But perfectly formed: Art Market

The ancient Japanese art of carving netsuke, intricate sculptures barel y three inches high, is enjoying a revival. Two of the masters of the craft are British, their work eagerly snappe d up by international collectors
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The Independent Culture
MINIATURE sculptures of animals, reptiles, insects, leaves and flowers, carved with dazzling virtuosity, are among the oddest products of Britain's contemporary art scene. Michael Webb specialises in the animal kingdom - including birds, reptiles and insects - while Guy Shaw is a master of vegetation. Neither has ever been accorded an exhibition in a contemporary art gallery, let alone a review on the arts page of a national newspaper. But their 3in sculptures sell for £1,500-£5,000 a time, and are snapped up by international collectors.

Webb and Shaw represent a strange meeting-point of British and Asian culture. They will tell you they are carving netsuke, not just miniature sculptures. A netsuke is a kind of button or toggle that used to be worn with a traditional Japanese kimono. A gentleman would carry his money, medicines and other necessities in pouches suspended from a netsuke tucked under his belt by silken cords. The design of the little carvings had to be very compact, with no protuberances that would break off or catch on his robes. Traditionally, netsuke were carved from boxwood or ivory, though nobody uses ivory any longer.

Netsuke fell into disuse around 1860, when the Japanese adopted Western dress for all but the odd ceremonial occasion. But the tiny carvings were too good to throw away, and about 80 per cent of them were exported to the West as curios. In time, Western connoisseurs began to realise their extraordinary artistic qualities. Netsuke prices began to rise in the late 1960s, and the best historic examples can now fetch more than £100,000, despite their tiny size.

As prices for antique netsuke soared, collectors began to take an interest in contemporary carvings. Career opportunities suddenly opened for the likes of Messrs Webb and Shaw. There are now about 100 netsuke carvers working worldwide, about half of themin Japan, and a constantly expanding group of collectors.

The great netsuke makers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were incomparable carvers of animals, creating horses, oxen, mice, wild boar, pussycats or puppies; they also delved into Japan's rich mythological heritage to portray scenes of demons chasing each other, a magic beast with his foot caught in a clam, or a snake coiling out of the eye of a skull, pieces often suffused with engaging humour.

Webb and Shaw fell in love with these pieces quite independently, and each determined to try to make carvings in the same spirit - with no prospect at first of earning a living from it. In the work of Webb and Shaw, the Japanese delight in nature and itsspirits is fused with a British love of animals and plants. This hybrid aesthetic gives the works themselves a quirky originality.

Michael Webb was the trailblazer, the first carver to make his living from netsuke since the 19th century - though there had been several hobby carvers and part-timers. His youthful ambition was to be a portrait painter, but he buried this dream in 1955 when he joined the staff of Sotheby's as a very junior clerk. By 1966 he had risen to director of the furniture department.

He became fascinated by Japanese art in the early 1960s, read voraciously and began to collect Japanese sword fittings. He carved his first experimental netsuke from a block of limewood on a country weekend in 1966. After that he made carvings at his kitchen table in London in the evenings and at weekends.

He acted as auctioneer for Sotheby's Japanese sales and conducted the auction of the Hindson collection of netsuke, one of the greatest collections ever formed, which was dispersed in six separate sales between 1966 and 1969. In the process he got to know all the leading netsuke collectors of the day. He would produce his own carvings from his pocket and invite their comments.

By 1976 Sotheby's was becoming a commercial giant, and Webb found himself out of sympathy with its money-making schemes. He decided to resign from the company. "I was faced with the choice of becoming a portrait painter or a carver," he says. "Carving s e emed to be the more original and intriguing option." He and his wife - a jeweller and weaver - settled in a remote Yorkshire farmhouse, and Webb got down to work, using traditional hand tools to carve boxwood netsuke, which he dyes and stains to achieve realistic textures.

He was encouraged by the praise of several dealer friends, especially Giuseppe Eskenazi, London's top dealer in Oriental art, and his brother-in-law Luigi Bandini, who is in charge of Eskenazi's netsuke department. "I spent the first year making a group of carvings and took them to Giuseppe and Luigi," Webb says. "They rejected the lot, saying the technical standard was not high enough. So I spent a second year making a better group."

These carvings were exhibited at Eskenazi's Piccadilly gallery in 1978 and Webb's career was launched. Several were bought by the netsuke collectors who had become his friends in his Sotheby's days - including the famous American pianist Julius Katchen; his widow likes Webb's work so much that she keeps one of his netsuke in her handbag.

Collectors of antique netsuke in Europe, America and Japan are still Webb's main clients, but there are a few enthusiasts in Britain who have formed Webb collections, without touching the Japanese prototypes. They love his realistic depiction of animals.

He started with British animals, such as badgers and otters, together with more exotic friends that he studied in the zoo. Then he did birds, and more recently developed a fascination with reptiles and insects. The small group of his netsuke currently onshow at the Eskenazi Gallery includes a snail, a lizard, several frogs, a spurge hawk moth and a mandarin duck. They are truly three-dimensional sculptures; the snail, with his little head protruding, is crawling over a beautifully wrought vine leaf; a group of three frogs climbs over a folded waterlily leaf. Turn any one of them in the hand and you find new visual delight from every angle.

Guy Shaw discovered netsuke carvings more than a decade after Webb. He began as a painter and struggled to make a living from hard-edged abstracts after leaving Newport College of Art and Design in 1974. Then he tried his hand at jewellery, carving little brooches and pendants from natural materials. He married in 1977 and, with hardly any money between them, the young couple secured a £16-a-month cottage in Dorset. In 1978 Shaw was shown his landlord's collection of Japanese netsuke and discovered his metier.

For the first seven years he had only two clients for his carvings, and he supplemented his meagre income by restoring Japanese antiques. It was not until 1986 that he discovered the international netsuke collectors' circuit and his career took off.

The International Netsuke Collectors' Society was founded in the mid-1970s, and it holds annual conventions in leading cities. Shaw was told about the January 1987 convention in Miami two weeks before it opened. He scraped together all his savings, bought a ticket and flew to America with a pocketful of carvings. Many of them sold straight away, and two leading American dealers agreed to market his future work.

Since then Shaw's netsuke have been exhibited in Europe, America and Japan; Barry Davies, the London Oriental art dealer, has given him two exhibitions.

Most remarkable among his recent carvings are allegories of human life interpreted in the natural forms of the vegetable kingdom. A group of young rose-leaves growing at the tip of a shoot in spring, spiralling against each other, symbolise "the Dance ofLife'; an ant crawling up the stem of a sunflower is a symbol of work and duty; a dead fern-leaf, brown and desiccated at the end of summer, becomes an "Unsung Hero". Shaw uses a whole range of materials, from fossilised mammoth tusk to the antlers of stags and boxwood, often allowing the material to dictate form. His combination of delicate detail and coloured staining - a leftover from his painterly beginnings - lends his work a special poetry.

In their different ways, Webb and Shaw are two of the most original sculptors working in Britain today. Their work is wholly ignored, however, by the contemporary art establishment.

! Michael Webb's netsuke are available from Eskenazi Oriental Art, 10 Clifford Street, London W1, and Guy Shaw's from Barry Davies, 1 Davies Street, London W1.