This was previously written as a blog post
After many years of study in Japan and gathering experience all over the world, the time had come to actually put a tree out on display as my own work. The opportunity arose for my debut display at one of the highest level exhibitions in Europe, the prestigious BCI-IBS event at Saint Vincent in September 2008. This was particularly good timing for me in so many ways and the tree and display created was the culmination of six years work and the product of collaboration between many of the most important people and influences in my life.
The Rosemary in question is undoubtedly one of the most famous in Europe, for me it is one of the true masterpiece trees created in the last 10 years of Italian Bonsai. It was created by Sandro Segneri and has won numerous prizes throughout Europe. I first met the tree in January 2006 and immediately fell in love; I could not take my eyes off it, I spent one night at Sandro’s studio and I stayed awake for hours looking at the tree. Sandro had spent the previous summer at the garden of my master Kunio Kobayashi and we spent many hours exchanging skills and knowledge. I was amazed at the artistic ability of Sandro and I learnt many important aesthetic ideas from him, some of them very uniquely Italian, others very traditionally Japanese, but from an Italian perspective. Looking at trees through the eyes of an Italian master gave me a much better understanding of the universal nature of Bonsai.
After a brief meeting the tree and I parted ways. Later on in the year Sandro asked me if I knew anybody who would be interested in purchasing the tree, I answered straight back that I would buy it without question. There was not a doubt in my mind about the quality of the tree and I knew that I had to become part of the history of the tree. Many enthusiasts around Europe and particularly in the UK are afraid of the species, thinking it too difficult to work on and that it has a very limited lifetime. I enjoy facing a challenge and this tree, a species I had never worked with before certainly proved to be a challenge. I was told by a good number of experts that the tree would not last six months in the UK.
It eventually found its way home to my parent’s house in North Yorkshire, England. I was still in Japan at the time, finishing off the final years of my apprenticeship and so the care of the tree was entrusted to my younger brother who had absolutely no experience of Bonsai. I set the tree up in my greenhouse so that it would be protected from the frost, rain and wind that the North of England suffers from. The other problem which needed solving was the lack of sun, particularly during the winter months. This is a problem with all evergreen bonsai. During the winter period, from November to February, I placed a sun lamp in the greenhouse which gave the trees a boost of artificial sunlight throughout the dark winter months. It was set to come on for an hour at dawn and dusk, then for 15 minutes every hour throughout the day. This helped all the trees, particularly the Rosemary to make it through the dark, cold English winters without any problems. Throughout the summer it was very happy in full sun with temperatures in the high 30’s in the greenhouse.
The watering and feeding regime was simple, I had told my brother to look at the tree every day but only water when the soil under the surface had begun to dry out and feed when I told him to. His lack of interest in the trees allowed them to grow naturally. One thing I learnt from this experience is that trees grow much better when you leave them alone and do not constantly move and disturb them. My brother emailed me pictures every two weeks so no matter where I was in the world I could keep an eye on it and on my occasional returns to the UK I managed to prune the tree and decide where and how I wanted to develop the tree. The main changes were to remove some of the deadwood and rotate the front by 25 degrees so that the live vein can be seen and then to develop a back branch around the right side of the trunk to give a little more width and depth to the design.
The next time I met Sandro, at the Gingko exhibition in 2007 he invited me to display the tree at the BCI-IBS event and I agreed, assuming that I could redevelop it to a satisfactory level. Preparations were made and I spent the next few months looking for the ideal pot, stand and scroll for the exhibition. As it turned out they were not so difficult to find.
I obtained the pot and the stand from my master. One day he returned from an auction and as I unloaded the van, I held the pot in my hands and just knew then and there that it was the right pot for me. A Kowatari Kodei Riemon Daien pot with a few cracks and scars that had been repaired and such a beautifully elegant shape that I simply had to have it. It is an antique Chinese Pot, between 300 and 350 years old (Kowatari) made from red clay (Kodei), with a Riemon motif around the top. It is a very unusual type of pot and there are only a few around. I have always enjoyed the rich colours and deep patina of Kodei pots, they are very well suited for Junipers and in this case a Rosemary. It took me a while to convince my master to let me have the pot but I eventually bought it when I explained which tree it would be used for and where it would be displayed.
Once I had carried the pot back to the UK, the time had come to transplant the tree. I had been dreading this for some time, I had heard that the roots of Rosemary were particularly weak and they almost always died after transplanting. The operation took just over four hours to finish, I wanted to rotate the tree around and the new pot was slightly smaller than the original pot so I had to remove a large quantity of soil. Using only water and a chopstick I carefully removed all of the old soil and completely bare rooted the tree before repositioning it in the pot. The new soil mix was approximately 50/50 Akadama and Volcanic Grit. After transplanting the tree did not grow well at all and although no branches were lost, the growth was minimal. One month before the exhibition I turned the lamp on for three hours during the day, forcing it to grow a little. The colour in the foliage improved dramatically after a week of the sun lamp and constant misting.
After obtaining the pot from my master I also had to convince him to let me have one of his favourite tables. The table in question was made over 40 years ago as a commission for Katayama Tei-ichi, the headmaster of the Keido school of display. It is made from Rosewood by the master craftsman Kaneko. Katayama was one of Kobayashi’s teachers and it seemed appropriate that the table had passed down from master to pupil and then from master to pupil again.
The scroll was found in a small shop in Kyoto, it was an easy choice for the event, subtle, simple yet full of meaning. The picture itself is very old, an original Kano school picture from the Edo period (1600’s) that has been remounted on an unusually short scroll. The picture shows a Crane flying away into the distance, starting a long migratory journey. I thought it a very apt picture for the beginning of my personal career as the crane symbolizes both good luck and also longevity.
The choice of accent plant, Sumac planted on a Kurama stone was the result of discussions between two of my closest Bonsai friends, one American, Ryan Neil and the other one Italian, Stefano Pinna. Stefano studied for three months at Shunkaen and his love for Italian Yamadori was incredible, his desire to represent his natural surroundings in bonsai using trees collected close to his home made me see Bonsai in a different light . Ryan is my brother in many ways and our mutual friendship and support got us through some difficult times.
In many ways the display at the BCI-IBS exhibition was only possible due to all of the people that have helped and influenced me along my very brief but very intense path in Bonsai. I created this display as a thank you to my master, to all my teachers, friends and family, Japanese, American, Italian and English.