The Mounting and Restoration of Chinese Paintings: From Textual Sources to Contemporary Practice

Conference by Camille Schmitt, restorer of graphic and pictorial works of art from the Far East

After studying in Taiwan, China and France, Camille Schmitt devoted herself to the restoration and conservation of calligraphic and pictorial works.

Calligraphic works can be found on a variety of mediums, from rigid mediums like Shang turtle shells (1600-1100 BC), wood, bamboo, etc. The wooden or bamboo index cards have top-to-bottom writing and are read from right to left when put together. The characters are written using a brush. Subsequently, the inscriptions are carried on a flexible support, silk from the 5th s. av. JC and the paper of which we have examples from the 1er s. av. JC These documents on paper or on silk (leishu) cover different subjects such as maps or books (classics, official letters, administrative archives) but also paintings and autographs. These documents are kept in the imperial archives of the dynasties in place and they are the attributes of power. Conserving and transmitting these attributes of power is a concern found in the conservation and classification project of the library of the early Han (206 BC-24 AD) and subsequent emperors. "Xun Xu (荀勗, died in 289), director of the imperial library, collected about thirty thousand juan (chapters) of books, many of which were written on bamboo index cards from a princely tomb dating from 280, which he had transcribed on yellow paper(Drège, Jean-Pierre, "Libraries in China at the time of manuscripts (until the 10th century)”, Paris, EFEO, 1991, p. 27).

Inscription on turtle shell. Shang. 1600-1100 BC. JC

Book written on wooden pads. Han (206 BC – 24 AD)

Xuanquan paper fragment (3,5 x 7 cm) discovered in a tomb in Gansu dated to 32-7 BC. JC

Conservation is part of transmission and it is a concept that is very old and very important in China. These documents include texts, images and books in rolls. Initially, the conservation of the works passes by the roller which is the common support with all the Far East. Everything is done so that rolling up is a conservation method that allows the work to be transported, to preserve it from humidity, although certain accidents may occur (cracks, splits or breaks).

In China, conservation consists of preserving the object in such a way that gripping it, unrolling it and handling it is easy and also paying attention to the environment of the work, which is very close to modern definition. A distinction is made between preventive conservation, which acts on the environment in order to delay or prevent deterioration, transport and storage of objects, and curative conservation, which intervenes on damaged works in order to improve their understanding and their use.

Among the means of prevention on the pictorial supports, the supports were prepared with insect repellent primers, in particular the paper was dyed yellow with an extract of philodendron whose use was still attested in the 9th s. A recommendation of 5th s. mentions that it is necessary to put two or three sheets of paper at the beginning of the roll, and one finds rolls reinforced by a doubling of paper. These practices were applied in the workshops of the imperial libraries but also among the great collectors who sometimes restored the scrolls themselves, “To let the rollers get damaged is to harm their virtue».

On the eve of the Tang dynasty (618-907), the assembly codes were already firmly established: the works were reinforced by doubling and wrapped around a stick. Under the Tang, at 8th s., a prince set up a large imperial library, and to do this, massively recruited civil servants, including commissioners for the restoration of books. An inventory of the library, dating from 739, describes the arrangement of books by classes and categories as well as the distinction of scrolls by mounts. It is therefore a real work of classification, copying and restoration of books. Ten editors-restorers had been recruited by the department of the imperial library, seventeen editors of books and ten preparers of paper. Between 675 and 677, imperial officials made many copies of sutras which are part of works found in Dunhuang Cave. Copying, in China, is part of the conservation of works and, even today, in the conservation department of the Palace Museum in Beijing, there is, alongside the restorers, a team of copyists. A restored work is accompanied by three identical copies, for the purpose of preservation.

Zhang Yanyuan 張彥遠 (815-876), a great scholar, describes in great detail the paintings that are done on silk with mineral pigments, those done in line, in ink, on beaten paper and, for him, the mounting and catering are very important. He describes the mounting glue, the mounting instruments, he insists on the choice of lining paper and advises against lining with primed paper but recommends the use of large white sheets, smooth and thin. All these recommendations are still given today in restoration workshops and restorers can cite extracts from Zhang Yanyuan or Zhou Jiazhou 周嘉胄 (1573-1620). The latter insists on the glue, because it must not be too thick but, for him, the most important thing is brushing. Zhuanghuang zhi [Editing Treaty] by Zhou Jiazhou, is a work written during the Wanli era (1573-1620) under the Ming, printed and distributed in the early Qing. This treaty is fundamental because the conservation process is detailed point by point, it remains topical for the learning that one follows when one is in a workshop in China: examination of the painting ((pigments, damage followed if need for fixing the pigments), washing, splitting, filling and laying of the strips, laying of the interlayer borders, first lining, retouching, assembly, last lining, laying, descent of the board, polishing, laying of the tips, laying of the stick, wand pose and title strip pose.

Manuscript, scroll on silk. 5th c. ap. JC, reported from Dunhuang, ©BNF.

Assembly diagram of a horizontal scroll. ©Camille Schmitt.

The horizontal scrolls are the first scrolls and, under the Tang, the structure of a scroll was already perfectly codified: the scroll unrolls from right to left, first we find the tie ribbon, then the rod, the cover, the title page, the work, the tail of the scroll and the winding stick. The horizontal rollers only unroll arm-by-arm; for the sutras, one reads paragraph by paragraph, for the landscapes, the roll unrolls by small ends. Some rolls measuring several meters, even several tens of meters, it was impossible to contemplate them in their entirety. The horizontal rolls are examined in a small committee, placed on a table, they are unrolled little by little and are the subject of comments.

Unrolling a horizontal scroll. The landscape gradually unfolds.

Du Jin (1456-1528), Eighteen scholars, colors and ink on silk, suite of 4 vertical scrolls. (Retail). ©Shanghai Museum.

Du Jin (1456-1528), Eighteen scholars, colors and ink on silk, series of 4 vertical rolls. (Retail). ©Shanghai Museum.

Assembly diagram of a vertical scroll. ©Camille Schmitt.

The vertical paintings were first fixed on rigid supports such as screens and it seems that it is only from the 10th s., that the vertical scrolls appear. It is likely that some vertical paintings from folding screens were remounted in vertical scrolls. The structure of the vertical rolls is quite similar to that of the horizontal ones. The work is framed with light and discreet pieces of silk, with a sky more important than the earth and on the sky there are bands, the roll ends in tips.

Preparing the glue. ©Camille Schmitt.

Gluing and smoothing. ©Camille Schmitt.

Planking. ©Camille Schmitt.

In the workshops, you first learn assembly before tackling restoration. We start with the preparation of the glue which is done by beating wheat glue or wheat starch with boiling water. The work is placed face down on the table, it is moistened, then a sheet of paper is applied and brushed. You can overlap several sheets of paper in this way. The brush used is made of palm fiber. The layout follows: it involves placing the work on a vertical wall, either on about twenty layers of paper in the North of China, or on plywood or a wooden wall in the South. The wet work, fixed by its edges, will retract as it dries, which corresponds to putting it under tension. Gluing is then done using a goat hair brush which has the characteristic of containing a lot of liquid and releasing the glue for a long time, then smooth. Chinese paper is very absorbent and therefore a very diluted glue must be used. Once the boarding is complete, silk edges are laid, lined with paper, which have also been tensioned. We then proceed to a final dubbing.

Installation of strips of paper. Camille Schmitt workshop. 2009. ©Camille Schmitt.

Torn liner paper.

Restoration: filling gaps. Palace Museum, Beijing, restoration workshop. ©Camille Schmitt.

After learning how to assemble, we can approach the restoration workshop. At first, we learn washing, then we proceed to splitting. Then strips of paper are applied to the back of the work to reinforce it (the older a work, the more strips it will have). When the gaps are too big we put pieces of paper. Then the assembly is doubled and put under tension. Finally, in order to fill in the gaps, it is necessary to proceed with the touch-ups which are affixed by painters. In the West, this last step is little used out of respect for the original.


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