British Museum blog

Bringing a Ming painting back to life

Jin Xian Qiu, Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings, British Museum

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.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). Before conservation.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). Before 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).

Strengthening pigments with nikawa (a traditional East Asian consolidant)

Strengthening pigments with nikawa (a traditional East Asian consolidant)

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.

Mrs Qiu with her two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, removing the painting’s old backing papers

Mrs Qiu with her two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, removing the painting’s old backing papers

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.

Mrs Qiu repairing the missing silk areas

Mrs Qiu repairing the missing silk areas

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.

Mrs Qiu with her assistants and Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum, after the painting has been lined and its facings removed.

Mrs Qiu with her assistants and Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum, after the painting has been lined and its facings removed.

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.

Mrs Qiu and Mr Chu Hao retouching the painting on the drying board.

Mrs Qiu and Mr Chu Hao retouching the painting on the drying board.

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.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). After conservation.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). After conservation.

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

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Trips to Xiamen Museum and Lanzhou conference on paper conservation

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Examining the condition of a painting

The conservation studio at Shanghai Museum is often asked to conserve paintings for other Museums, which has given me the opportunity to observe the staff here working on a number of different, challenging objects.

I was kindly invited to join the conservators on a trip to the Xiamen Museum to return 15 conserved paintings and collect 10 new paintings in need of conservation. I was fortunate to be able to see the Xiamen Museum paintings before conservation – in quite poor condition and to follow the conservation assessments.

At Shanghai airport on the way to Xiamen Museum

An international conference on paper conservation across East Asia that I went to in December gave me an opportunity to learn more about the spread of expertise across the region in greater detail.

The conference took place in Gansu province, Lanzhou. Its theme was the research and conservation of paper from the Silk Road. The first gathering of this conference took place in Beijing in 2006, and was followed by a second and third event in Japan and Korea respectively.

Langzhou National Museum

This symposium was held by Unesco, the Chinese Academy of Cultural heritage, Gansu Provincial Museum and Gansu Archaeology research Institute, and united conservators from the five Asian countries of China, Japan, North and South Korea and Mongolia to share and discuss the conservation of paper relics.

On this occasion particular focus was put on the different techniques used in traditional paper-making in each country, and modern solutions for preserving the region’s paper heritage were presented by the various expert guests. A special exhibition also gave me a chance to see unearthed paper relics from the Silk Road itself.

The hectic city of Shanghai

Back in hectic Shanghai, the environment in which I work is unique with an intense daily rhythm of tasks. The experience of learning from the wonderful professionals in this field really is a privilege.

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