Conservation Stories: Chinese Paintings

After the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Scripps owns the second largest collection of Chinese paintings available to the public in southern California. At Scripps the art collections are a resource for teaching in the arts and Humanities; consequently, our goal is to make these works suitable for exhibition and accessible for study. Our first project, funded by the Getty, was to catalogue and photograph the Chinese paintings for display on the College’s website. We were assisted in this by several Chinese art scholars, including Professor James Cahill of UC Berkeley, Professor Richard Barnhart of Yale, and Professor Peter Sturman of UC Santa Barbara. They helped us assess authenticity and quality, and works were prioritized for conservation. Professor Bruce Coats (Ph.D. Harvard), who teaches courses in Asian art history at Scripps, also evaluated the works for their usefulness in teaching and exhibitions.

After completing a conservation assessment of the college’s permanent collection, the gallery’s director Mary MacNaughton secured conservation grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation to treat 15 Chinese paintings. Their story is highlighted here.

Chinese Paintings

Seated Female

Before treatment, many Chinese paintings in the Scripps collection could not be exhibited because of various kinds of damage. Sometime in the 1930s, before the college received the works as a gift from a private collector, many paintings had been placed on stretcher frames for Western style presentation. Consider the image of Seated Female (right) to see how the supporting frames left visible marks on the surface of the paper. Other works, like Peacocks (below), suffered water damage from substandard storage environments before coming under the gallery staff’s care. These paintings have been cleaned, re-backed, and remounted for appropriate scroll presentations. Note the dramatic contrast between the “before” and “after” images.

One of the challenges was to find a conservator in the United States who has the traditional training required to treat and remount Chinese paintings. The few who qualify are often unable to take on new work. After consulting with Robert Singer, Curator of Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, we secured the services of Mr. Hisaji Sekichi, head of Sekichi Bokusendo Conservation Studio in Kyoto, Japan.

Mr. Sekichi came to campus, examined each painting and recommended specific treatments. The paintings were carefully removed by him from the western-style stretcher bars, and then shipped from Claremont, CA to Kyoto, to Sekichi Bokusendo, where they were safely received. Mr. Sekichi initially photographed each work, meticulously examined its condition, and carefully analyzed the paper and mounting silks to determine what areas needed reinforcing or restoration. He also did extensive research to find the best quality textiles for new mountings. These steps preceded the actual cleaning of the silk surfaces of the paintings.


These paintings have been cleaned and remounted with new fabrics and backing papers. In addition, they are to be individually housed in traditional Japanese storage boxes. The process of conservation is being documented with descriptions and images of each phase of work.

The project resulted in beautifully restored paintings suitable for exhibition in the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery and for use in the classroom. Dr. Bruce Coats organized an exhibition at the Williamson Gallery in 2015, Preserving China’s Past, which looked at the traditional art of conservation of Asian paintings as it is practiced in Japan. This exhibition featured images of the various stages of the conservation process, comparing photo panels of each work in its former damaged state with the final treated painting.