Conservation Stories: Phoenix Bedcover

The Scripps College collection of Asian textiles consists of more than 1,000 objects. Working directly with the textiles allows students to explore the material’s design and purpose. Students learn about the history of textiles, which informs modern understandings of the time and place from whence they came. Whether functional or decorative, each textile in the College’s teaching collection puts the fabric of Asia’s historic, cultural, economic, and social life within the students’ grasp.

Through Scripps College’s teaching collection, undergraduate students from various disciplines handle precious textiles—an opportunity rarely found at other schools. In one popular seminar taught by Professor Bruce Coats, “Arts of Late Imperial China,” class members collaborate and draw from the collection to prepare an exhibition. Scripps students may also create exhibitions for the Clark Humanities Museum independently. For example, in the spring of 2013, Johnson Research Award recipient Tara Contractor (SCR ’13) organized an exhibition entitled Pashmina: A Hundred Year Journey. The Gallery’s many student interns also work closely with the textile collection. Over the years, Getty, Turk, and Wilson interns have helped staff clean, organize, photograph, and electronically catalog a wide variety of objects, from elaborate Jifu imperial robes to the most delicate of silk slippers.

Ongoing conservation efforts are essential to preserving these culturally and aesthetically significant works. Many of the collection’s magnificent Chinese garments, dating from between 1550 and 1900, need professional cleaning and repair to return them to a condition acceptable for use in classes and exhibitions. In spring 2013, the Williamson Gallery received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to treat some of the highest-priority textiles in the collection—one of which is highlighted here.

Kesi Bedcover with Phoenix (1550-1625)

Analyzing the wealth of visual symbols provides students with insights into Chinese history, society, and culture.

This large bedcover from the late Ming dynasty features silk, gold-wrapped, and feather-wrapped thread. Like the dragon panel discussed in the above section, the bedcover is rendered in kesi-style tapestry weave. The blue center medallion portrays two phoenixes, one male and one female. Items conveying wishes of wealth, such as a pearl and a piece of coral, float around them. Auspicious birds and beasts that later came to represent civil and military ranks are woven around the medallion and on the borders. Mythical qilins (peaceful, hooved creatures), lions, silver pheasants, and paradise flycatchers (black-headed, long-tailed birds) canter, pace, and swoop among floral patterns on an off-white ground.

Professor Bruce Coats notes, “The delicately rendered designs…create an other-worldly design for an aristocratic marriage bed. This large panel is an example of luxury goods made for Chinese elites and of a system of visual symbols to bring blessings and good fortune to the original owners.” Textile expert John E. Vollmer classifies this as an exceptional piece, noting its quality and preservation. He identifies the object as an early example of textiles made for export.

The NEA conservation grant awarded to Scripps in 2013 has provided funds for the treatment of this bedcovering by textile conservator Yadin Larochette. Currently the textile is very fragile; there is creasing, surface dust, fading, and staining throughout. Many of the vertical threads, called “warp”, have torn along the gaps inherent to kesi weaving. Patches on the back indicate previous conservation work.

Ms. Larochette’s treatment plan first calls for a general surface cleaning via an adjustable suction vacuum through a fine nylon mesh. Further testing of the colorfastness of the dyes is needed to determine whether the stains and creasing can be reduced. Old patchwork may be removed and replaced with an overall support lining. A second dust lining will be stitched onto the textile to protect the inner supports.

When conserved, this rare bedcover would make a handsome centerpiece in an exhibition. Analyzing this piece would yield a multi-faceted classroom discussion as the motifs and designs in Chinese textiles often evolved from philosophy, popular legend, religion, and linguistics.