Conserving the ogres of Oeyama

The Chester Beatty’s mid-seventeenth century version of The Tale of Oeyama (大江山物語), has recently undergone an extensive programme of conservation, which started when I delivered the handscrolls to the Restorient Studio in April 2012. Last month, I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Leiden to meet with conservators Andrew Thompson and Sydney Thomson and celebrate the end of this exciting three year project.

I am very pleased to announce that the three Oeyama scrolls are now the focus of Damsels for Dinner, an exhibition currently on display in the Library’s Art of the Book Gallery until 31 January 2016.

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The Restorient Studio is based in the grounds of the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in the centre of Leiden. The museum is fantastic and I never miss an opportunity to visit when I’m there. It was founded in 1837 making it one of the oldest ethnological museums in the world; however the use of interactive multi-media, large scale projections and cutting edge design make each world culture represented come to life. During this trip, I was lucky enough to see the spectacular Geisha exhibition, just before it closed, which gave a fascinating insight into this tradition, which is often surrounded by mysticism and misunderstanding. The highlight for me was a breathtaking display of over 20 kimonos, which slowly rotated.

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Andrew Thompson and Sydney Thomson founded Restorient in 2005, they specialise in the conservation of Asian art and their workshop is modelled on traditional Japanese restoration studios with much of the work carried out at low level benches on a Japanese tatami mat floor. The studio is equipped with a wide range of materials and tools sourced throughout Asia. Especially important are the large Japanese drying boards (karibari), which my colleague Julia recently blogged about.
j-1145_during-26Andrew has over thirty years’ experience in conservation; for many years he was in charge of the prominent Hirayama conservation studio at the British Museum and was responsible for the conservation of their extensive collections of Eastern art on paper and silk. Sydney has more than twenty years of experience in Japanese painting conservation; she studied in the Usami Shokakudo, a world renowned scroll mounting studio at the Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, Japan. She also spent ten years as a senior conservator in the Hirayama Studio at the British Museum, specialising in the conservation and restoration of Japanese hanging scrolls (kakemono) and Japanese folding screens (byobu). They are both accredited members of ICON, the Institute of Conservation in the UK.

The Tale of Oeyama (大江山物語) is one of the best-known heroic stories from medieval Japan, and is one of my favourites. It tells the tale of the fearless warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021) who uses his courage and cunning to defeat the demon Shuten Doji who has been kidnapping and eating maidens from Kyoto. The Library’s version of the tale was produced in a set of three scrolls and has been painstakingly conserved at the Restorient Studio, Leiden thanks to the generous support of the Sumitomo Foundation, Tokyo.
J1145_during_consolidation.1The three scrolls measure between 10 and 15 meters in length and are made up of several different layers of Japanese hand-made paper with each scroll attached to a wooden roller at one end with an outer silk cover at the other. Due to their fragile nature and repeated handling, the scrolls had become heavily creased, in order to preserve them it was necessary to remove the old paper linings, strengthen the creases and attach three new linings. Over time, the traditional Japanese pigments had weakened and begun to crack or flake. Before the old linings could be removed, the conservators carefully consolidated the pigments to ensure they were stable. The project was completed by attaching new silk covers and adding custom-made rollers which fit over the narrow nineteenth-century rollers to reduce the risk of creasing in the future. The scrolls are now stored in a new custom-made Paulownia wood box.

Throughout the project Andrew and Sydney kept a blog that tracked their progress. They have produced a fascinating short movie entitled Conserving the Ogres of Oeyama which highlights their incredible work carried out over the last three years.

This is the second project that has been completed thanks to the generous support of The Sumitomo Foundation. The Library was fortunate enough to receive a grant in 2009 to conserve two early-seventeenth century Japanese handscrolls, which are the earliest surviving illustrated version of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. On their return to the Library the hand scrolls were exhibited in the Library’s temporary gallery.

We are looking forward to welcoming the Restorient Studio to the Chester Beatty Library in October and Sydney Thomson will give a lunchtime lecture on the conservation of the Tale of Oeyama on Thursday 15 October at 1.10pm.

Andrew and Sydney have become part of the extended Chester Beatty family and we are very much looking forward to working with them as they undertake the meticulous conservation of The Tale of Tawara Toda scrolls (the third project to be funded by the Sumitomo Foundation) and the conservation of two paintings on silk depicting the Dutch trading post of Dejima in the port of Nagasaki (generously supported by the Members of the Library). I look forward to writing about the progress of these projects in the future.

2015_05_restorient-visit_leiden-3Jessica Baldwin

Head of Collections & Conservation 

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Traditions of Papermaking in the Islamic World

The Islamic Manuscript Association’s inaugural course and symposium on the materials and techniques of Islamic manuscript production was held at the British Library from 23rd- 27th March this year. Julia and I were lucky enough to attend.

This fascinating class was taught by Cathleen Baker, conservation librarian at the University of Michigan Library; Tim Barrett, director of the University of Iowa Center for the Book; Evyn Kropf, librarian for Near Eastern and religious studies and curator of the Islamic manuscript collection at the University of Michigan Library; and Katharina Siedler, papermaker and historian. The thirteen participants had travelled from around the globe to attend and included the authors of several pre-eminent scholarly publications on Islamic paper.

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The intensive four-day course focused on the practical techniques of Islamic papermaking based on the methods used by hand papermakers in parts of India today. Our daily papermaking sessions considered mould construction, fibre preparation, sheet formation, pressing and drying, as well as sheet finishing techniques of sizing and burnishing. You can read Ann Tomalak’s lovely account of the processes here.

Whilst this was a wonderful opportunity to gain first hand-experience in an alternative (to European) technique of papermaking, for me it was the discussion that surrounded the class that proved invaluable. The varied experience of the participants meant that an active and lively discussion was soon underway, and the problems of discussing ‘Islamic papermaking’ were soon at the forefront of our minds.

One of the first discussion points was about terminology. The word Islamic is the commonly accepted term used to describe the cultures of the vast and diverse regions which have been ruled or inhabited by predominantly Islamic populations. This makes it a rather open-ended term, and we soon realised that rather than a generic Islamic form of papermaking, we were looking at a far more regionally specific variation of the craft. In particular, the living practitioners our tutors had studied and learnt from were working in regions of India. Our terminology reflected this, and we used the Indian word chapri to describe the characteristic flexible mould screen.

© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. CBL Per 196 f.135b

© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. CBL Per 196 f.135b

One of the key texts we reviewed in relation to the observations of papermaking in the field, was ibn Badis. This text was written in 11th Century northeast Algeria, and describes papermaking with flax from a raw plant fibre stock. This account contrasted with the observations made in India today (as in Europe) where only rag fibres are used to form the pulp. So ensued much discussion: Is ibn Badis documenting a particularly unusual papermaking process? Is he just an interested individual- a prince no less- with limited practical experience or understanding? Or could it be that ibn Badis’ source was protective of the true details of his livelihood?

We also discussed the only other known historic treatise on papermaking, an anonymous work attributed to al-Ghassânî (d. 694-1294) in the Yemen. Al-Ghassânî notes the use of raw plant fibres from the fig tree and fails to mention any use of recycled rags, but perhaps he is influenced by Southeast Asian trade with the Yemen, and documenting a Southeast Asian papermaking process. Our discussion served to emphasise the diversity of papermaking traditions over centuries and across a vast geographic range, as well as the potential hazards of relying upon historic treatises alone.

In the practical sessions, discussion focused on the materials our moulds were made from, and our sheet formation technique. We experimented with bamboo and grass chapri’s woven with thread or horsehair and tried a double-dip technique at the vat, similar to that seen in some Japanese and Korean papermaking traditions; but contrary to popular belief, neither double-dipping nor immediately couching wet sheets on top of one another produced a sheet which was easy to delaminate, a common misconception regarding Islamic papers. Having said that, only three of our number were professional papermakers. The rest of us were at best inexpert at this skillful craft. Our dry sheets were surface sized with starch and burnished with agates and bone folders to produce a crisp hard writing surface, a process which also masked a multitude of sheet formation flaws!

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We finished the fourth day with observations of historic manuscripts. Our session was spent looking at a variety of attributed historic manuscript fragments on a lightbox, which was hugely informative; the differences in paper production techniques across the vast Islamic world were obvious when they were seen side by side. On the last day of the week a symposium was held and I have no doubt that all of the participants’ minds were whirring. It was clear that the speakers had taken the discourse and experiences of the week into consideration in their presentations which added to the thought provoking atmosphere.

In conclusion, this fascinating week was extremely inspiring. There is still much to learn about the intriguing subject of Islamic manuscript production, and this course highlighted the range of unknowns. However, I left feeling enthused by the conversation between deeply passionate participants and tutors.

Another variation of Indian papermaking using a floating mould and textile separators

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator