British Museum blog

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.

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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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