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Restored 17th century Japanese scrolls go on display at Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle
Lady Kayuga’s coming-of-age from The tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Early 17th century, Japan. © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

DUBLIN.- A new exhibition featuring exquisite Japanese hand scrolls has opened at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle. The 17th century scrolls, which recount one of the most important stories in Japanese classical literature, have recently undergone extensive restoration, generously funded by the Sumitomo Foundation, Tokyo.

The scrolls are believed to be the earliest surviving illustrated version of The tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the oldest Japanese work of prose fiction, written in the early Heian period (9th-10th century). The famous tale is well known for its influence on later literary works such as The Tale of Genji, the 11th-century novel that is among Japan’s greatest contributions to world literature.

Recognised internationally as a masterpiece by a Kano School artist of the early Edo period (1600-1867), the set of two lavish scrolls tell the story of an elderly Bamboo Cutter who found a child of supernatural beauty in a glowing bamboo stalk. He and his wife raise her as their daughter and she becomes a beautiful young woman. They bestow on her the name Nayotake no Kaguya-hime (the Shining Princess of the Supple Bamboo). Destined to return to the moon, Lady Kaguya attempts to discourage her five noble suitors by giving them impossible tasks. All fail, but fail humorously. The emperor of Japan too becomes enamored but Lady Kaguya dons a feather robe and is taken back to the Palace of the Moon.

The exhibition takes us through the story using the illustrated scrolls and accompanying text panels. The exquisite cursive calligraphy in the scrolls is interspersed with beautiful illustrations, which merge elements of Chinese painting with the colour and pattern of Japanese painting. When viewing a scroll, the reader typically opens it to arm’s length, viewing one section at a time from right to left. If fully unrolled, these scrolls, which are comprised of ten beautifully decorated paintings interspersed with ten calligraphic passages, would measure fifteen and thirteen metres respectively. This exhibition allows the visitor to view over seven metres of each scroll.

Director of the Chester Beatty Library, Fionnuala Croke, expressed delight that the scrolls could now be displayed for public view. "Japan has enjoyed a long tradition of storytelling through paintings and illustrated books and these scrolls are a wonderful example of that tradition. This extraordinary visual experience gives a glimpse into the fascinating world of Japanese art and we are indebted to The Sumitomo Foundation for their generous gift, enabling us to restore the scrolls and put them on public display. The Foundation recently committed to funding the conservation of another important set of Japanese scrolls and we are also very excited about that project."

The Chester Beatty Bamboo Cutter scrolls are made up of a total of forty-seven sheets of paper, joined horizontally. Each scroll is attached to a wooden roller with an outer silk cover. Due to their fragile nature they had been repaired a number of times, most recently in the late nineteenth century. At that time they were given two paper linings and a final heavy paper backing. They were then wound tightly around very narrow rollers. All of these factors coupled with repeated unrolling led to heavy creasing and damage to the pigments. In order to preserve these rare and important scrolls for the future it was necessary to remove the old paper linings, strengthen the creases and attach new linings. The traditional techniques used in Japanese scroll conservation are highly specialised and take years to master.

In May 2010, the scrolls travelled to the Restorient Studio in the Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, Netherlands, which specialises in Japanese painting conservation. The exhibition describes the restoration process which took two years to complete and visitors have an opportunity to view some of the traditional Japanese tools and materials used by conservators. The project proved especially challenging as previous restoration had damaged the original paper layer, leaving it extremely thin. Thanks to the generous grant from The Sumitomo Foundation and the meticulous programme of conservation, the scrolls are now beautifully restored and safe to be handled and displayed. The full story of the treatment is available on the Restorient Studio’s blog (

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