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The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin with the continued support of The Sumitomo Foundation in Tokyo, have now commissioned Restorient to conserve three more of their most treasured Japanese paintings. Dating from the early 17th century this set of hand scrolls chart the epic tale of "Hunting the Ogres" It will be possible to follow the conservation of these magnificent hand scrolls here on this blog. We at Restorient are delighted to have the opportunity to share this remarkable project, and to offer some insights into this type of specialist conservation.

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Monday, 29 November 2010


Sinterklaas arrives by boat in Leiden

Whilst the work on the handscrolls continues it is against the colorful backdrop of the Festival of Sinterklaas which is celebrated throughout Belgium and Holland.

Although originally from Turkey and dating from 280-342 AD, St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and children. The modern tradition of Sinterklaas as a children's feast dates from a childrens storybook written in 1850 by the teacher Jan Schenkman. He introduced the images of Sinterklaas delivering presents down the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a gray horse, and arriving from Spain by steamboat, then an exciting modern invention.

Sinterklaas is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (Black Petes). During the Middle-ages Zwarte Piet was a name for the devil.. Today however, the more politically correct explanation that Pete's face is "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb down chimneys to deliver his gifts) is used. In medieval times, the feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children's shoes). Whilst good children are rewarded with presents, naughty children are threatened with being kidnapped and carried back to Spain.

Two especially dubious 'Black Piet's'


Saturday, 30 October 2010


The hand scrolls  measuring just over 29.0 metres, had a number of different types of paper joints within their structure. Whilst the original sheet sizes of the papers used had a bearing on where joints occurred, there are also different types of joints used between the various lining papers. A straight knife cut edge for example would provide a strong but less smooth joint, whereas a water torn paper edge would be smoother (and as a consequence roll better). So, as part of the examination of the hand scrolls we had carefully noted the position and the types of all the joins in the scrolls.

Fine bamboo spatulas (hera) which are used for dry separation of paper linings 

We then had to decide the least disruptive way of separating these. The most effective is often, where possible, to separate the sections without moisture using a very thin spatula made for this purpose out of a special type of bamboo. Traditionally the best for spatulas (hera) is soot bamboo (susu dake) which is very hard.   
Dr Michael Ryan discussing progress
We were very pleased to welcome Dr Michael Ryan, Director of the Chester Beatty Library who visited the Restorient studio last week. We talked through  progress to date and outlined our schedule for the coming months.

It was very interesting for us to hear more of the history of this extraordinary collection  formed by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. He was an American, who made his fortune mining in the Rocky Mountain district of Denver, Colorado. He was often called "The King of Copper".

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Measuring up ........

                  shaku      sun        bu

A part of the documentation of the hand scrolls involved not only recording the position of all of the twenty-one paintings and the twenty-six calligraphy's but also their dimensions. For this we use a traditional Japanese bamboo ruler (monosashi) marked in shaku (1 shaku = 30.3 cm).

Originally Chinese and dating back to the Zhou Dynasty in the 13th century BC, the shaku was once the distance from the thumb to the middle finger (about 18.0 cm). However, like the taxes it was once linked to, it has increased over the centuries. In Japan there are several shaku measures still in use today, with the clothing industry and carpenters using completely different shaku measures.

The dimensions of scrolls and their various mountings are always in these units of measure, as are most of our tools, materials and equipment. So... mo, rin, bu, sun and shaku are the standard measures in scroll mounting studios. For the record 'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter' scrolls are 9 sun high and an impressive 95 shaku, 3 sun, 6 bu long - give or take a mo (the width of a human hair!)

A Japanese shaku ruler

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Lucky ?

Cubes of nikawa and Japanese pigment sticks enogu

The traditional binder for the Japanese pigments used on the hand scrolls was a deer glue size known as nikawa. This was not only used as a binder for the pigment sticks enogu - but also helped the pigment adhere to the painting support. As the binder within the pigments weakens over time either through abrasion, poor storage or just plain old age the pigment can begin to crack or flake. It has long been the practice for conservators to re-introduce a weak solution of the same deer glue size to help consolidate and strengthen the pigment layer prior to embarking on the more complex conservation processes.

Interestingly, although we will be using a solution of nikawa, for a few years now a number of conservators in Japan have been experimenting with rabbit skin glue from Europe. As an alternative to Japanese nikawa  they feel it is a slightly softer more flexible option.

While discussing rabbits and rabbit skin glue in Kyoto, I was asked about  the tradition of the ‘lucky rabbits foot’. This, the rabbit who had ideally been shot with a silver bullet in a graveyard on a full moon only to have its left hind foot removed to provide good luck? I replied that the only thing lucky as far as I was concerned was that the idea did not extend to Elephants.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


After the excitement of The Netherlands coming second in the World Cup we can at last get back to work. I do though still wonder about the dog who had his tail dyed Dutch Orange for the competition ?

Of recent visitors we were delighted that Keisuke Sugiyama, a fellow conservator from the British Museum came to visit the project. It was really interesting for us to compare notes and talk turned as it will to the critical issue of fibre direction. Briefly, when hand made paper is being formed the fibres tend to align more along a vertical axis rather than horizontally. It is important that this feature is thoroughly appreciated and used to best advantage. Generally fibre directions are crossed to balance the flexibilities of different layers of linings but in the lining of handscrolls especially, various mounting studios have different preferences. The common aim though remains to keep the scrolls soft and flexible.

The discussions could easily go on until the next World Cup and beyond.......

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Beyond the lens...........

macro photo detail

Although many photographs have been taken, it is the information the camera cannot detect which we also have to collect. A great deal of time must be spent poring over every detail as we cannot miss any information which will later help to inform the conservation process.

We knew that the hand scrolls had heavy paper linings with a high clay content which had contributed to the severe creasing. The backing had also been coated with a dusting of mica, a lustrous powdered silicate. (The word "mica" is thought to be derived from the Latin word micare, meaning "to glitter"). This technique is no longer favoured by Japanese scroll-mounters, it was a traditional decorative coating which also helped the scrolls to roll smoothly. It was unfortunately very prone to off-setting and under microscopic examination we found a number of areas where the mica from the backing had transferred to the surface of the paintings.  
We must also consider "historic repairs" and the ethics behind their possible retention. These can pose real conundrums. A skillful repair hundreds of years old can be a thing of real beauty. However an area of hasty retouching using an inappropriate pigment, although historic, might be considered less integral.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The hand scrolls arrive in Leiden

After a lot of planning and patiently waiting for the Icelandic ash cloud to clear, the 'Tale of the Bamboo Cutter' hand scrolls have finally arrived in the Restorient studio in Leiden, The Netherlands. Kristine Rose, senior conservator from the Chester Beatty Library delivered them safely over from Dublin. 

The first task will be to record  the current position of all the paintings and the calligraphic panels, (there has been the suggestion from Japanese scholars that the order in some places is not correct so further investigation will be necessary before we finally re-assemble the scrolls) followed by writing an appraisal of the condition of the two hand scrolls, noting all previous damage and repairs before our work begins. This invariably means taking far too many photographs under a range of lighting conditions such as transmitted and raking light as well as UV.

Its going to be a long journey (28.88 meters to be exact!) over the next two years and we will keep you posted as we progress. 

Monday, 3 May 2010

Coming soon ...........

                    Detail from "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter"

The conservation is scheduled to start June 2010.

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