British Museum blog

The unregarded woman: another look at a Ming painting

Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Of the many paintings included in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the most famous is the ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’, showing a swanky party held in 1437 in the garden of Yang Rong (1371–1440), Grand Secretary and all-round important person of early fifteenth-century China. It’s in all the books on Ming painting, appears on loads of websites, and is generally one of the most reproduced images dating from the period covered by the exhibition. This is partly because of where the painted silk handscroll now is, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and so it has been relatively easy to view and study, as well as to publish in books about Chinese art. I’ve used it myself in the classroom and lectures in all sorts of ways, as it’s a very rich image for talking about patronage of the arts, the relationship between politics and art in the Ming, the role of the artist and lots of other topics. I find it is one of those images that you can always learn more about, and indeed there remain a number of mysteries.

Who is it by? It bears the signature of an artist called Xie Huan; his dates used to be a bit vague, but recent research by Yin Ji’nan, Professor of Art History at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, has established definitively that he was born in 1377 and died in 1452. He was an important person in the early Ming art world, apparently working as an advisor and painter to the Yongle and Xuande emperors, as well as maintaining a presumably lucrative private practice, producing images like this for important people like Yang Rong and his friends.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

The nature of the event – senior officials of the empire demonstrating the calm and peaceful state of affairs by gathering for a day of relaxed gentlemanly pastimes – means that more than one person present might have wanted to have an image of the party. Indeed another version of the same subject exists, in the Zhenjiang Museum in China. Are both paintings by Xie Huan? Did he, like Italian artists at the time, run a workshop where multiple versions of the same subject were turned out with the help of assistants? Is one painting the original, and the other just a copy?

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

All of these views have been put forward by art historians at some point, and indeed I’ve contributed in my time to the scholarship on this painting; I’m particularly intrigued by the painting within the painting (of which we can only see a tiny corner). So it’s a bit humbling to confess that there is a detail of this painting that I’ve never really noticed before, though I’ve looked at it many times, both in reproductions and at the Met in New York. The figures depicted as attending the party are all men, since mixed-sex gatherings would have been vaguely indecent affairs in the Ming, where men and women were strictly segregated in most aspects of elite life. The servants who attend them are all male too, young boys who hold up the painting for viewing, or roll up scrolls no longer wanted, or attend to incense or bringing in the drinks.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Except (and this is what never registered properly with me until I had the chance for extended viewing of the picture in the exhibition), that there is one woman visible. She is right at the very left edge of the scroll, the last section to be unrolled when the painting was viewed in sections. She is peeping out from behind a tree, coming out from (presumably) the kitchens carrying a large handled basin. We can’t see the contents, perhaps it is hot water to warm the wine, or maybe it is meant to represent a serving of snacks to go with the drinks. She is doing something important, but unregarded. As it happens, historical Ming gossip tells us that Yang Rong had a famously dowdy wife, a woman from his home province of Jiangxi in the south; she was once given a makeover by the empress, to the extent that she was unrecognisable beneath the added palace glamour. I don’t think the woman in the painting is meant to be her. Yang Rong’s wife was after all a lady, she did not serve the drinks at parties. But I’ve become aware that my own failure to notice her until recently has compounded the invisibility of women, which skews our understanding of Ming art and Ming culture more generally.

In 1437 the emperor was a young boy, and the gentlemen we see here were in fact governing the empire in coalition with the powerful women of the imperial family, the child ruler’s mother and grandmother. I like to think – in fact it’s entirely reasonable to think – that in the depths of the palace they and their ladies-in-waiting were partying in their own way. But they’re not in the picture.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall are editors of the exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, which is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Conserving a Qing dynasty calligraphy scroll

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

In a previous post I described a hanging scroll that I was working on – a work of Qing Dynasty calligraphy. It is now finished. I wrote then that I would explain the process used to conserve it, so here goes.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the scroll condition. The scroll is executed on paper – zhi ben hua long-fibered, which looks almost like silk. It was carefully analysed, photographed and the treatment procedure set. We next established the proportions and design for a new scroll mount.

A close-up of the scroll showing horizontal cracks

Unfortunately, the scroll was very creased with extensive horizontal cracks and signs of many previous repairs. However, the paint itself was stable and therefore suitable to be cleaned using a ‘wet’ treatment.

Using a broad paibi brush we carefully sprinkled water over the surface and drained it off.

Applying a wet treatment

When the painting was clean we could remove the old linings. A layer of dry xuan paper was placed over the face of the scroll, and the scroll and its support were loosely rolled up. The scroll was unrolled and flattened over wang wang juen (an open silk) face down and left overnight. During this time the paste and layers of backing papers became softer, making them easier to work with.

Removing the backing layers

To be able to remove the backing papers we had to remove many of the scroll layers. The scroll had three layers of backing papers – (i) a layer of white xuan paper repairs, (ii) a second lining of very long fibred paper and (iii) a first lining of thin xuan paper in direct contact with the calligraphy.

We cleaned the edges of the missing areas, removing old paste residues and lightly evened their thickness with a very thin spatula. Some of the previous repairs were in good condition and were left in situ, but some had deteriorated and so were removed. The calligraphy was now ready for relining.

Pasting the back of the scroll

Layers of paper were selected and dyed with natural pigments mixed with animal glue and water to match the tone. The back of the calligraphy was pasted with thin flour paste using a paibi brush. The first lining paper (a long fibered paper) was moistened and positioned over the calligraphy and adhered with a wuzhou brush. On top of this a second lining of mian lian (thin xuan paper) was pasted; this is called jia tou meaning additional lining.

False paper margins were adhered to the edge of the calligraphy to facilitate joining to its new silk mount later on.

Work continues on the scroll

When the lining was complete we could check the calligraphy itself. Missing areas were repaired with new paper made of mian lian and were evened with a thin spatula. The calligraphy was then turned face up and left to dry naturally.

Retouching the calligraphy

After sizing and drying, the calligraphy was again lightly moistened and adhered to a white xuan paper, face up on the table. We could now start retouching. This is done in natural light, and aims to match the repaired areas to the colours of the original. Ink and pigments are carefully diluted and then applied.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

This process was followed by tou liao, the selection and dying of the appropriate silk to form the new mount. The silk mount was to be in two colours, a plain and a grey-blue pattern silk.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

With retouching completed, the calligraphy was detached and the edges of the mount were squared. The mounting silk was cut to size and attached to the calligraphy using a technique called wa hua: a window is cut precisely in the silk and the calligraphy is inserted into it.

The scroll after treatment

A final double-layered backing paper completed the lining stage and, after a period of drying, wooden fittings were attached to the top and bottom of the scroll so it was ready for hanging. I will write about that in my next post…

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

Working with Chinese master scroll-mounters

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Conservation work in progress at the Shanghai Museum

A few weeks into my secondment, I started working under the guidance of Master Zhu Ping Fang, observing a large variety of conservation cases from large format hanging scrolls to hand scrolls on both paper and silk.

I first came to Shanghai Museum’s Chinese paintings conservation studio in 2005. My first thoughts on that occasion were that I had entered a secret temple.

The intensity and precision of the conservator’s activities when you see them in person reveal the incredible depth of their skill and knowledge, and I was absolutely fascinated. I didn’t know at the time how this experience would impact my education and my everyday life as strongly as it does now.

This is a busy studio and the walls are surrounded by thick wooden boards covered with drying paintings which are gradually incorporated into beautiful fabric mounts. The paintings are enclosed in the most beautiful plain and patterned silk, the style and proportions of which have been established largely by tradition.

Conservators hard at work

The same rules and methods have been used for hundreds of years and are guided by aesthetics, proportion, materials and hand-made tools. Students of scroll mounting have to practice until they have mastered the complexities of the handling and use of tools and materials including brushes, knives, paste, paper, and silk.

Some of the tools used for mounting

As assistant, I have to do everything that relates to the preparation of materials, from making paste, to dying paper and silk, selecting and preparing pigments for toning processes and preparing lining papers and silks. Equally, the assistant works closely with the master on the paintings themselves carrying out backing removal, repairs, as well as lifting or pasting large format artwork, which has to be done by two people.

Mixing the paste for mounting

Different conservation and remounting procedures take place simultaneously in the studio and so I have also assisted the masters with various treatments. I have worked on establishing the appropriate historical proportions and preparing silk to be used to surround a painting and fit it into the structure for a hanging scroll called Lizhou. I have also burnished the back of four paintings and inserted wooden fittings onto two scrolls.

The conservation studio with hanging scrolls on the walls

I lined a painting with three layers of medium weight Xuan paper and mounted it onto lined and dyed silk borders in the so-called ‘jinpian’ (or ‘frame’) format – a flat, 2D mount as opposed to a scroll mount which is rolled.

I was also assigned a work of calligraphy that required full treatment. That means assessment and selection of the appropriate procedure and materials, as well as cleaning the painting and dying its new lining paper. I’ll write more about this in a later post.

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

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