There’s more to Japanese prints than courtesans, actors and warriors as MATT CLARK discovers at a gallery in the heart of York.

HE MAY have been born into farming stock, but a life on the land held no appeal for Percy Barkes. Neither did a career in law. Mr Barkes soon discovered that while studying the subject at university. No, art was his true vocation. Not as a painter, but as a dealer.

So he travelled Europe, toured all the great art galleries and, when he returned, opened a shop in Petergate, York, to sell Japanese woodblock prints.

Well, not quite. It actually came about by chance because in 1974, two years before opening the York gallery, Mr Barkes was running a stall in Camden.

“I realised the things I sold best were Japanese prints and that’s where it all started,” he says. “It was just fortuitous really, but from that moment I decided to concentrate on these prints.”

Most dealers specialise in courtesans, actors and warriors, but Mr Barkes prefers design-orientated works, the best images from the Meiji (1868 to 1912), Taisho (1912 to 1926) and the Showa (from 1926) periods.

Japanese prints fell out of favour after the war, but there was resurgence in demand during the boom years of the 1960s and the supply of old prints diminished to such an extent that major London auction houses now hold very few sales of them.

So since 1999, Mr Barkes has had to fly to Tokyo for more stock. There’s the occasional lucky strike, but generally speaking he relies on a group of people who look out for the things he likes to sell. And with air fares and hotel bills to consider, Mr Barkes has to be quick on his visits.

“We spend two days in Tokyo, four in Kyoto and two more in Tokyo. I’ve been to Japan many times but I haven’t done any sightseeing yet.”

For printmakers the job was a long process, with a wood block required for every colour and around 15 of them used to produce just one print.

The blocks were made from cherrywood and being cut laterally that limited the available size. This explains why larger prints present as triptychs or diptychs.

One artist Mr Barkes particularly favours is Watanabe Seitei whose prints have an almost water colour quality and a daring sense of space.

Seitei, like many block print makers, bound his individual pieces into an album and Mr Barkes explains that this is why the colours are as bright as they were the day the prints were made, even though they are 120 years old. The gallery sells Seitei diptychs for £285, including frame and also stocks Russian paintings; another niche idea Mr Barkes hit on after the Berlin Wall came down.

“My brother and I had a gallery in Camden Town dealing in modern British paintings. But they became too expensive.

“Then, as the communist state had finished, we realised there were fantastic paintings in Russia to buy very cheaply.”

That was in 1995. Since then Mr Barkes has visited more than 1,000 studios in St. Petersburg, and seen a million paintings and drawings.

Most of the Russian works he sells dates from 1945 and almost all the artists are graduates from the celebrated Repin Academy in St. Petersburg.

Mr Barkes says people sometimes feel intimidated when they peer through his gallery window, in fear of eye-watering prices. But nothing could be further from the truth; exquisite prints by Kawarazaki Kodo, from 1937, are £85 and most of the stock ranges from £48 to £500.

“I prefer to undervalue art and because of that I sell more to first time buyers than any other dealer in the country,” says Mr Barkes.”

“I think it’s a nice way in for them.”