The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints

The Chester Beatty Library’s collection of surimono and picture calendars extends to some 375 single sheet prints. Alongside these are the kyōka books and a further 116 surimono with illustrations in the Shijō style popular in Osaka and Kyoto, many of which are preserved in albums. The greater part of this collection was formed between 1954 and 1963.

Acquired by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty for his newly built Library in Dublin, the collection took shape under the specialist guidance of Jack Hillier and Beatty’s own developing interests in Japan’s printed arts. As works created through the collaboration of artists and poets in celebration of new beginnings, it is fitting that these prints were collected in that same spirit.

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J 2183 before (above) and after conservation (below)

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Ireland: an event precipitated in March 1957 by an exchange of letters between the Japanese and Irish ambassadors in London. The Chester Beatty Library is marking this anniversary with a special exhibition The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints (March 3 – August 27 2017). Dr Mary Redfern, curator of East Asian collections, selected 95 single surimono prints for exhibition and a number of poetry anthologies and surimono albums all from the Library’s own collections and many by leading artists such as Hokusai and Gakutei. This new exhibition focuses on the surimono and the literati circles that created them.

The Library received a generous grant from the American Friends of the Arts in Ireland (AFAI) which enabled the Chester Beatty Library to conserve, mount and frame all the prints and related material currently on display.

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The overall condition of the surimono collection is very good. The prints were all carefully mounted when the Library received funding for a conservator to travel to Dublin from Tokyo to advise and oversee the project. The mount card used nearly 40 years ago was conservation quality but quite thin and lightweight, so offered little support during handling and would not have prevented the prints touching the glass when framed for exhibition. The window apertures had been cut without a bevel, and overlapped the edges of the prints, hiding precious details of the images from scholars and visitors. The decision was therefore made to remove them from their historic mounts, and transfer them to new standard size mounts made from heavier (1650 micron) acid-free, buffered Conservation Board.

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J 2171 Before (left) and after conservation (right)

The prints had been attached to the previous mounts with conservation standard handmade Japanese paper tabs, so these were gently lifted from the backboards and retained where possible. Each print was then gently surface cleaned using soft brushes.

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Removing J 2171 from its old mount, and gently surface cleaning.

The prints were then carefully measured and in order to fully reveal the detail of the surimono, the new bevelled-edge apertures were cut slightly larger than each object so that the entire print could be seen. In order to mount the prints in this way, additional Japanese paper tabs were attached to the bottom edge of each print with wheat starch paste. These additional tabs along the bottom edge allow the prints to ‘float’ in the aperture, whilst the tabs hold them safely in place under the bevelled window.

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Applying new tabs to the tail edge of J 2171

The surimono were then carefully positioned in their new mounts, and the uppermost Japanese paper tabs were secured to the backboard, again using wheat starch paste and dried under weights.

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Mounting J 2171

New mahogany-coloured frames were ordered and each print selected for exhibition was framed by the team. Bespoke archival boxes have been ordered to house the collection while in long-term storage.

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Mounting and framing the conserved surimono prints in the lab.

The seven bound volumes to be included in the exhibition were all in good condition. They were surface cleaned and minor tear repairs carried out where necessary. Bespoke acrylic cradles were made to exactly fit the opening of each volume. These were then installed in three display cases in the Library’s Temporary exhibition Gallery.

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Four bound volumes on display.

Finally, the framed prints were hung in the gallery ready for the opening on 3rd March.HangingThanks to the generous grant provided by the American Friends of the Arts in Ireland, the Chester Beatty Library has been able to ensure the long-term preservation of this rare and beautiful collection.

The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints runs from March 3 until August 27, 2017. We hope you’ll have the chance to visit the exhibition over the holidays.

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Delving into Russia – Conservation for Digitisation

The Library is currently working with scholars from the Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, on the production of a facsimile of our seventeenth century manuscript of The Life of Alexander Nevskij (CBL W 151).

The manuscript contains the Russian version of the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great written in Russian Church Slavonic. It is illuminated with 73 drawings in pen outline and colours. Alexander appears clean-shaven and is often seen riding a unicorn. On the pages, he battles fearsome creatures like the medusa, centaurs, hybrid dog-headed men and other fantastic beasts in far off lands. Another part of the manuscript, containing a copy of the Tale of the Rout of Mamai, is housed at the British Library in London (Yates Thompson ms 51).

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CBL W 151, f.39v-40r after conservation

The text and miniatures will be published as a volume in the series, “Written artifacts of Russian History and Culture, stored in foreign libraries and archives.”

To facilitate this work the complete manuscript has recently been digitised, but before that could happen, the manuscript required conservation.

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The manuscript’s 20th century binding; f.12-13 before conservation showing the restricted opening characteristics.

The manuscript is bound in a modern brown calf binding, most likely added at the beginning of the 20th century. The binding was very tight and prevented the book from being opened fully, causing the folios to curve steeply, and leaving areas of each page obscured at the spine-edge.

In order to increase the opening of the manuscript, whilst still retaining its most recent binding, the book was gently eased open. This simple but careful treatment required the book to be opened slowly page-by-page from front to back. This was done three times to ease the binding sufficiently to facilitate digitisation of the inner most spine-edge margin.

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Dorothea gently working through the manuscript to ease it open.

In addition some edge repair of the folios was necessary to make the digitisation process easier and safer. The paper textblock is very soft and many pages had tears along the edges. The manuscript had been extensively repaired in the past, with Western and Japanese paper. In some places these older repairs had partly detached, especially where close to the spine-edge.

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f.117-118 before (left) and after conservation (right)

A decision was made to leave these old repairs in place and they were reattached where they were at risk of being lost entirely, especially along the spine fold. Edge repair was then carried out with acrylic-toned Japanese Kozo paper and wheat starch paste.

With the binding eased, and the textblock stabilised, the manuscript could be digitised. The book was put onto a cradle with an angle of approximately 110° and the camera lens was positioned parallel to the pages of the book.

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Positioning the manuscript in the digitisation cradle. The folios are carefully leveled to align with the camera.

To further reduce handling, the book was digitised in two stages; firstly the recto pages were photographed, and then the verso. The pages of the book were held in place with polythene tape as necessary. When first assessed it was thought to be unlikely that the manuscript could be successfully digitised without extensive and interventive treatment. It was rewarding to see that the simple easing of the binding permitted the digitisation of the inner most spine-edge margin. The edge repairs prevented any further tears to the paper and safe handling by the photographic services team enabled us to digitise and eventually share this remarkable text. Slide5.JPG

Dorothea MüllerHeritage Council Intern in Conservation

Wishing everyone a very happy St Patrick’s Day from all at the Chester Beatty Library.

We don’t mind Mondays!

As regular visitors to the Library will know, the museum is not open to the public on Mondays during the winter months (November – February). However you may be surprised to hear that Closed Mondays are often the busiest days of the year, especially for the conservation team.

There is a small but dedicated staff at the Library and we all work onsite so are used to the general background noise and buzz of our wonderful visitors (over 370,000 people last year). So on that first Monday in November the museum always seems eerily quiet, but not for long.

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Cleaning larger collection objects around the Library.

An essential part of disaster prevention is the Library’s very busy annual maintenance programme which ranges from clearing gutters and checking roof tiles to servicing the lifts and running fire drills. Phased improvements and repairs to the fabric and decoration of the building are planned to coincide with closed Mondays, so that they have minimum impact on our visitors.

For conservation it offers an opportunity to carry out essential maintenance in the galleries. Display cases are opened and the interior glass cleaned, artsorb used to maintain a stable relative humidity levels is changed and our environmental monitoring system is annually calibrated. The collection includes some beautiful Chinese vases and furniture which are on open display, so these are carefully cleaned using soft brushes and microfiber cloths.

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Changing the scroll displays in the Arts of the Book gallery.

We have two permanent galleries-Arts of the Book and Sacred Traditions– the key themes within these exhibitions remain the same however the collections on display change annually. The curatorial staff work with the conservation team to carry out phased rotations across the collections.

From March, the Library re-opens seven days a week and today we are open to the public. However our work doesn’t stop there as we will now start planning our next maintenance programme over a very welcome cup of coffee from the Silk Road Café.

Jessica Baldwin, Head of Collections and Conservation