Conserving a 6-fold screen painting, Courtesans of the Tamaya House, attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu

Department of Conservation and Scientific Research 

On display

Room 3: Women of the pleasure quarters: a Japanese painted screen 
29 August – 3 November 2013

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Courtesans of the Tamaya House

This six-fold screen was in very poor condition. It has been conserved and remounted in the Hirayama Conservation Studio at the British Museum.

When stood open correctly, in a zig-zag fashion, the two-dimensional panels of the screen become a series of advancing and receding planes, displaying a clever three-dimensional effect. The images portrayed are a group of courtesans, some sitting and some standing, in a Japanese tatami room.

It is possible that the screen was last restored in Japan in the 1900s. The vertical edges of the paintings were trimmed, possibly to remove damage from wear and tear. As a result the image does not line up fully from panel to panel: when the folding screen is flat some of the perspectives of the painted images do not match up evenly.

The paintings are painted on a fine Japanese paper called gasenshi, a type of traditional Chinese drawing paper primarily used in sumi-e and calligraphy. Gasenshi today is chiefly made of mitsumata combined with a smaller amount of other fibre such as bamboo or straw. The addition of these fibres makes this paper quite absorbent and soft, and an excellent surface for painting on.

The paintings were mounted top and bottom with decorative borders known as Oberi. These were made from silver-leaf on paper which had blackened and tarnished irreversibly. Therefore, the Oberi was replaced with specially selected mounting silks, enhancing the paintings.