British Museum restores world’s oldest painting

The British Museum has revealed the Admonitions Scroll – often called the world’s oldest painting –  after an ambitious and painstaking restoration process. Now housed in a permanent space, it is complimented by the calligraphy work “Hall of Ink Fragrance”, by renowned Chinese calligrapher Fu Shen, who wrote the three monumental characters as a title especially for the museum.

The scroll – also called the “Nüshi zhen” (Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies) – is a Chinese narrative painting on silk that is traditionally ascribed to Gu Kaizhi, but which modern scholarship regards as a 5th to 8th century work that may or may not be a copy of an original Jin Dynasty (265-420) court painting by Gu Kaizhi.

It was painted to illustrate a poetic text written in 292 by the poet-official Zhang Hua. The text itself was composed to reprimand Empress Jia and to provide advice to the women in the imperial court. The painting illustrates this text with scenes depicting anecdotes about exemplary behaviour of historical palace ladies, as well as with more general scenes showing aspects of life as a palace lady.

The scroll passed through the hands of many collectors over the centuries, many of whom left their seals of ownership on the painting. In 1899, during the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, the painting was acquired by an officer in the British Indian Army who sold it to the British Museum in 1903.

Its accompanying work – the Hall of Ink Fragrance, which was donated by Bruno Wang – was commissioned by the British Museum to provide the name for a new gallery of Asian painting and calligraphy which opened 5 June 2014.

Fu Shen wrote the three monumental characters as a title specially for this gallery. Traditional Chinese ink comes in solid sticks composed of fine black soot bound with animal glue, and with added perfumes such as camphor or musk. When an inkstick is rubbed on a stone with a little water to prepare it for use, the characteristic scent that fills the studio has become a poetic way to refer to painting and calligraphy.

The name Hall of Ink Fragrance was a studio name used by the famous Song dynasty literatus, painter, and collector, Li Gonglin. By choosing to title the gallery with a reference to one of China’s most famous men of culture, it adds to the aura of the new gallery as a space to hold great works of art.

The artist Fu Shen wrote the large characters in seal script (zhuan shu) followed by a dedication to the British Museum, the date, and his signature in semi-cursive script (xingshu). He also stamped his nameseals in red. In order to write such large-size calligraphy, the artist had to have a huge table to work on and finally came up with the solution of using a ping-pong table as his work surface – the first ever experience for him to need to go beyond his usual studio furniture to produce a work.