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Restoration of Works of Chinese Applied Art for the Exhibition “Five Symbols of Happiness: Well-Wishing in Chinese Art”

Chinese culture is marked by its unbroken continuity and traditionality. A system of symbols and images took shape in ancient times and has survived practically down to the present day. By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), many ancient symbols that have profound many-sided significance acquired a simplified well-wishing meaning among the common people. In part these motifs arose out of the Chinese people’s vivid figurative thinking and powers of observation.

The exhibition reveals the amazing symbolic figurative language of the Celestial Empire. All the motifs and depictions on objects and in graphic works have a well-wishing character and are intended to attract the main components of happiness to a person’s life. The guarantee of attaining it lies in the acquisition of the five blessings – longevity, wealth, success in one’s career, the birth of sons and peace.

 

Figure of the Immortal Li Tieguai looking into a vessel in the shape of a gourd

 

 

Li Tieguai is one of the group of Eight Daoist Immortals, the most popular and well-known personages of Chinese legends and conceptions about the attainment of happiness, health, success and longevity. Once, as an immortal, Li Tieguai as a spirit travelled around, leaving his body to be watched over by a pupil. The pupil was obliged to leave the spot and when Li Tieguai returned his body had vanished and he was forced to occupy the body of a lame beggar. He helps the sick, giving medicine (sometimes wine) that he keeps in a bottle gourd, and people appeal to him for aid. Figures could be made of various materials, but wooden sculptures were especially popular. They were carved from large tree trunks. In the present case the carving was made from a precious variety of mahogany. The figure may have served as a sort of talisman, standing on an altar in the home and serving as an adornment of the interior.

Китай. Конец XIX – начало XX в. Дерево; резьба, полировка. Высота 50 см

China. Late 19th – early 20th century. Carved and polished wood. Height: 50 cm

Condition before restoration:

  • losses of elements in the hair and the base;
  • one arm was glued on, with leakages of glue from the joint;
  • vertical cracks;
  • soiling.
Before restoration

Restoration measures carried out:

  • removal of dense surface soiling
  • removal of extensive leakages of old glue at the site of the joint on the arm
  • polishing of the surface.
After restoration

Painted Wooden Dressing-Box with a Mirror

Китай Дерево, стекло, кожа; роспись. 27 × 21 × 14 см

China. Wood, glass, leather with decorative painting. 27 × 21 × 14 cm

 

 

 

 

The dressing-box with a mirror and drawers decorated with painting was an object employed in women’s daily life, serving for the storage of jewellery, precious items and cosmetics and being used when a woman was dressing and doing her make-up. Judging by the way it is decorated – covered with leather and painted with flowers and images of bats (a symbol of happiness in China), and also stained red, this striking, elegant dressing-box may have been a present or else specially purchased for a wedding. In Beijing there were special shops that sold such items of everyday use.

Before restoration

Condition before restoration:

  • the leather had separated from the base and was scuffed in many places
  • the mirror was cracked and loose in its frame
  • the wood had dried out at the joints; the varnish had yellowed and darkened considerably
  • scratches and soiling on the surface
During restoration

Restoration measures carried out:

  • gluing back the leather where it had come away
  • removing surface soiling
  • evening out and reducing the thickness of the old darkened varnish
  • attaching the mirror in its housing.
After restoration

Box with a double rhombus shape with carved decoration featuring well-wishing symbols

 

This box was a wedding present that might have been used to keep the bride’s jewellery. Everything depicted on the box is multiplied by two – a double rhombus, double happiness, double longevity, for the bride and groom.

A distinctive feature of this object is the material and technique used to decorate it – carved red lacquer. Chinese lacquer is a resinous varnish obtained from the lacquer tree. In this case the lacquer was coloured with natural cinnabar. A large number (up to 60) coats of lacquer were applied to the primed wooden base with each coat being dried and then polished. This represented an enormous investment of both time and energy. After a thick layer of lacquer had been created, the item was passed over to the carvers who incised a design into the thickness of the lacquer.

Carved red lacquer objects were exceptionally expensive and used, in the main, in the imperial household.

China. 18th century. Carved lacquer on wood. Height: 8.5 cm; 28 × 20 × 15 cm
        

Condition before restoration:

  • numerous chips and losses of lacquer
  • detachment of the lacquer at the sites of losses
  • abrasions and soiling.
Before and during restoration

Restoration measures carried out:

  • removal of dense soiling from the surface and in the recesses of the relief pattern
  • reinforcement of the carved lacquer in places where it had come away
  • tinting at the site of losses.
After restoration

Water container with a lid in the form of a partridge

China. Early 20th century. Carved ivory and wood. Length: 10.5 cm

A pair of vessels on stands for holding water and moistening sticks of Chinese ink. Although these articles may have had a utilitarian purpose, they were chiefly precious ornaments adorning a desk in a scholar’s study, most probably in the imperial palace. The partridge shape is a well-wishing symbol. Inside, the mouth of the vessel is shaped like a bottle-gourd with a double bulge that is a symbol of well-wishing, a successful career and longevity.

The technique used to carve the ivory was exceptionally fine and exquisite. The elements are fragile with walls as a thin as an eggshell. Similar items exist in palace museum collections in Beijing and Taiwan.

Condition before restoration:

  • loss on the lid, on the bird’s breast
  • yellowed glue emerging on the surface of the carving
  • a darkened old seam of glue on the lid where two parts had been joined together
  • surface soiling.
Before restoration

Restoration measures carried out:

  • removal of soiling from the ivory and the wooden stand
  • making good the loss by taking a mould and casting from it
  • removing old glue from the surface, tinting the glued seam
  • polishing.
After restoration

 

Porcelain screen carrying a depiction of peony and chrysanthemum blooms in a carved wooden frame with a stand

 

 

 

A rectangular table-top screen was a traditional adornment of an interior or a table in China. This example consists of a large porcelain plaque decorated with a depiction of two peonies made with coloured enamel paints. It is set in a wooden frame and mounted on a wooden stand, probably made from a variety of mahogany. This striking expensive object would have been a wedding gift as is indicated by the two peonies. The painting promised the owner prosperity and advancement (the peony was a symbol of career and wealth).

China. Late 19th – early 20th century. Porcelain with polychrome painting, carved wood.  30.5 × 21.5 cm (screen); 35 × 51 cm (with the stand)

Condition before restoration:

  • surface soiling
  • the screen was loose and did not fit tightly into the sockets on the stand
  • on the back of the frame there were scratches and one section of the carving had come unglued.
Before restoration

Restoration measures carried out:

  • removal of surface soiling
  • regluing the supports on the stand
  • refastening the porcelain plaque in its frame.
After restoration

The restoration was carried out in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Works of Applied Art Made from Organic Materials:

Yekaterina Mankova – artist-restorer of the highest category, head of the laboratory;

Marina Michri – artist-restorer of the highest category;

Yevgenia Glinka, Tatiana Stoliarova – artist-restorers of the second category;

Maria Menshikova – senior researcher in the Department of the East.

After restoration, the items were shown at the exhibition “Five Symbols of Happiness: Well-Wishing in Chinese Art” that opened on 1 April 2016 in the Hermitage–Vyborg Exhibition Centre. All the objects were included in the exhibition catalogue.

The project was carried out with the support of individual members of the Hermitage Friends’ Club.