships. I’m not sure they were meant to be exact depictions, though; they could be just general ship figures. As for the Imperial dragon claws, nice reading of the waves! But the dragon symbol isn’t really used much in Japan, and when it is used, it seems to be suggesting a Chinese style.

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