Bringing a Ming painting back to life
On entering the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the first objects visitors see is a large silk painting depicting an official in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City. This Ming dynasty painting by artist Zhu Bang was conserved especially for the exhibition, using traditional Chinese scroll mounting techniques that have been passed down from master to student since before this 500-year-old painting was even painted.
The British Museum is extraordinarily fortunate to have as its Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings Mrs Jin Xian Qiu, who originally trained and worked in Shanghai Museum before coming to the British Museum 27 years ago. It is thanks to her expertise that many of the Museum’s Chinese paintings can be displayed today. For this particular project, along with the help of her assistants and colleagues in the Hirayama Studio (part of the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, working on East Asian paintings) Mrs Qiu was joined by Mr Chu Hao, a Senior Paintings Conservator from Shanghai Museum, who assisted with some of the processes that make up this painstaking treatment.
Traditionally, East Asian scroll paintings are habitually conserved and cared for over the course of their lifetimes by a process of remounting. The paintings themselves are cleaned and repaired, whilst the surrounding silk borders and accompanying lining papers are replaced with new materials. It is because of this remounting that many silk paintings survive today as hanging scrolls. Because our painting was in poor condition, it was decided to completely remount it.
Before any work could start on the painting, its condition was documented using detailed photography and microscopy. At the same time, appropriate materials had to be prepared and sourced; from dyeing the new first lining paper to exactly the right shade and tone, to finding matching old silks to repair all the missing areas. Mrs Qiu donated a Ming dynasty silk, which matched very closely the colour and weave of the painting, from her own collection (which was passed down to her by her scroll mounting teacher in Shanghai).
After consolidating any vulnerable pigments, the treatment could begin. The old unsuitable mount was removed from the painting, and in the process of doing so, wider hidden painted edges and more of a seal were revealed. The painting was then ‘washed’ four times in a wet treatment that removes acidity and discolouration from the silk. This process involves carefully sprinkling water onto the surface of the painting before gently removing the excess.
After cleaning, in order to stabilise the silk weave during the upcoming treatments, a temporary facing was applied to the painting’s surface, now nicely flattened by the wet treatment. This facing is made of tong oil paper (a specially treated water-resistant paper) with further layers of xuan paper (a short-fibred paper used in all Chinese scroll mounting and much East Asian calligraphy and painting) applied on top for extra stability.
With the surface protected, the painting could be turned over and stuck to the table face-down to reveal many layers of backing papers. These were removed with tweezers, sometimes in long strips, sometimes fibre by fibre, along with old unsuitable silk repairs. Only now was the real extent of damage to the painting revealed, and while still damp, misaligned silk pieces were carefully realigned to their correct positions.
Once dry, the process of silk repair could begin, being careful not to waste any of the precious ancient silk resources. Shaped patches of repair silk were adhered to the back of the missing areas and once dry any overlapping edges were carefully pared away. Because the painting was in such bad condition, this process alone took three conservators working for around six weeks.
It was at this stage that Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum joined the team to help apply the new lining papers. The first lining was dyed Chinese xuan paper, and the second, long-fibred Japanese usumino paper. Mrs Qiu developed this technique, which she thinks provides extra strength, after coming to the British Museum’s Hirayama Studio, where our Chinese and Japanese expert scroll mounters work together – a wonderfully unique situation, and one of its kind here in Europe. After this double-layer of lining was applied to the painting using wheat starch paste, it could be turned over and the temporary facings removed. Then it was applied to a drying board to allow the process of toning the repairs to begin.
With the conservation aspect of the treatment finished, the mounting work could begin. Mount silks were lined and dyed to best enhance the painting, before being cut into carefully proportioned rectangles that were adhered to the painting’s edges to make an aesthetic border. Slender paper reinforcement strips were applied to the back of the lined painting wherever there was previously a crack or crease, and then the whole mounted painting was given a final backing of two layers of xuan paper with cover silk at the top (to protect the scroll once rolled). This was attached to the drying board for many months, before it was removed and the back burnished, producing a smooth finish ideal for a scroll that will be rolled up. Finally, wooden fittings including the top stave, bottom roller and roller knobs were attached, and the hanging braid and tying ribbon tied on to produce a finished hanging scroll.
From undertaking the first analysis to tying the final ribbon, the entire process took over a year, with other paintings worked on during the long periods of drying. The painting is now stable and can be rolled and unrolled for display without risk of damage; the silk has been cleaned and strengthened by the washing and repair processes and the entire painting has been flattened by its new lining. Details in the painting, previously hidden by stains or creases, are visible once more. A hundred or more years should pass before this painting will need to be remounted again, its journey of conservation and potential to be preserved never-ending while there are still expert scroll mounters to care for these works in the traditional Chinese style.
The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP
The exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online