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Caring for the ancestors

Detail of a pair of husband and wife funerary portraits, c18th century

There are times in one’s life when all the skills learnt over years come to be needed, when one is tested by a seriously challenging job.

Lily Yang, the Gallery’s head of Asian art conservation, has been telling me of a recent whole-body testing of her mettle while she pulled together the conservation of an exquisite new addition to Conversations through the Asian collections as part of a recently refreshed display.

The work is a pair of husband and wife funerary portraits created by an unknown artist in China around the 18th century.

Lily explains that paintings of this style on silk have a support lining of paper – called ‘life paper’ in Chinese for the extra life they give the works (don’t you love that?). That means that when the artist paints the mesh of fine silk, the paint seeps in through the weave creating a sort of ghost image underneath. All fine and dandy if the work is in good condition, but when it’s not – this beautiful couple had suffered some nasty water damage – and needs treatment, the conservator is in for a whole lot of pain.

Lily had to separate the silk from the lining paper, wash and flatten them then, wait for it, put them back together again. (This step was bad enough, when the startling red and blue powdery pigments threatened to flow down the plughole unless expert care was taken.) The potential for this ‘re-registration’ process to end up like an Andy Warhol celebrity portrait was very real. She had to lay the silk down, made awkward by the fine layer of new starch paste in between, in exactly the right place or else, to use her words, ‘they’d have two sets of eyes and two sets of lips’! When you look closely at these magnificent portraits, you’ll see each fine moustache hair, so can imagine the way Lily drew on all her energy and her 30 years of conservation experience to fit each silk brushstroke of hair onto its paper double. Once finished, she was shaking with the effort.

Well, it was worth it. And assistant conservator Tom Langlands has made gorgeous new frames in red lacquer to replace the older thinner ones that were not deep enough to fit the spacer needed to avoid further damage to the paintings’ jewel-like surfaces.

It’s rather lovely to think of the skill of artists being matched by the skill of conservators in this way. These are portraits that remember the dead, the ancestors. That their ‘needs’ are still accommodated and they are accorded such respect seems particularly fitting in this case.

To get some idea of Lily’s epic task, take a look at the following slideshow. Click on one of the small images to begin.

	The restored paintings in their new lacquer frames.
  • 	The restored paintings in their new lacquer frames.
  • 	A detail of the wife portrait showing buckling (including separation of the support layers) and staining from water, or simply moisture, damage.
  • 	More water damage (in a ‘tide mark’) to the wife portrait, requiring cautious treatment on potentially fugitive pigments.
  • 	The lining paper of the wife portrait, showing staining from both light damage and that which results from water depositing dirt as it dries.
  • 	Gallery conservator Lily Yang applying a traditional pasting technique to a thin section of the lower edge of the wife portrait.
  • 	Lily pasting an edging strip as a traditional mount to help keep the main image located.
  • 	The husband, before and after treatment.
  • 	The wife, before and after treatment.

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October 26 2015, 9am
by Jackie Dunn
Writer and exhibition researcher