Lustrous Surfaces collaborative conservation project

May 4, 2017

by Dana Melchar, Senior Furniture Conservator

Currently, the Victoria & Albert Museum is preparing for an exciting display opening on 1 October 2017 entitled ‘Lustrous Surfaces: Lacquer in Asia and Beyond’. The display will focus on Asian lacquer and lacquer-inspired European objects within our permanent collection and will include objects made in Burma, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Tibet as well as objects made in Middle Eastern and European countries emulating the Asian tradition. Not surprisingly, each culture has its own unique traditions in the craftsmanship, forms and decoration of lacquer, as well as sources of the raw material. Preparing our objects for the display is providing conservators with a unique opportunity to work on lacquer from various cultures simultaneously, enhancing the Museum’s expertise in Asian lacquer.

V&A conservators have been well prepared to work on Japanese lacquer; over the past ten years, significant research, collaboration and conservation has been conducted focussing on Japanese lacquer, especially within the Mazarin Chest project. The V&A received a grant from the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation (OKCHF) to fund a one-month exchange on Korean lacquer and current conservation practices in Korea, to help inform us on the best way to treat the Korean lacquer objects included in our display.

The conservation project was divided into two phases; an initial one-week phase in September 2016 followed by a three-week session in November. In September, Mr. Yang Seok Joong, a lacquer and furniture master (with the title of Korea’s Important Intangible Cultural Property Successor for Furniture), and Mr. Kim Kyoungsu, lacquer conservator at the National Museum of Korea, visited the V&A together. The week was focussed on an introduction to Korean lacquer traditions, techniques and conservation approaches for the V&A conservators as well as an introduction to our Korean objects for our guests. Three presentations were given by Mr. Kim to V&A furniture conservators, conservation scientists, and curators from the Far East Asian Department, as well as conservation colleagues from the British Museum. Mr. Kim’s presentations included the conservation and scientific analysis of a Goryeo gold-painted inlaid box, Lacquer ware from the Joseon Dynasty and conservation approaches, and a case study on the restoration of a red lacquer ink stone box decorated with bamboo from the Joseon Dynasty. The V&A gave presentations on the conservation treatment of an eighteenth-century German japanned bookcase as well as on our approach to sampling our lacquer collection and some of our findings. During the week Mr. Yang and Mr. Kim were shown the collection on display at the V&A and given a tour of our Asian lacquer storage area. We also visited the British Museum where we had a special tour of the conservation facilities and a visit with the Korean curators where we had the opportunity to examine several Korean objects. Mr. Yang and Mr. Kim also assessed the eight Korean objects for the Lustrous Surfaces display to be treated in the second phase of the project. At the end of the week we discussed the objects and agreed a treatment to be carried out in November.

During the second phase of our project, Mr. Yang worked exclusively with V&A Furniture Conservators Tristram Bainbridge and Dana Melchar over three intensive weeks. Mr. Yang’s contribution to the V&A highlighted both practical approaches to lacquer conservation using Korean materials and techniques and sharing knowledge regarding the art historical context and original methods of manufacture of our eight Korean objects. He sourced Korean lacquer, known as ottchil, to use during the conservation treatments and brought a number of Korean products with him including hide glue, clay powder, rice powder, and mother-of-pearl.

Conservation began on the black lacquer objects, with Mr. Yang sharing his methods for consolidation, re-building areas where lacquer had been lost, and replacement of lost shell decoration with practical how-to treat instruction (Figure 1). He taught approaches to shell choice, pattern-making, sawing, engraving and attachment methods. In all instances, after he demonstrated a technique, both conservators were able to practise the method under his supervision (Figure 2). During the second week of the project it became clear that some of the V&A Korean objects had been altered with the addition of western varnishes (Figure 3). Attempts were made to remove these varnishes using solvents and/or solvent gels, especially on a Joseon period tiered-box. However, varnish removal proved to be too damaging, especially to the mother-of-pearl decoration, and was therefore abandoned.

Mr Yang working on mother-of-pearl replacements
Figure 1. Mr Yang working on mother-of-pearl replacements (Photography by Dana Melchar ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Tristram Bainbridge making a pattern for replacing mother-of-pearl
Figure 2. Tristram Bainbridge making a pattern for replacing mother-of-pearl (Photography by Dana Melchar ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Korean side dish laquer box (W.43-1938)
Figure 3. Korean side dish laquer box (W.43-1938) (Photography by Tristram Bainbridge ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

After treatment of the black lacquer objects was well established, conservation of the red lacquer objects commenced, focussing on the consolidation of lifting mother-of-pearl and filling large cracks in the lacquer. Traditional materials were used including rice starch paste, wood dust and clay powder (Figure 4). Additionally, Mr. Yang shared his adhesive delivery and clamping methods (Figure 5).

Rice starch paste, wood powder and clay powder ready to be mixed into paste
Figure4. Rice starch paste, wood powder and clay powder ready to be mixed into paste (Photography by Tristram Bainbridge ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Mr Yang applying clay and rice starch paste to fill crack in lacquer surface
Figure 5. Mr Yang applying clay and rice starch paste to fill crack in lacquer surface (Photography by Tristram Bainbridge ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

At the end of the three week collaboration a number of treatments were well established for all objects and several were complete. The contribution Mr. Yang made to the treatment of these eight objects was significant. He provided an art historical and manufacturing context to all the objects and shared insights to the Korean decorative tradition and sensibilities. The practical knowledge he shared was even more valuable. Handling and using uncured lacquer is rare for western conservators. The lessons he gave on using ottchil for consolidation, a fill material and a coating were very informative. As a result of the time Mr. Yang spent with the conservators, they now have more knowledge in recognizing Korean lacquer and are able to better approach treatment of Korean lacquer objects. Professional filming of the collaboration was also carried out and a video of the project is currently in production.

‘Lustrous Surfaces: Lacquer in Asia and Beyond’ opens on 1 October 2017 and runs until 15 September 2018. This free display will be in the following galleries:  Islamic Middle East, Room 42, The Jameel Gallery; China, Room 44, The T.T.Tsui Gallery; Japan, Room 45, The Toshiba Gallery; South-East Asia, Room 47a; Buddhism, Room 47f, The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art; Korea, Room 47g; Furniture, Room 135, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery.

Korean display supported by the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation

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