British Museum blog

A conservator says goodbye to China


Valentina Marabini, British Museum

After a year in China studying with the conservators at the Shanghai Museum, I arrived back in London in mid-December to start putting into practice at the British Museum the many new skills and techniques I learned.

Examining a painting in the studio

In the last few months of my placement, I undertook a number of projects and had the opportunity to speak about my work at some international events.

One such event was the Forum for Curators of Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum in the USA, 27-29 July organised by the JS Lee Foundation. Curators, scientists, archeologists and conservators from both western and eastern museums came together to present, discuss and share their work and I was invited to speak about my time studying the conservation of Chinese heritage paintings in the conservation studio at Shanghai Museum.

In October I gave an introduction to the techniques I used in two conservation cases at the Fine Art Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This gave me the chance to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art, where I was able to meet fellow conservators and discuss examples from their collections and conservation challenges and methods with them.

The Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

I then went on to the National Palace Museum of Taipei, where I was given the honour of seeing some of their great masterpieces. The Head of Conservation, Mr Hung Sun Xin, allowed me to spend some time at their conservation facility and talked with me about materials and methods they use.

Finally, a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing concluded my time in China. I have great interest in the northern style of conservation practice and the short exchange with my counterparts in Beijing left a warm impression contrasting with the cold temperature in the city.

The Palace Museum in Beijing, China

Now, back in London, I am beginning to reflect on the opportunity I’ve just had and my gratitude to the JS Lee Foundation for making this year of study – and the extensive knowledge it has brought me – possible.

I’d also like to express my appreciation to Master Zhu Pin Fang, whose time, knowledge and assistance provided me with the chance to develop my technical skills in a unique environment.

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Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai

Turning a Chinese painting into a hanging scroll


Valentina Marabini, British Museum

As promised in a previous post, I will now describe the last stages of the conservation of a painting and how it is turned into a hanging scroll, which can be safely rolled for storage. This process is called zhuang hua.

Detaching a painting from the drying board

Detaching a painting from the drying board

After the painting has been lined with paper and framed with mounting silk, it is stretched and adhered by narrow margins onto a wooden drying board. It is left there to dry for up to five months, depending on the age and condition of the painting. Following this period, the flat and slightly stiff assemblage of the mount and the painting is detached from the drying board using a thin bamboo spatula and placed face down on the red lacquer table ready to be burnished.

Burnishing the back of the painting

Burnishing the back of the painting

A thin layer of wax is applied to the verso – or back – of the painting and this is then gently burnished (polished) with a smooth river stone. This process produces a beautiful smooth, glossy surface on the back of the scroll. The application of the wax and the burnishing compresses the scroll layers and closes the pores of the paper, thus providing the scroll with flexibility and stability.

Using a special Chinese knife to make the hanging scroll rod.

Using a special Chinese knife to make the hanging scroll rod.

The last step of the mounting process is the fixing of the original top stave, tian gan, and bottom roller, di gan, or, if necessary, replacements custom-made from cedar wood. The shape and diameter of these are proportional to the dimensions of the scroll.

Small holes are drilled perpendicularly in the top stave and hand-made, copper hooks, ji jiao, are carefully stapled and secured inside it. A cotton cord, shen zi, is inserted inside the hooks and secured with two rods respectively at the extremities.

Treated silk is tied at the centre of the cord to fasten the hanging scroll.

Treated silk is tied at the centre of the cord to fasten the hanging scroll.

The two sides of the wooden stave are covered with the same plain silk used to mount the scroll. These are called fengtou.

The same silk is used to produce three thin strips that are pasted to close the loose ends of the cord at the edges. The choice and thickness of the strips illustrated here are characteristic of the Yan Ban Su Ban School style adopted by the Shanghai Museum team.

Special open silk called bai lin dai is laminated with flour paste and left to dry overnight. It is then cut into strips, folded in four and sewn to form a ribbon called dai zi. This is tied at the centre of the cord to fasten the hanging scroll.

The insertion of the bottom roller, di gan

The insertion of the bottom roller, di gan

The bottom roller is selected for its weight. Both ends of it are worked with a special knife, each to form a point. Two hollow hardwood mahogany pommels called zhou tou are then fixed onto the wooden rod ends by forcing them in with a wooden hammer. As with the rest of the mounting process, the precision required at this point is paramount!

The finished article

The finished article

The scroll can now be rolled, using the pommels, and secured with a ribbon or unrolled and hung as a hanging scroll or lizhou.

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Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai

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, , , ,

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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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, , , ,

A year’s placement in Shanghai

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Over the coming months I will be writing regularly about my experiences in the Painting Conservation Studio at the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, where for a year I am studying to complete my training in traditional scroll mounting.

Valentina Marabini at work with a colleague in the studio at Shanghai Museum

Since 2003, I have been working in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum learning, under the guidance of Mrs Qiu Jin Xian, the skills and art of Chinese painting conservation and traditional mounting techniques.

It takes 10 years to acquire the necessary knowledge of these traditions. So in December last year, to undergo the crucial final stage of my training, with the support of the British Museum and the generous sponsorship of the Bei ShanTang JSLee Memorial Foundation I travelled to China and the Painting Conservation Studio of the Shanghai Museum for a year-long secondment.

Shanghai Museum

I’m here to refine my knowledge of traditional conservation and scroll-mounting, working with pictorial artefacts on paper and silk: hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, fan and albums.

There is not much literature to study or many courses to attend in order to specialise in this field, so the only way to learn the skills is by observing the work of conservators and, assisting senior teachers.

The opportunity to spend one year fully immersing myself in the work and life of the Shanghai Museum mounting studio is invaluable in increasing my understanding of the form and function of Chinese art within its historical context.

It will additionally improve my fluency in the Chinese language, but, most importantly, this placement will help me refine the skills needed to care for the Chinese paintings in the British Museum collection.

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

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