The artistic record of Japan's ancient history
is endangered by many foes. Fortunately, however,
in the timeless battle to protect works of art,
traditional conservators have passed on their
secrets to handpicked apprentices willing to
undergo a demanding ten-year apprenticeship.
After an apprenticeship that was just as
demanding with a master conservator, Paul Wills has
learned these secrets and will soon be sharing them
with the West and carrying on a tradition with
a unique approach to protecting art treasures.
An article written by Geoffrey Murray 1980
"The story of Paul Wills is a classic tale of the starving artist struggling amid privation to achieve a perfection that remains eternally elusive. He is not, however, the archetypical eccentric genius in a drafty garret striving to produce a masterpiece of painting or sculpture. But he is as important to the art world as the artist, for he is seeking to protect the works of past masters from the ravages of time, the elements, and neglect, and save them for future generations.
He came to Japan in 1966 as an aspiring student of Oriental art. For the next few years, in order to survive, he taught English at night to be able to continue his day time studies - first as a general art student and later as an apprentice of art conservation (a word he prefers to restoration).
His workplace for the past eleven years has been a small, cramped room cluttered with irreplaceable art treasures in a quiet, secluded basement of Kyoto National Museum. The temples, castles and palaces that are visible evidence of the past glories of the old imperial, making Kyoto a Mecca for the student of Japanese art, history, and religion, are close at hand. Squatting on a tatami mat (straw mat) floor, and working at long cumbersome wooden tables, the young Englishman had laboriously learnt the secrets accumulated over almost 2000 years of repairing and preserving religious and secular treasures, which are written, painted, carved, or woven records of Japan's rich and ancient cultural heritage.
In September 1980, however, Paul Wills will be finally returning to England after fourteen years in Japan. At the British Museum in London, in a replica of the Kyoto museum workshop, he will be in charge of a department charged with preserving the museum's collection of Oriental art. This department will be the first of its type in Europe, and it will differ from the three already established at American museums be being headed by a non-Japanese. Will's new appointment is, to him, an encouraging sign that the Western world is now ready to acknowledge that it has much to learn from Japan about the preservation of historical art treasures.
The Englishman finds it very difficult to say how he acquired his interest in art conservation. His mother encouraged him to paint, while his father tried to direct his attention towards some knowledge of engineering techniques. And then there was his grandfather, somewhat of a shadowy figure, whose keen interest in history, religion, linguistics, archaeology, and just about everything else, influenced him. When Paul Wills was about five or six asked him, his grandfather asked him: "what do you want to be when you grow up" without knowing why, the youngster replied "An archaeologist". His grandfather immediately gave him two large, dusty old volumes on archaeology. (Wills later brought them to Japan where they have been lovingly rebound.
In his teens, Paul Wills studied for three years at the School of Art in Swindon, a town in Western England rich in ancient tombs and the legends of Stonehenge.
"My major was Impressionist painting; it had nothing to do with Oriental art or restoration" he recalls, "I'm not really sure when I decided to come to Japan. The books in the school library on Chinese and Japanese art aroused my interest in the Orient, and that interest grew until I wanted to go to China. At that time, it was of course impossible, so the next logical choice was Japan. I applied to the Kyoto School of Art and spent three years studying Japanese painting and sculpture there. But at that stage had no idea where my studies would lead me"