Preserving Qianlong’s Victories

This post is slightly different from our usual blog format. Guest author and CBL conservation volunteer Adam Macklin writes about the production and provenance of a collection of Chinese prints, and the issues they present for conservation.

The world is now a small place; we travel widely and work, study and teach with people from different countries and cultures. Imagine a world far larger and quite disconnected. This is the world we must travel back to in order to understand one of the most intriguing artistic endeavors of the eighteenth century.

In the 1750s the Emperor of China fought a campaign on his western borders. To mark his success the Emperor, known as Qianlong, commissioned several cultural works. These included a fascinating set of copper plate prints designed in China and etched in France. A set of these are now held by the Chester Beatty Library. This post will look at the campaigns, the making of the prints, and the ethical issues regarding their conservation.

The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) fought several “Pacification” campaigns in the mid eighteenth century. Despite this defensive title, these wars went beyond Qing borders. The first of these campaigns was in an area now called the “New Frontier”, Xinjiang, in 1755. Primarily the Emperor sent troops to suppress a border revolt, by the Dzungars – a Mongolian tribe at the very western end of the Great Wall. By the end of 1759 he had extended his northern and western borders, eliminated rival control over the Dalai Lama in Tibet, removed rival influences in Mongolia, and appeased the Islamic tribes of Central Asia.

CBL C 1662

CBL C 1662

To celebrate this success and to cement his place in history, the Emperor commissioned several cultural works. The Emperor himself wrote many poems about the campaigns. He also ordered the carving of stone stele, commissioned portraits of deserving soldiers and civilians to be painted, ordered the painting of battles and Mongolian receptions, and, most interestingly, in 1765, he commissioned Jesuit priests at court to design scenes of the campaign for the production of copper plate prints.

“I want sixteen sketches of the victories, gained by me during the conquest of Dzungaria and the neighboring Muslim countries [Xinjiang] that were painted by [Castiglione] and other European painters in my service… to be sent to Europe where the best artists will be selected to transfer these pictures perfectly… onto copper plates.” Princeton, 2009.

The Jesuits had established themselves at the Qianlong court where they were valued for their skills in art and science. This was in a centrifugal atmosphere that was suspicious of trade and diplomatic ties with Europe. Men like Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit priest, had worked hard to master Chinese painting and other disciplines. During this period we witness a very interesting yet limited cultural flow between China and the West.

The Qianlong Emperor commissioned 16 plates to be etched and printed in Europe. He had been impressed by Georg Phillip Rugendas’ battle prints and took an interest in etchings. He ordered that four be made as soon as possible. Drawings would be prepared by four Jesuits; Castiglione, Ignatius Sichelbart, Dionysius Attiret and Jean Damascène. Castiglione, from Milan, had the greatest reputation among them both as an artist and architect. Some of the later drawings were prepared by unknown Chinese artists under the tutelage of the Jesuits.

Once these were finished, they were sent to Canton and then to France. Initially the British were approached to etch the copperplates, but a French priest in Canton intervened to secure the commission for France. A contract was drawn up by the Hong merchants on the Emperor’s behalf. The Compagnie des Indes took receipt of the drawings and presented them to the French Ministers of the State in Paris.

CBL C 1671

Detail from CBL C 1671

Charles Nicolas Cochin was eventually placed in charge of the work to transfer the Beijing drawings into etchings. His team of expert etchers and engravers included Jacques Philippe Le Bas and Jean Jacques Aliament. Cochin set out 15 demands to complete the work which included bonuses and stipulations for the quality. These were largely agreed. Once negotiations were finished in May 1767 work began. Soon afterwards in July, the remaining 12 drawings arrived from Beijing.

There were slight delays in the production of the first batch of copper plates. Cochin reviewed and corrected some of the etchings himself. He also requested that the Compagnie des Indes obtain agreement for a delay. He was very careful over choosing the paper and a printer. This latter choice was very important to the integrity of the project as there was a likelihood for pulling extra prints for personal gain. Due to the nature of this imperial project, extra prints would have been highly sought after.

The first shipment of seven plates arrived in Beijing in December 1772. A second batch arrived in August 1774 and the final set arrived in mid 1775. The Emperor was delighted with the first seven prints he received and immediately ordered further impressions printed. The commission was very demanding, but despite the cultural and geographical boundaries the results are impressive.

The Chester Beatty Library collection of Qianlong Victories prints, commemorating the campaign in Xinjiang includes all 16 prints in this set (CBL C 1656- 1671), as well as 18 accompanying woodblock prints with text (CBL C 1672- 1689). Sir Alfred Chester Beatty acquired the prints in the early 1950s. Delicate strips of decorative blue silk had been attached to all of the etchings. These 40-50mm wide strips frame the prints. When Chester Beatty acquired the sets the blue silk strips were already part of the objects, making them composite items.

The engravings have survived in good condition. However, a number of them have suffered from exposure to high humidity. The presence of the restrictive silk borders has prevented the prints from moving freely. This created extensive cockling and distortion to the print surface as they expanded and contracted in reaction to the changing environmental conditions. As the prints are no longer flat, storage and display of the images is problematic with risk of abrasion of the ink. This distortion also makes the prints difficult to appreciate and is distracting when displayed.

CBL C 1671_showing cockling

Cockling caused by the restrictive silk borders of CBL C 1671.

It is difficult to say with certainty when the strips of silk were added to the prints. Based on the quality of the silk and the paper used to attach the strips to the prints, it is likely that these borders were added by a collector or dealer in China. In many ways it is similar to the textile mountings found on Chinese hanging scroll paintings.

What conservators and curators at the Chester Beatty Library now have to consider are the ethical implications of how to preserve these prints in order to display and maintain their beauty; do they remain bordered in their silk frame or should they be released from their confines? Although, removing the silk borders would grant easy access to the prints and allow conservators to carefully flatten them, it also changes the nature of the object. To make an informed decision on whether to remove the borders and flatten the prints, the provenance of the silk borders needs to be understood.

CBL C 1671_details showing cockling

Detail of the silk borders of CBL C 1671

As there are copies of these prints in other collections around Europe, America and China, further research is currently underway on where and when the silk borders were added to the prints. If the provenance cannot be identified, the conservators’ decision-making will be based principally on their duty to the prints’ long term preservation. The search goes on.

Adam Macklin, CBL conservation volunteer

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