No need for Magic: A simple trick for the display of a Batak manuscript

Amongst the treasures at the Chester Beatty is a small collection of 51 Batak manuscripts – 45 bark books, 4 inscribed bamboos, 1 bone amulet and one paper manuscript. Hailing from North Sumatra in Indonesia, the oldest of these manuscripts is dated to the 19th century. The Batak manuscript culture encompasses written texts on various organic materials including bamboo, bone and tree bark. The bark books, also known as pustaha are divination books, although other subjects such as medicine and magic are also common.

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Right: CBL Sum 1144, a small size bark concertina manuscript held closed with a band of plaited rattan; Left: CBL Sum 1147, an inscribed bamboo rod

In preparation for a rotation of the Batak display case in the Sacred Traditions gallery, I condition checked four bark manuscripts. They were all in good condition and required very little attention, with the exception of one object (CBL Sum 1102).

The bark concertina manuscripts vary in size from some which are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, to others which are around A4 in size. They are made of two wooden covers glued to a folded textblock made from the bark of the alim tree or agarwood. The stiff bark is prepared in rice water to allow it to soften and be folded into a concertina book.

In the typical East Asian fashion, lacquer was used to seal off the raw edges of the bark at head and tail of the concertina textblock. This provided extra strength to the most vulnerable part of the exposed textblock.

Inside the textblock, the text runs vertically in plain black ink, following the folds in the concertina. There are additions of elaborate illustrations and tables within the text, sometimes highlighted in red ink.

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CBL Sum 1129 open textblock

The wooden covers of the Batak manuscripts are sometimes decorated with hand-carving, and always carefully cut to the size of the manuscript or left slightly larger to provide a square which would protect the textblock. To hold the concertina books and their wooden covers together when closed, a band of plaited rattan or sometimes leather is used.

On many examples, handle straps are attached to the upper cover of the larger books. They are made of a dark coarse material, probably tree fibres of the sugar-palm, and roped together to create a handle. This enabled the owner of the manuscript to transport them from site to site and also to store the book on the wall, away from rodents and moisture.

On manuscript CBL Sum 1102, the sugar-palm fibre straps on the manuscript upper board were bent down and had lost their 3-dimensional aspect. As the curator wanted the object to be displayed closed, with the straps held up to give some context to the object and meaning to the straps, we needed to find a solution to support the misshapen straps, as invisibly as possible.

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CBL Sum 1102 with sugar-palm straps bent down

The use of a Perspex or brass rod support underneath the strap was considered and a few unsuccessful ideas were tried out such as Melinex supports, manipulation of the straps and humidification, I decided to go back to basics.

Using a simple thread which was attached to the strap on one side and to the display case fabric on the other, I hoped that the strap would stay in place. Luckily for us, the bend in the strap was facing away from the back of the case. This meant that with a very simple low-tech thread the same colour as the fabric lining the case, I could pull the strap in to place using enough tension to pull it up for the duration of the display. In a worst case scenario, the thread would give way well before any damage to the palm fibres occurred and would only lead to the handle coming back in to its bent position.

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Display of CBL Sum 1102 with straps help up using silk thread

I used an extremely fine 100% orange silk thread which I looped around the book cover handle and into the fabric at the very top of the case and knotting it to itself. The system is extremely discreet and after a few months of display, the thread has held and I am happy to say that the handle is still standing!

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CBL Sum 1102 on display with straps held upright

Working on the display of the Batak manuscripts was extremely rewarding. Problem solving is what conservators love best and I was happy to be able to use a simple, low-tech solution for the display of this manuscript. It is sometimes all you need.

If you want to learn more about Batak manuscripts, I recommend you read this great article by René Teygeler.

Julia Poirier – Book conservator

 

 

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Stamp of approval

When Sir Alfred Chester Beatty died on 19 January 1968 he bequeathed his world-famous collection of rare books, manuscripts and decorative arts to the Irish people.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of his death and his extraordinary gift to the nation, a special twelve month programme of events was launched by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan T.D. on 19 January 2018.

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Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. (c) The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

The Library also unveiled a series of four commemorative postage stamps from An Post featuring works from across the Collections. It was a real pleasure to be involved in the project, so I thought I’d write a short piece on how it came about and share some details on the artworks pictured.

The call for suggestions for 2018 commemorative stamps was issued by An Post at the beginning of 2016 and the Library submitted a proposal to the Philatelic Advisory Committee (PAC) that March. This independent committee assesses all proposals received for special and commemorative stamps and recommends the subjects for inclusion in each annual programme.

We were delighted to hear that our request had been initially recommended by the Committee and that Zinc Design had been appointed to work with us on developing four €1 stamps. The challenge then began: with over 27,000 objects to choose from, trying to select just four images that best represented the Collection and that might suit the diminutive format of a stamp seemed an impossible task. However after a series of meetings with the Curators and Director we shortlisted twelve images that we felt best represented the life of Chester Beatty and our three main collections – East Asian, Islamic and Western.

In December 2016, the Director and I met with the designer and An Post’s Philatelic Manager to review possible designs. After much discussion we all agreed on a final winning selection.

The next step was to take high resolution photographs of the collection items, and the final stamp proofs were then sent to the Board of An Post for ratification. The Library was under strict instructions not to share the exciting news of the stamps until they were finally approved by Government at the end of 2017 and the anticipation within the museum was keen.

Chester Beatty was an avid stamp collector from an early age and this is often cited as the start of his great passion for collecting. It was therefore a most appropriate tribute to be able to launch the stamps on the 50th anniversary of his death on the 19 January 2018.

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Left to right: Jessica Baldwin, Minister Madigan T.D., David McRedmond, Dr Catherine Day (Chair of the Board of Trustees), Fionnuala Croke (Director)

The four new €1 stamps feature a portrait photograph of Alfred Chester Beatty (c.1911) and detail images from the collections: Birth of the Virgin (Simon Bening c.1530, Belgium); Shah Jahan (Bichitr c.1630, India) and Allusions to the Seven Lucky Gods: Daikoku (Yashima Gakutei c.1825, Japan). Despite only measuring 52 x 30mm, this cohesive set of stamps beautifully illustrates the collections.

Speaking at the launch, David McRedmond, Group CEO of An Post said: “We think of stamps as ambassadors for Ireland as they travel across the globe, telling the story of Irish life, heritage and culture. With these stamps, Ireland celebrates the vision and generosity of Chester Beatty and the ongoing success and vibrancy of this wonderful museum as it continues to delight and inform Irish and international visitors.” I couldn’t say it better myself, it seems the perfect way to thank Chester for his incredible gift, considered the greatest ever given to the nation.

The four stamps, along with a specially designed First Day Cover envelope, are available to purchase in the Chester Beatty Shop as well as main post offices, Dublin’s GPO or online.

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The four new €1 stamps feature a portrait photograph of Alfred Chester Beatty (c.1911) and images from the collections: Birth of the Virgin (detail) (Simon Bening c.1530, Belgium); Shah Jahan (detail) (Bichitr c.1630, India) and Allusions to the Seven Lucky Gods: Daikoku (detail) (Yashima Gakutei c.1825, Japan). The first day cover shows an oriental figural snuff-bottle from the collections (c.1790-1830, Jingdezhen, China).

Jessica Baldwin, Head of Collections

Seductive Marvels of Japanese Art– Materials and Techniques of Surimono Prints  

Surimono prints were the focus of the exhibition “The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints” on display at the Chester Beatty Library in the spring-summer 2017. This exhibition of 95 single prints and poetry books from the collection gave us a chance to study in detail the making, techniques and materials of Japanese woodblock prints, especially focusing on the more elaborate Surimono.

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“The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints,” an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library.

The most lavish of Japanese prints, the quality and refinement of Surimono appealed greatly to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. He acquired the greater part of his Surimono collection- a collection that is considered one of finest in the world- between 1954 and 1963, having already moved his Library to Dublin.

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CBL J 2078, Writing Table, by Gakutei.

The word Surimono means simply ‘printed thing’. Prepared as gifts for exchange among friends and acquaintances at New Year and on other special occasions, these privately-published prints were products of the flourishing literary culture of Edo Japan. The Surimono commissioned by poetry circles in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combine short verses composed at poetry gatherings with designs prepared by leading artists. Taking their subjects from the scholar’s desk and the literary canons of Japan and China, Surimono embody the eloquence and amity of these cultivated salons and offer a glittering glimpse into a world rich in playful allusion.

Because of its small audience and private funding, Surimono artists and printers could produce exquisitely refined prints with delicacy and great care. They were usually limited to between 50 and 150 copies.

The basic printing technique used to create Surimono prints was similar to the commercial Ukiyo-e prints although the Surimono prints appear to be much more intricate in design. They exhibit finer and much more elaborate details, more colours, more patterns, more blocks and therefore no expense was spared.

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Details of Surimono prints showing the intricacy of the design.

Japanese woodblock printing is a technique which involves the use of many different blocks of wood to produce one multi-colour print. The wood commonly used for the block is a hard cherry wood which was prepared and planed to achieve a smooth surface. The age of the block and the preparation had a direct impact on the finish achieved in the prints.

The design is first drawn on paper and then pasted face down with a starch paste onto a wooden block so that the design is reversed, ready to be carved and printed the right way up.  The block carver then cuts the design into the block by preserving the raised motif which will be printed.

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The initial drawing is adhered to the wood block (left); the wood carver cutting into the wood to created the raised motif (right).

The key block (Omohan) was produced first. It was printed in black and at this point annotated by the artist to describe which colours should be used where. With this decided, the other blocks for the different colours were carved.

Kento is the registration system traditionally used by Japanese printmakers.  It includes two parts, the hikitsuke kento (line stop) and kagi kento (key). Multi-colour woodblock prints require a separate block for each colour, and the kento marks insure the blocks are aligned with precision to print the colours on the paper.

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The Kento Registration System.

To prepare for printing, the pigments were mixed with water and sometimes animal glue (nikawa) in ceramic bowls. The block was moistened first and the pigment was applied with a brush onto the surface of the woodblock. There are different type of brushes available depending on the size of the area to be coloured and the desired effects. For example, tonal gradation could be achieved at this stage by using dampened cloth or water brushes to apply the pigment to the block.

The printing paper was dampened before being positioned onto the block using the kento marks. Next the back of the sheet was rubbed over the coloured block using the baren, a circular printing pad. The process of applying the colourants onto the block and rubbing them into the paper with the baren was repeated until the desired colour saturation was obtained.

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The printer applying pigment to the block (left); and then applying pressure to paper with the baren to print the design (right).

The paper used for Surimono prints is a kozo paper with strong fibres that tends to be heavier and more absorbent than the paper used for commercial prints. It is believed to be unsized, although a small amount of sizing might have been used to avoid smudging of the colourants in the areas that are printed.

The full sheet of o-bosho paper or “presentation paper” is 39 x 53.5 cm but was not commonly used as a whole. Rather the sheet would have been cut into different sized pieces, following established patterns to obtain different formats. The most common format is Shikishi-ban, an almost square sheet about 21 x 19 cm, which became the standard for Surimono printing and was rarely used for Ukiyo-e prints.

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CBL J 2107 Shikishi-ban format.

There are two important differences to note between commercial Ukiyo-e and Surimono which are central to understanding Surimono. The first one is to emphasize Surimono prints as luxury objects with extensive use of precious materials. These include the heavy, unsized paper and the use of mica powder and metal pigments. The prints were also more labour intensive to produce, using more elaborate techniques. Surimono printers used the highest quality and the finest materials available as well as showing off their finest printing skills.

The second major difference is that the poem which accompanied each image was carved into a separate block than the key block, by a wood carver specialising in cutting script. This block would usually display the finest lines and imitate calligraphy perfectly.

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Detail of CBL J 2107 showing a variety of effects used to reproduce different fabrics.

The use of metal pigment is common on Surimono prints. However, real gold and silver are rarely found. Instead brass, copper and tin are quite frequently used, sometimes as a background, but quite often to highlight small areas of the design. The metal powder was mixed with large amounts of animal glue (nikawa) and printed on the paper last to avoid transfers of the large metal particles onto the paper during the printing process.

 

 

 

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CBL J 2078, Fluidity of the line of text.

Mica (kira) is composed of phyllosilicate minerals. The white luminescent appearance was used to highlight prints. A mixture of glue, usually a gum, and the mica powder was applied to the block and then printed gently with the baren. It was sometimes applied above a coloured ground or mixed with the pigment before printing. Another method is to cut a stencil, place it over the print, and brush the glue directly onto the paper and lightly apply the mica powder onto it and brush any excess off once dry.

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CBL J 2313, Use of mica powder to highlight the body of the watch.

Maybe the most striking difference between ukiyo-e prints and Surimono is the extensive use of embossing-a technique which is not commonly used in ukiyo-e. There are a number of ways in which this was achieved.

Blind printing (Karazuri) is a form of printing without the use of any pigment. The technique involves carving a pattern into a woodblock and then printing it in the usual way, but without any pigment. The pressure of the baren on the back of the paper causes part of the paper to be squeezed between the wood and the baren, and flattened. This type of embossing is the most common and the one often used for highlights.

In areas of Surimono where the embossing appears to be coloured, it means that the pigment has been applied before the embossing, multiplying the amount of work necessary.

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CBL J 2284, Blind embossing and coloured embossing.

Convex embossing (Kimedashi) was produced by removing a concave area in the block and pressing the piece of paper over it. The paper is pushed down into the carved spaces of the block and moulded into a new shape. This type of embossing was often used for larger areas where the mark of the embossing is visible at the verso and the paper does not remain flat.

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CBL J 2102, Convex embossing on the wine flask (left and centre), is especially visible with raking light on the verso of the print (right).

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CBL J 2179, Mount Fuji, by Hokusai

The exhibition and the catalogue were a real dive into a marvelous world of beauty and luxury. Because privately commissioned, cost was no object and this shows in the wealth of techniques and materials that the artist, wood carvers and printers used to produce the Surimono prints. Leading artists such as Hokusai and other prestigious Ukiyo-e artists dedicated large portions of their work producing these refined Surimono prints.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator

 

 

 

Conservation through generations

 

Oslo Harbour

Oslo Harbour.

Between the 3rd and 5th of May the International Association of Book and Paper Conservators (IADA) hosted their 2017 symposium, ‘From Generation to Generation – Sharing Knowledge, Connecting People,’ at the Oslo Konserthus in Norway, a wonderful modern building in the heart of this capital city.

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Elizabeth Randell speaking about her experience as an intern at the Chester Beatty and The Oslo Konserthus.

The conference was aimed at exploring the way knowledge and skills are passed on and shared with younger generations of conservators, looking at various teaching programmes worldwide, social media and academic writing amongst other subjects. The conference also focused on practical work, challenges linked to treatments, and our ability as conservators to reflect as we adapt past techniques and create new practices.

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to present a research poster on the use and adaptation of yasha at the Chester Beatty Library. Yasha is a natural dye obtained from the cones of the alder tree, which was first introduced to me by the two wonderful conservators, Andrew Thompson and Sydney Thomson, at the Restorient Studio, in Leiden in The Netherlands.

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Repairs for CBL Heb 751 toned with Yasha (left); harvested yasha cones (right).

In Japanese mounting studios yasha is used to dye the lining papers of both hanging and hand scrolls. The light brown colour obtained from yasha helps to soften the bright white tone of the lining paper and silk so that it is more sympathetic to the delicate tones of historic objects.

Through centuries of practical application, the traditional use of yasha has proven stability and durability which makes it suitable for conservation. Papers dyed with yasha remain pH neutral or slightly alkaline and retain their brightness and colour on ageing.Most plant dyes are light sensitive but yasha is lightfast.2 It continues to be used today for these qualities.
Like many features of the traditional Japanese conservation studio, yasha is now readily available to Western conservators. With a growing interest in adapting conservation techniques imported from East Asia and Japan, the use of alder cones has become a known technique for dyeing paper when working on Japanese or Chinese Art objects. However, its use has rarely been developed outside of this small circle.

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Julia introducing her poster to attendees.

At the conference, the poster session took place on Thursday for over an hour after lunch, when attendees had the opportunity to ask questions about the research presented. I was delighted with the interest the research sparked and feedback I got from different conservators. Some had used the dye previously but were excited to hear about different application techniques, others were keen to be introduced to it and the ways to adapt its use to best suit our practice.

The conference finished with Friday visits organised at various institutions throughout the city, looking at the wonderful conservation work going on in Oslo!

Overall the two day conference was immensely varied and interesting to conservators of all generations who hopefully have learned from each other. The beautiful tributes to the important role of mentoring, teaching and sharing that Christopher Clarkson and Fred Bearman have played in the short history of conservation felt very appropriate with the overall topic of the conference. They will be sadly missed as pioneers and mentors to many.

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Aurlandsfjorden.

After the conference I took the opportunity to travel to Bergen. Norway is a stunning country and I was delighted to see some of the beautiful scenery, including these most amazing fjords along the way!

 

 

Julia Poirier,  Book and Paper Conservator

 

1 – Yeh, Brigitte. Munn, Jesse (2003) ‘An Evaluation of Xuan Paper Permanence and Discussion of Historical Chinese Paper Materials’ from ‘Scientific Research on the Pictorial Arts of Asia’. Edited by Paul Jett et al. Proceedings of the Second Forbes Symposium at the Freer Gallery, Washington DC, USA.

2 – Grantham, Sandra; Webber, Pauline, (2002) ‘Mellow yellow: toning papers with traditional Far Eastern colourants’, The Paper Conservator, Vol.26, pp. 49-57.

Reflections on links between Conservation in Dublin and Tokyo

While preparing for the current exhibition on display in our temporary gallery, The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints (3 March– 27 August 2017), and the supporting gallery rotation in our permanent galleries, I was drawn back to my experience as a participant at the ICCROM Japanese Paper Conservation programme in 2015.

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CBL J 1154 on display in the Arts of the Book gallery

One of the painted handscrolls, Poetry Contest of the Zodiac Animals (Junirui uta awase emaki) CBL J 1154, was selected for display and installed in the permanent galleries to support the current print exhibition which focuses on Japan’s poetry circles. Between 1994 and 1995, the mid-17th century scroll was conserved at the Handa Kyūseidō Studio, Tokyo National Museum, courtesy of the Hirayama Art Research Foundation. Although having been conserved nearly 20 years ago, the scroll is still in perfect condition.

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CBL J 1154 before (left) and after conservation (centre & right) by the Handa Kyūseidō Studio.

As I was installing this beautiful scroll, I remembered with great delight my extra curricula visit to the Handa Kyūseidō conservation studio in September 2015. Set in a peaceful neighbourhood of Tokyo, I was given a comprehensive tour of the traditional conservation studio by Ikuko Handa, the head of conservation at the studio, and Makoto Kawabata, senior calligraphy and archive conservator at the studio and my course tutor.

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Makoto Kawabata, senior calligraphy and archive conservator and IICROM course tutor, demonstrating use of the karibari.

The visit was organised thanks to Keiko Furumoto. Keiko was the first Heritage Council conservation intern at the National Library of Ireland in 2007 and she has been working at the Handa Kyūseidō studio since returning to Japan. Since completing her internship, she has regularly returned to Ireland and made one of these visits in early April 2015 – around the same time I found out I had been accepted for the JPC course- so we kept in touch regarding a possible visit to her workplace in Tokyo.

The Handa Kyūseidō studio is set-up across 3 separate floors. The ground floor is a reception and digitisation area, the first floor is dedicated to the conservation of painted hanging scrolls, hand-scrolls and folding screens and the second floor to archive (historical documents), calligraphy and book conservation. Although it is located in a modern building, the studio is everything one would expect from a traditional Japanese conservation studio: low work tables, tatami mats, paste bowls and sieves, drawers full of Japanese repair papers and of course, karibari boards of all sizes lining the walls!

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Julia preparing a handscroll at the ICCROM JPC course (left), and a traditional paste bowl and brushes (right).

It was a wonderful opportunity for the Chester Beatty to reconnect with the prestigious studio, as during the 1990’s the Handa Kyūseidō Studio was also responsible for the restoration of one of the great treasures of the Library, a pair of Japanese picture scrolls entitled Illustrated Scroll of the Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Chōgonka gakan) CBL J 1158 and the beautiful hanging scroll on silk Portrait of the Bodhisattva Jizō (Jizō zō) CBL J 1214.

The funding for this conservation treatment was provided by the Joint Council for the Conservation and Restoration of Ancient Japanese Art Works in Foreign Collections, a council made up of The Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, the Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties and the Art Research Foundation and supported by the Tokyo National Museum.

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Participants of the ICCROM JPC 2015 course in Kyoto.

I am very grateful to Head of Conservation, Ikuko Handa for her kindness and generosity in facilitating my visit, and my tutor Makoto Kawabata for showing me his work outside of the ICCROM JPC course setting. I am also grateful to Keiko Furumoto for acting as a wonderful tour guide and translator during my visit.

Julia Poirier,  Book and Paper Conservator

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.

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

 

In with the new: gallery rotations

In preparation for our current temporary exhibition Hong Ling: A retrospective, curator of the East Asian collection, Dr Mary Redfern, selected a number of objects from the Chinese collection to complement the exhibition. The items are displayed in the Arts of the Book gallery, and have been installed as part of the annual rotation of the galleries in order to coincide with the new exhibition opening.

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Installing jade books in the Arts of the Book gallery.

The conservation team is involved in all aspects of preparation for gallery rotations. We condition assess each individual item before undertaking conservation work as necessary. Stabilisation of fragile objects includes pigment examination and consolidation if necessary, paper repairs, and sometimes also work on the covers or binding structure of bound volumes which might otherwise be too fragile for display.

Once each artefact has been stabilised, we can then begin to plan for its display in the galleries. The mounting system for bound codices involves carefully measuring and drawing the open profile for each manuscript, before commissioning a tailor-made Perspex cradle that supports the unique opening of each book.

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Mounting a print with temporary Melinex V hinges; Installing a scroll in a bespoke Perspex mount in the gallery.

We mount prints individually in conservation standard window mounts. If the mount will be a temporary home for the print or folio, we often use Melinex V hinges to attach the print to the mount board. This method is very useful as it does not require any adhesive to be in contact with the object. Once the mounting system is secure, the mounts are installed in the display cases using Perspex pins at top and bottom to hold them in place. Scrolls are carefully unrolled and both ends fitted into C shape Perspex holders which are secured to a sloped support. Using internal blocks and panel measurements, together with Perspex fittings, we try to ensure our mounting systems disappear and do not distract from the beautiful objects.

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Installing a mounted print in the gallery.

When we are finally ready to install the objects, we work closely with the curator to decide their placement in each case as well as lighting. We keep light levels at a maximum of 50 lux to protect the delicate and light-sensitive pigments and inks. Once the objects are installed, we monitor the environmental conditions in the galleries each day to check they remain stable and that no fluctuations in temperature or relative humidity are recorded.

The objects removed from display to allow these new items to go on view are then condition checked in the conservation lab before being returned to storage for a well-deserved rest. Blocks, frames and mounting systems are safely put away, ready to be used again in the near future.

5

Installing an ink study gifted to the Library by the artist, Hong Ling.

Hong Ling: A retrospective is open now and will run until January 29th 2017. We hope you’ll have the chance to visit the exhibition over the holidays. Make sure you also take a look at the Chinese section in Arts of the Book to see the treasures on display including Hong Ling’s beautiful ink study which the artist gifted to the Library to commemorate the opening of the exhibition.

 

Thank you for following the Chester Beatty Conservation blog during 2016. We’d like to wish you all a happy and peaceful festive season, and we look forward to sharing more of our work with you in the New Year!

A stitch in time

 

In August this year, a digitisation team from Ritsumeikan University’s Art Research Centre in Japan will travel to the Chester Beatty in order to digitise our Japanese printed book collection. The collection includes more than one hundred woodblock-printed illustrated books from the Edo period (c. 1603–1868). International collaborations with teams such as this one are key to enabling digital access to our collections, which in turn reduces the need to handle these objects so frequently ensuring their preservation.

A short condition survey of the selected items was carried out which highlighted a number of volumes with damaged and weakened sewing. As the sewing of these bindings is integral to their structure, it was essential that we carry out repairs to make the bindings suitable for handling during the digitisation process.

The fragmentary sewing was reinforced with lengths of new soft linen thread. This was joined to the existing silk or cotton thread with a simple binder’s knot, which could then be used to continue the sewing through the original sewing holes or stations.

Once complete, this simple technique proved strong enough to hold the previously loose volumes together, allowing the books to open safely once again.

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