Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Bragging rights.

On Sunday I spent a nice sunny afternoon with members of the Stourbridge Bonsai Society (SBS) and a few guest visitors from other Midland based clubs here at the nursery.
Originally I was going to give a talk for the SBS at the Bonded Wharehouse in Stourbridge, on pointers in selecting bonsai or material, and by that I mean points to consider both horticultural and aesthetic for when you are looking at a tree for sale or when you are considering collecting a yamadori from nature. So in effect, how to evaluate the tree in front of you, where it succeeds and where it is weak or has 'faults' etc.
However one of the committee had the bright idea of  holding the meeting at my place and use my stock trees as examples as what to look for. It was a great idea and it worked really well as obviously I have lots of yamadori here, as well as pre-bonsai and bonsai that are semi styled or finished specimens of all shapes and sizes.
The more usual way is for members to bring trees along to their club for me to discuss when doing a critique. But the idea of this 'critique' if you can call it that, was to give pointers before your tree is acquired. And I think this idea of holding it at my nursery worked much better.
Obviously it helped that the SBS are quite near, so no real long distance travelling was involved for the guys.
If there was a down side to the afternoon, it was that it was too hot, yes really. The good old UK is being baked nicely at the moment, in fact unbearably so. Especially for me stood out in it's glare while everyone listened from under the shade area. I am currently waiting for a hose pipe ban to be imposed by the government.

What is the saying? 'Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid day sun'. Unbelievable!
But joking aside it was an enjoyable afternoon and what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than talking bonsai with enthusiastic people and getting paid. Oh and they turned up with nice home made cakes, bonus!
For my part, the tea urn was on, and the milk, sugar, coffee and tea was on tap. Before you comment on the fact I am not wearing shorts like most of the other guys, I should point out that I was not being bitten to death by horse flies either!

Here I am discussing the pro's and cons of this Mugo Pine.
Although a very impressive piece, it has a major flaw to overcome to succeed as a good bonsai which is not obvious. Because of the trees size and because there is a lot of impressive deadwood. It is easy to be seduced by the tree and to be swept away by it presence. So it was great to be able to use it to show how the tree in reality, had a hidden problem, and to emphasise how it is easy to be distracted from studying a potential new tree thoroughly if you are immediately impressed with it. (I hope that makes sense).

When you can impart knowledge and discuss trees up close like this, it is much easier for the audience to see exactly the points you are making.
Also because it is more intimate and relaxed than the usual club setting, you get more questions, feedback and a better rapport from the attendees.
 Here we are discussing the merits of a large Juniperus pheonicea. This is also something I routinely do with anyone buying a tree from me. They get a full breakdown of the tree, warts and all before making their decision.

 For me it is important that someone buying a tree from me is making an 'informed decision'.

One of the good things that happens from people reading my blog is that when they email me to comment on a recent post, they very often give me ideas on what to write about next. And very often it is the same when I have visitors, we get chatting and kerching! There's the next topic.
Something that came up on Sunday was when I was talking about a nice White Pine in the nursery which came from Nobuichi Urishibata of Taisho- En nursery Japan. Someone mentioned that everyone in the UK seems to be buying bonsai from Urishibata San, which in actual fact is not true. Only a very few people have brought trees from Taisho - En into the UK and some of those only occasionally. But some people seem to think they have the bragging rights on being able to say 'this tree is from Urishibata San'.
Well I have never been one to brag but here goes, I was the first to import trees from Taisho - En in 2003, long before most people knew who Urishibata San was and long before some people even started selling trees. And I continue to do so whether directly or indirectly through friends. But I do not see the need to use a Japanese name to sell my trees.
Some trees recently posted on eBay as from Taisho En, were in fact cheap trees imported from Korea! And how do I know this, well the wholesaler who imported them pointed it out to me. So now it seems we have traders in the UK trying to mislead people too.
Of course sometimes we get a reverse situation with some people not willing to say where their trees came from.

This Procumbens Juniper from Urishibata San (picture taken in my court yard May 2006) I sold to a guy in Italy. When it was put on his blog it was captioned 'my new juniper from Japan. Not, my new juniper from Steve Tolley. So while some people trade on a name, others are reluctant to give another artist credit for providing a great tree. Bless!
Did I say this Procumbens came from Urishibata San?
However does the provenance of a tree really matter. So take for instance the Procumbens Juniper here above right. Urishibata San could have bought the tree in an auction a week before it was sold to me. Does that make it an 'Urishibata tree'? Does it really matter?
Or maybe I have got it all wrong and I should be making full use of my bragging rights.
Like these two Itoigawa Junipers from Takeo Kawabe below.

The Juniper above is still in circulation and in fact is owned by a good friend of mine.
The juniper to the right went through several hands before I think, it was stolen. These were imported in 2005. Both were grafted Itoigawa foliage, grafted roots with extensive deadwood carved and sand blasted by Kawabe San. Very much one of his trade marks. These were just two of many I have had of this quality from Kawabe San.

Oh and then of course there is Shinji Suzuki. This Taxus cuspidata of the northern form went to a former client.
This picture was taken outside my studio in 2008.
Unfortunately on arrival the tree was falling out of it's pot and it had to be repotted and due to the placement of the single tie wire, part of the root mass to one side had been ripped off. There was only a root ball the size of my hand remaining. But the tree picked up fairly rapidly.
Hopefully it will be exhibited in the UK soon by the current owner.
Very few people saw this tree when it arrived, only one or two people who visited the nursery at that time. There was no 'SUZUKI HAS LANDED' advertising. The tree came in, work was carried out on the tree, and then it went to it's new owner. Simply and quietly! Here it is in a pot by Gordon Duffet after I had worked on it and repotted it.
So bragging away as I am, we have had Urishibata San, Kawabe San and Suzuki San.

So next we have Imai San.

This chuhin Itoigawa from Chiharu Imai arrived in 2007. From day one I fell in love with this little tree. For some people there is too much deadwood on this tree, which I can understand, as we all have different tastes. But what people do not understand is how difficult it is to manipulate deadwood like this. This photo right, was taken when the tree came out of quarantine. The wire was still on and needed badly to come off, and the folded deadwood, which was old, had been allowed to unfold.

On the left, the tree in my studio after steam bending the deadwood closer to the tree.
This was a pains taking job, but well worth the effort. Did I mention this tree was from Chiharu Imai. Good.

This image was taken outside my studio after the first styling. I was, and still am dreadful with a camera and so I used to take lots of my photo's outside to capture the tree just right.
Did I mention this tree came from Chiharu Imai?
After this photo was taken the tree went off quietly to it's new owner.

And here is the tree exhibited by it's new owner Ian Stewardson, at the Noelanders Trophy 2008 where it was given Best Chuhin Award and overall Noelanders Trophy winner.
I christened the tree "The Little Samurai".
Did I mention this tree came from Chiharu Imai.
Oh and resurrected, restyled and refined by ME!

This is just one of many trees that have come into the UK quietly, been developed and refined without causing any ripples in the pond.....................until they are exhibited.
And then the people make their own minds up about the tree. Whether they like it, whether there's too much deadwood etc. But it is the tree speaking, QUIETLY !
Not someone talking the tree up.

But then of course there are those trees that I have had that are world class but that do not necessarily have any famous tag to them. Like this Taiwan Juniper Juniperus formosana. One of 57 I brought into my nursery.

This tree was in my nursery for a few months before being sold to a very discerning collector from the south of England. It later made it's way to Italy and later featured in a styling demo for BONSAI EUROPE (now BONSAI FOCUS). But unless you visited my nursery at that time, you would never have known about that tree until it popped up in the magazine.
Then of course there was this other Taiwan Juniper below that was eventually Noelanders Trophy winner in 2006.

Unfortunately the owner of this tree had it stolen not long after winning the Noelanders award. He had toyed with buying the juniper above but settled on the one here left.
A very special and unique tree, and one that would be impossible to ever display without being recognised, but alas this tree has disappeared.

Of course sometimes I have trees that have great provenance like this yamadori Mugo Pine.

Seen here at the start of the new millennium after being restyled by Dan Barton in Switzerland. The tree at this time was owned by Pius Notter and the tree in question was of course the famous "Swiss Dragon", so named by John Naka who was the first to work on it at Pius's home.
This is how the tree looked when it came to the UK. At this time it was in a pot by CERTRE from Italy.
Did I just mention Dan Barton, Pius Notter and John Naka then.
Can you see where we are going here.

I was offered the chance to buy the tree by Pius, but I could not afford the tree at the time as I was developing my bonsai business. However I brought in the tree for Ian Stewardson and I was fortunate in that I was to take care of this great pine until it was later sold to another client of mine.

This is the famous Swiss Dragon formerly owned by Pius Notter, styled by John Naka and restyled by Dan Barton, see how I slipped those names in again, sorry.
This is the tree after I restyled it for Ian Stewardson.
At this time it was in a new commissioned pot from Gordon Duffet. So now we have Pius Notter, John Naka, Dan Barton and Gordon Duffet all associated with the tree. Am I stretching it a bit including the pot maker?
For me the pot was a little too small. But Hey Ho.

And on the left here is the "Swiss Dragon" after I had prepared it for the Ginkgo Awards in Belgium.
This I think was the 'Dragon' seen at it's best. I was very proud when it was displayed in Belgium and I would like to think Ian was too.

What was really nice was wheeling the tree into the Ginkgo nursery on the trolley, and getting it photographed. Then sitting back and watching everyone as they walked in and saw it. Priceless.
No big fan fare, just present the tree and walk away.
This photo is courtesy of Farrand Bloch

And then of course there was this juniper which was sort of OK!
I reserve all bragging rights on this tree.

This juniper had no provenance to shout about and looked like a bush. But you know what, it didn't matter it turned out OK.
So the question is, is it OK to brag where trees come from? Yes if you feel you need to.
Does it matter where they come from? Not always. And the reason is because some people are good at turning bonsai into material. And some people can turn material into OK bonsai.
So what next.

Well there is always something new coming through quietly that I am developing.
Like this Shimpaku. As you can see the tree is a bit shy.

And of course there are always new trees with provenance that will need resurrecting and a bit of TLC. Or trees like this one below that need to be taken to the next stage of their development.

This twin trunk Scots Pine (above) collected in the Scottish Highlands and known as the "Twin Dragons" was collected by Jim McCurrach in 1981 and then later acquired by Craig Coussins in 2001. So again provenance here, although many outside the UK will not know the significance of the name Jim McCurrach. Even though he was without doubt the first true yamadori collector in Britain. And then of course you have the legendary, world travelled Craig Coussins as it's next owner.
So I guess the tree is having to slum it a bit now that it is here with me.
But a new chapter begins now for this lovely old pine.

And of course there are also those bonsai yet to be created.

Could this be the next "Swiss Dragon" ?
And in 100 years will people say this was from Steve Tolley. Probably not!
Does it matter. The potential is there in spades, the tree say's it all. It will be the finished tree that will influence people not 'who' styled it.

Or maybe it will be 'MEDUSA' that will be remembered in years to come.

So does provenance really matter? Is it something to brag about. I think the obvious thing you can see from the images here of all the trees is the quality not the invisible label saying where they came from. My personal thoughts are, that it is nice to know the history of a tree, just the same that sometimes it would be nice to know the true age of an old tree. But that does not make it a great bonsai. So I suppose you could ask the question would you brag about where a tree came from if it was average. Not all the trees in the famous nurseries are fantastic. If you visit Taisho - En or many other nurseries, you will see trees for sale at all levels, from starter trees to Kokufu level. So if you buy a starter tree from Urishibata San, remember it is just that.
I think the major difference however is that in Japan, the history of a tree or suiseki etc is appreciated as a record of that particular items history and is to be treasured and continued. Where as here it is more often than not simply a selling point.

But please remember first and foremost, bonsai is about trees!

This proclamation of provenance can be taken a step further. Just because you have been to Japan, does not automatically mean you are good at bonsai, a great artist or teacher. And there are thousands of Japanese practising bonsai in Japan who are not particularly good to prove it. Just as there are artists in Europe who are brilliant, who have never been to Japan.
But yes there are masters in Japan who are incredible and that will always be so, but they, like everywhere else, are in the minority.
So when someone tries to sell you a tree from Master X, just ask yourself first, is it a good tree and more importantly do I like it. Simple!
And if someone tries to impress by saying I have been to Japan, ask yourself can they actually do it! Have I actually seen them do something of note. Because for myself, also doing martial arts, I often wish bonsai teachers were judged in the same way as martial artists. By what they can do rather than profess to do. Craig Coussins say's these 'masters' work with 'smoke and mirrors', like illusionists.
In bonsai you can talk forever on the subject if you are well read. In martial arts you actually have to do it. Talk means nothing, you soon get exposed. Just my thoughts!

So I am sorry if I bored you with all my bragging, there will be no more in this lifetime. I have got it out of my system now. And it to think it all started because someone asked me about this pine.

 Did I mention it came from ......................

Thanks Chris and Jonothan!


  1. Love it !
    The over used term Master appears to be a Western term as I believe the Japanese prefer the term Professional.
    I have been told that after a tree has been exhibited at a number of Kokofu shows, it's value reduces hence why we are seeing a number of trees which are not national treasures appearing in Europe, where they are fresh to the market. Is there any truth in this Steve?

    Dave Martin
    PS keep the blog rolling I look forward to it :0))

  2. Great article!

    Nik Rozman