Delving into the British Museum's efforts at restoring ancient Chinese paintings with restoration expert Qiu Jinxian

By Sun Wei in London Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/19 15:38:39

Delving into ancient Chinese painting restoration with restorer Qiu Jinxian


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

Qiu Jinxian Photo: Sun Wei/GT

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

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


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. 

"Those paintings represent the superb skills of Chinese artists," Qiu said, adding that she treats every masterpiece with respect, and hopes more paintings can be restored.

So far, Qiu has repaired more than 200 ancient Chinese paintings, including hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, albums and other types. In addition to ancient Chinese paintings, she was also invited to help repair several valuable ancient Korean paintings. 

Chinese kung fu

Qiu has spent most of her life dealing with ancient paintings. She recalled her 15 years of experience working at the Shanghai Museum, which gave her a solid foundation. 

"It is kind of a Chinese remounting kung fu," Qiu said.

Qiu expressed her gratitude toward her teachers Xu Maokang and Hua Qiming at the Shanghai Museum. From them, she inherited the best techniques from both the Yangzhou and Suzhou styles of mounting, which are characterized by smooth, soft, and light-colored frames.

Hua encouraged Qiu to work at the British Museum and even contributed his private collection of ancient silks in support of Qiu's work there.

"Finding matching silks is the most challenging thing here in the UK," Qiu told the Global Times. Silk needs to date from the same period as the artist lived, so they can match closely with the color and weave of the painting. 

Traditional Chinese restoration techniques are passed down from master to apprentice. Qiu currently has two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, at the British Museum. The former has been with Qiu for 13 years, the latter six years.

Speaking in fluent Chinese, Marabini told the Global Times that it takes at least 10 years to master these traditional techniques.

Weighing in, Weiss mentioned that she found it incredible how Qiu adapts different techniques according to the needs of each painting.

"Her brush action comes as second nature to her," Weiss said.

She noted that currently there is an urgent need to pass down these skills are there are a limited number of restorers even in China.

At present, both Shanghai Jiaotong University and Fudan University's School of Visual Arts have classes on this subject.

Qiu retired in 2011 but returns to work three days a week, racing with time to restore more Chinese paintings.

She told the Global Times that she would continue to work until she could no longer perform the job well.

Newspaper headline: Treasure of the British Museum

Posted in: ART

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