It’s taken a painstaking three-years to get the “Tale of Oeyama” scrolls looking as fresh and vibrant as they do now.
Over time, the layers of hand-made Japanese paper had become creased and flaky and impossible to display. But with the help of a specialist studio in the Netherlands, Restorient, and a grant from the Sumitomo Foundation, you can now see them in the Chester Beatty Library in all their gory glory.
There’s something refreshingly simple about the “Tale of Oeyama”. It’s a well-known Japanese story about a quest and a battle. On one side, a maiden-eating, blood-guzzling demon. On the other, valiant fighters. In other words, good versus evil.
Follow the mid-seventeeth-century scrolls from right to left, and the story unrolls of how the warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu, known as Raiko, hunted down and tricked the demon Shuten Doji, which means, literally, “drunken boy”.
The story begins with the news that young Kyoto noblewomen are being abducted by the fearsome Doji. It’s only when the daughter of one of the head dignitaries goes missing though, that the action kicks in. The bravest warrior in the land, Raiko, is sent to find out what’s going on.
Spoiler alert! Good wins. He slays the demon behind the women’s disappearances.
But it’s quite a journey. A priest gives Raiko a magic helmet, which you can spot on top of a red block in one of the panels; it looks like a wig. There’s also poison, sushi from a maiden’s leg, and sake made of blood. Look out for Raiko’s expression as he lops off the demon’s head in the third scroll. Pure glee.
The scrolls are an example of Japanese painted manuscript called Nara ehon, or Nara picture books, which are named after the priest-painters who worked in the Nara region. One of the museum’s handy information panels lists a few traditional Japanese painting conventions to look out for: stylized swirly clouds that frame scenes, blown-away roofs that let you peek inside, and black outlines with flat colours.
It’s hard to say when exactly the scrolls ended up in the possession of collector Sir Alfred Chester Beatty.
In 1917, Beatty’s health wasn’t too good. “He suffered from silicosis because he originated as a miner,” said Jessica Baldwin, head of collections at Chester Beatty Library. Doctors prescribed a world cruise.
So, despite the war, he headed out to Asia. He stopped off in China and Japan, and his fascination with Japanese materials seems to date from then, she said. He bought some art on that trip, and some later.
The team at the Chester Beatty Library are working their way through the archive to work out what was bought when. “We’re still working on matching up objects to his receipts,” Baldwin said. “It’s a good jigsaw puzzle.”
As for who might have been behind the scrolls, that’s also unclear.
The calligrapher would probably have been one person. But the artists might have been numerous. One to sketch, another to block out the colours, and a third master to fill in the details, said Baldwin.
The scrolls would have been expensive items back in the day, and highly prized. Here in the city, you can see them for free.
The exhibition Damsels for Dinner: Tales of Oeyama runs at the Chester Beatty Library from 27 June 2015 to 31 January 2016. From March to October, the library is open: Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm; Saturday from 11am to 5pm; and Sunday from 1pm to 5pm. November to February, it’s closed Mondays.