Delving into the British Museum's efforts at restoring ancient Chinese paintings

Updated 2016-12-20 10:30:44 Global Times
Qiu Jinxian (bottom right) and her team remount a painting at the British Museum. Photo: Courtesy of British Museum

Qiu Jinxian (bottom right) and her team remount a painting at the British Museum. Photo: Courtesy of British Museum

Delving into ancient Chinese painting restoration with restorer Qiu Jinxian

At the British Museum, ancient Chinese paintings always manage to attract a lot of attention. Two Horses by the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) painter Zhao Mengfu, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) copy of The Admonitions Scroll and around 100 fragmentary Dunhuang paintings have all become a public sensation.

While these historical paintings are world famous, not many people know the name of the person who brought them back to life - Qiu Jinxian, senior conservator of Chinese paintings at the British Museum.

It's no exaggeration to say that Qiu is the only person at the British Museum or even in the entirety of the UK who has the expertise necessary to restore ancient Chinese paintings. It was only after she joined the British Museum 29 years ago that the museum was able to hold one ancient Chinese painting exhibition after another.

Joanna Kosek, head of Pictorial Art Conservation at the British Museum, told the Global Times that Qiu is considered one of the museum's most valuable treasures. "We let treasure treat treasures," Kosek said, adding that the museum is fortunate to have someone with such superb restoration skills.

From master to apprentice

It was a letter from Professor Roderick Whitfield with the Art and Archaeology Department at SOAS University of London that led to Qiu's first contact with the British Museum.

Knowing Qiu just happened to be visiting the UK, Whitfield invited Qiu to demonstrate traditional restoration techniques at the British Museum in 1987.

"The first painting I restored here was a landscape painting from Fu Baoshi (1904-1965). It had been saved from a fire and had several big holes in it," Qiu recalled.

After checking and analyzing the colors, she decided to use boiling water to remove the painting from the old unsuitable mount. The painting was "washed" five times, and then restored and remounted. Everyone was shocked by the process and amazed at Qiu's traditional Chinese restoration methods.

Jessica Rawson, head of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum then, immediately invited Qiu to work at the museum to restore its collection of ancient Chinese paintings.

Qiu's appearance on the scene shook up the dominant position of the Japanese remounters at the Hirayama Studio (part of the British Museum's Department of Conservation and Scientific Research). The materials and techniques used by the Japanese remounters were not a good fit for the ancient Chinese paintings.

"Japanese mounting techniques brought back from China during the Tang Dynasty," Qiu told the Global Times on November 29, adding that China continued developing mounting techniques in later dynasties, which is why her restoration techniques were a better fit for paintings from those later periods.

In 2014, Qiu restored the 1,600-year-old Tang Dynasty copy of The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (The Admonitions Scroll) through two months of uninterrupted work with her assistants. The painting, which was in extremely poor condition, was brought back to life again, becoming a valuable resource for studying the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) painter Gu Kaizhi's original work as well as the evolution of early Chinese figure painting.

"It can easily go another 100 to 200 years without needing further repair," Qiu told the Global Times with pride.

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