Conserving a Japanese hanging scroll

In April I travelled to Leiden in The Netherlands to deliver a Japanese painting to the conservation studio Restorient. The conservation work is being funded by the Sumitomo Foundation as part of their “Grant for Projects for the Protection, Preservation & Restoration of Cultural Properties outside Japan.”

This programme is offered “so that cultural properties outside Japan, the common heritage of humanity, may be handed down to future generations.” Since 1998 hundreds of museums around the world have received money to help conserve their collections. Andrew Thompson and Sydney Thomson (yes, those surnames are different!) have been running Restorient Studio since 2005. They provide conservation of East Asian painting in all formats (screens, handscrolls, hanging scrolls), a kind of work which requires a very particular set of skills, and tools!

Processing Courtesan, by Utagawa Hiromaru
‘Processing Courtesan’, by Utagawa Hiromaru.

In pre-modern Japan, paintings played a central role in the decoration of a room interior. The most common format for display was the hanging scroll, which would be shown for a brief period of time and then rolled up and stored away. The subject matter was chosen to harmonize with the seasons or with a special occasion, such as a family member’s birthday. The Museum has a small, but growing, number of these hanging scroll paintings, but the work I delivered had been cut from its mount before it was acquired by the Museum in 1887, and so had never been displayed. It also had significant creasing and some water damage, so was well overdue for some TLC!

The painting is done in ink and colours on paper, and measures 127.3 by 28.8 cm. The subject is a courtesan of the pleasure quarter, in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) dressed ostentatiously in several layers of kimono for the procession which took place from the brothel itself to the teahouse where the client was waiting. Edo was known as a “city of bachelors” because of the large number of young single men who lived there in attendance on the military regime during the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. There were several pleasure quarters where men could retire for entertainment and companionship. In the procession the courtesan would have been accompanied by attendants, the brothel owner and porters, but here the artist focuses on her alone. She wears an elaborate hairstyle, with long pins and a tortoiseshell comb at the front. The painter has sharply cropped the composition at left to convey the impression of movement as the woman sashays before the viewer.

The painting is signed by the artist Utagawa Hiromaru, who was active in 1804–18. The inscription brushed at the top is a poem by the literary figure Tōian Kowatari (1774–1823). It translates:

“The common people admire her,
While well-educated gentlemen revile her.
After giving the matter careful thought,
I go along with the common people.”

A playful inscription by Master Ko.

The poem pokes fun at the moral criticism directed towards women of the pleasure quarters according to strict Neo-Confucian morality, and clearly expresses the poet’s approval of these beautiful and talented women.

On my first visit to the conservation studio in Leiden we discussed the treatment that would need to be carried out on the painting. Then came the fun part, where we tried out various swatches of material, considering what would be suitable as the fabrics that will surround the painting surface and frame it visually. These need to harmonize with the colours in the painting, and also the motifs within the fabric should be appropriate to the subject matter. There were no final decisions at this stage, but we very much liked a pale blue colour with a wave motif, which worked well with the subtle wave pattern in the white robe worn by the woman.

Examining the scroll in the Restorient studio
Examining the scroll in the Restorient studio.

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