The Artists Whose Hands Are Hidden

Behind the Scenes of the Hirayama Studio at the British Museum

Generally when you come to a museum, the objects on display are only a small percentage of what a museum actually holds. The unseen works are either carefully stored or undergoing a form of ‘plastic surgery’ to regain their former glory at the hands of in-house conservators. The Plus Paper gives you the low-down on the British Museum’s treasured conservation atelier: Hirayama Studio.

The Hirayama Studio is the Asian pictorial art conservation department of the British Museum, housed in a beautiful building that was converted from a Victorian savings bank. The Studio is one of the finest in Europe for East Asian painting conservation, and consists of five members of staff and experts. Mrs Qiu Jinxian, the leading specialist of the team, is said to have ‘magic hands’ able to bring the damaged back to life. She trained and worked at the Shanghai Museum in China for fifteen years before joining the British Museum in 1987.

Paintings kept in the studio are often drawn on extremely delicate paper or silk hand-rolls, which requires expert attention and a steady hand. “Each painting has different issues, so I must always think very carefully about the best treatment for each individual painting,” said Qiu. Unlike other departments that work with advanced technology, the Hirayama Studio conserves all artworks in the most traditional manner, using ancient mounting method and materials such as pigments extracted from plants. “I source everything directly from China. These materials have been tested over centuries and proven to be safe for the paintings.”

Qiu is currently preparing for the forthcoming exhibition on the Ming Dynasty, which opens in September.

The Plus: Tell us a little bit more about the studio.
Jinxian Qiu:
The studio was opened twenty years ago using a generous donation from Professor Hirayama, yet there has been East Asian painting conservation at the British Museum for a great deal longer. Here we care for the British Museum’s paintings from China, Japan, Korea and the rest of East Asia, as well as South East and South Asia including the Middle East. We prepare them for exhibition, loan, research, and storage projects.

TP: How long does conserving each artwork take?
It varies greatly! If a painting is in very bad condition it requires a great deal more work – perhaps many months. Otherwise a painting may require just a little work.

TP: How much research do you need to do beforehand?
Every painting requires a lot of preparation. As well as assessing its condition before treatment in great detail, and recording information about its existing mount, I must always check whether the pigments are stable or fugitive, whether I have any matching silk for repairs from my archive of original silks, or matching paper suitable for its lining. Only when I have everything prepared and assembled can I start work.