Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Part Two - PHP article

I shall skip some sections, as they ramble on.

"Several letters were exchanged with the Kyoto National Museum.  Finally, he was interviewed by Naoyuki Usami, a recognized authority on conservation, whose ancestors for the past eight generations have been restoring art treasures to pristine condition.  (The Usami workshop is one of two private groups attached to the museum.  The workshop originally worked exclusively on Buddhist Sutra scrolls and paintings, stored in a temple opposite the family home.  Only in the early 1950s were they invited to work inside the museum.  The other group deals exclusively with sculpture.

For the first six months the Englishman was an unpaid observer who  hovered in the background absorbing the atmosphere of the workshop.  He watched Mr.Usami and his staff  work laboriously piece together tattered manuscripts and scrolls, mend holes, remount paintings and painted door panels, and even reweave elaborate brocade ceremonial robes with suitably aged threads.

A sense of historical continuity pervades the cloister like calm of the museum workshop with the irreplaceable national cultural treasures spread out on the worktables.  The visitor tends to be on edge picking his way across the tatami, on which are spread the delicate slips of paper, which are the delicate remains of a 900-year-old hanging scroll being lovingly preserved from total disintegration.  There is always the fear of accidentally sticking a hand through a painted silk screen from the former imperial palace that awaits a delicate touching-up of tiny holes.

Some conservation projects take several years to complete.  Treasured paintings have to be laid face down on moistened special paper; numerous layers of backing are then stripped off until all that is left are isolated islands of the original paint or silk.  One false move that disturbs the fragments would destroy a priceless historical object,  With nerve-wracking painstaking the conservator fills in the gaps with colour matched paper or silk before finally remounting.  The same applies to ancient manuscripts which may be in such tattered condition that they are virtually little more than solidified ink, with a few strands of paper clinging to the letters.  It takes year of study to be able to appreciate these kind of challenge.

After six months Paul was accepted as an apprenticeship to Mr. Usami. But his apprenticeship was unusual in many ways.  At first, there was the problem of being a foreigner.  Although he had picked up a certain amount of conversational Japanese, daily conversation was completely useless when it comes to understanding the special vocabulary of the ancient craft of conservation.  So in the beginning, certain allowances had to be made..............

Finally there was the problem of understanding the concept of conservation.  Conservation in Japan proved to be nothing like Paul imagined.  He had been raised on images of Western laboratories and Western attitudes to restoration.  And Japanese conservation was completely different.

He began his apprenticeship with the most basic job of all; making the special paste that hyogu-shi (traditional art conservators) have longed used in their work.  The process begins with ordinary wheat flour, but the protein is extracted  because protein makes paste-adhesive hard and brittle.  The pure starch that remains is a paste that looks like milk.  The young apprentice stirs this until it becomes extremely stiff.  However, the paste has to be stirred for at least an hour, a back and arm breaking task that is repeated every day or two.  Gradually, however, the novice begins to realise the vital role this paste will play in his future work.

Some of the paste is stored in ceramic jars topped with water and left for ten years.  The aged product is a weak, special kind of paste that can be applied very thinly (this quality is especially important for old scrolls where suppleness and ease of rolling are prime considerations."


The above writing by Geoffrey Murray is slightly over the top in my reckoning but he was a journalist of longstanding.  see here

We had two 'ali baba' pots at home, one lived in the garden. And  the other heavy green paste bowl became Lucy's water bowl.  She had a delightful habit of picking up her lightweight bowls and flinging them across the floor, this one was too heavy for her.  You can see them on my blog  'Aged paste' which goes into more detail.


  1. Such an amazing delicate art for Paul to learn. I would be so worried about damaging the ancient item. Paul must have had a very steady hand to do such work.

  2. Yes Ellen everything was delicate, though to be honest water was sprayed on scrolls to remove the backing tissues.

  3. Having met Paul it was easy to see he had the calm demeanour and patience to do this demanding work. My gosh though - all that time just mixing glue and then leaving it for 10 years!!

  4. He described once, on how stirring it, he had hallucinations as he stared into the mixture Jennie.


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