Scripps College owns the second largest collection of Chinese paintings in Los Angeles that is available to the public. Over 100 Chinese paintings dating from the 16th-19th century reside within the College’s Williamson Gallery. Ownership of a collection of this magnitude is rare for a college or university, establishing these paintings as a valuable resource for Scripps students, faculty, and staff as well as scholars. As an institution with an education-oriented permanent collection, the priority of the Gallery is maintaining the accessibility of the collection for use in the classroom. Yet much of the Chinese paintings are fragile, and thus access to them is limited, preventing the collection from fulfilling its role as an educational resource.
Eager to return these works to a level of greater usefulness to students and scholars, Dr. Mary MacNaughton, director of the gallery, sought funding to begin a conservation project. The goal of the project is to make the paintings suitable objects worthy of being loaned to other institutions, presented in exhibitions, and used in the classroom. The conservation of the collection began in 2000 with a complete survey of the works and the completion of four paintings by conservator Ephraim Jose. In 2007, a long-range conservation plan was drafted and the Williamson Gallery began prioritizing works from the Chinese painting collection for conservation. The selection of “high-priority” works is based on quality, condition, and potential use as teaching materials in the Asian Art History courses led by Dr. Bruce Coats.
Funded by generous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Williamson Gallery has had 15 paintings conserved as of November 2013. In the fall of 2013, the Gallery’s director Mary MacNaughton secured a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to fund the conservation of six more of the high-priority paintings. After a conservation assessment of the Chinese painting collection was completed, the gallery began searching for a conservator.
Given the specificity of the Chinese painting style and associated conservation methods, conservators with the required technical and traditional experience are difficult to find in the United States. Through a reference from the Pacific Asia Museum, and a recommendation by Nicholos Dorman, the chief conservator at the Seattle Museum of Art, the gallery secured the services of Tomokatsu Kawazu, president and head conservator at Studio Sogendo in Alameda, California. Classically trained in Japan, Mr. Kawazu is adept in both the technological aspects and traditional methods of conservation.
The paintings selected include four hanging scrolls and two paintings mounted on lattice board. Gifted to the college in the 1930s, the paintings have since sustained a variety of damage including exposure to water, surface staining, weakening pigments, oxidation, and paint loss at creases.
The proposed treatment plan includes cleaning, remounting on new silk, and, lastly, returning the paintings to the scroll format.
The following accounts are progress reports of the paintings as they undergo conservation.
Each of the six paintings requires a fine-tuned treatment dependent on the material composition and condition of each work. Nevertheless, all six of the paintings have undergone a process in which flaking pigment was re-adhered to the surface using animal glue known as consolidation. In addition, each work was given a general surface cleaning using soft brushes to remove dust and dirt.
As a vivid example of a common issue in painting conservation, note the image of Two Star Deities of Happiness and Honor: the surface of the painting has sustained various patches of inconsistent coloring due to past restoration and toning with a multitude of different materials. There is a separation between the silk and the pigment along severe creases that run horizontally on the painting causing the facade to be interrupted by cracks in the painting; following this separation, there are numerous small tears and losses. In addition, the condition of the pigment is poor, and the past in-paintings have oxidized and darkened, further obscuring the image’s original beauty.
The painting has since been consolidated through a process in which Kawazu strengthened the silk backing and corresponding pigments with a solution of water and animal skin glue.
In the case of Lady Holding Peony, the darkened areas depicted in the photo are the result of a reaction between the acid in the previously used backing paper and the chemical components of the previously used toning agent.
Several of the selected paintings fell victim to severe water damage. Lady Standing in a Garden has severallarge water and mud stains; spot testing was conducted and warm water was used to reduce the stains.
Both Bamboo in Snow and Snowy Landscape with Bamboo spent many years mounted on a lattice board. Given this format, both paintings were more susceptible to damage during storage and transport. The images show surface abrasions and loss of pigment due to friction.
In the next phase of the conservation, the layers of silk lining will be removed and replaced in order to remount the works as hanging scrolls, restoring the paintings to their traditional format. Hanging scrolls will offer the audience a more authentic experience with the Chinese paintings. The silk will be custom woven to enhance the painting, infills will be repaired with silk that has been irradiated to artificially age the tone to match the pigments, and creases will be reinforced with non-acidic paper and wheat starch paste. The final product will be a collection of 21 restored paintings suitable for exhibition and study.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The damaged works will be restored thanks to a $58,385 Museums for America grant number MA-30-13-0444-13.
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