University of Bradford/AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD student works with Japanese woodblock print masterpieces in advance of exhibition at the British Museum

Under the wave off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

An upcoming exhibition at the British Museum, ‘Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave’ will include works analysed by University of Bradford/Heritage Consortium PhD student Peter McElhinney.

Peter completed analysis on several Japanese woodblock prints during a Heritage Consortium placement within the British Museum’s Department of Scientific Research. These included the iconic prints ‘Under the wave off Kanagawa’ (shown above) and ‘Clear day with a southern breeze’, also known as ‘Red Fuji’, by the Edo period painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai.

The research sought to characterise the colourants used to produce the prints and their lightfastness under exhibition lighting conditions. The analyses included ultraviolet and infrared imaging and X-ray fluorescence to identify the colourants used in the works, and microfading (pictured below) to determine their lightfastness.

“The heritage consortium placement was designed to help develop knowledge and experience within the sector and I was privileged to work with some of the UK’s leading heritage scientists on these beautiful prints in the process. The analyses have told us a lot about how the prints were produced and how to best preserve their colours while they are on display” McElhinney said.

Capucine Korenberg, a conservation scientist in the Department of Scientific Research, said: “Peter is an experienced heritage scientist and contributed fully to this project during his placement at the British Museum. Microfading tests help to mitigate risk to objects in the Museum’s collection and recommendations can be made to assess the length of time light-sensitive objects can be displayed as well as the intensity of light in the gallery. The results of the wider analytical investigation of these world-famous woodblock prints will be published in due course.”

“Peter’s enthusiasm for new challenges impressed the AHRC Heritage Consortium when he was selected for one of their prestigious scholarships. His work on the renowned Hokusai woodblock prints whilst at the British Museum exemplifies the multidisciplinary approach he brings to his PhD research. I’m thrilled to hear both that his skillsets in conservation and heritage science have been so well received during his placement and that he has gained so much from this experience.” said his PhD supervisor Dr Andrew Wilson from the School of Archaeological & Forensic Sciences, University of Bradford.

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave will run from 25 May-13 August 2017 at the British Museum with the support of the Mitsubishi Corporation. The exhibition will be closed for object rotation from 3-6 July 2017. Please see britishmuseum.org/hokusai for more details.

With doctoral training funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), The Heritage Consortium is a group of seven universities located in the North East of England, working
in partnership with regional, national, and international organisations to deliver doctoral training in all aspects of this field. Learn more at heritageconsortium.ac.uk.

University of Bradford/ Heritage Consortium PhD student Peter McElhinney carrying out light fastness testing on Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’.

For further information about the project’s detail and some excellent examples of the multispectral images Peter helped to produce during his placement, see the British Museum blog

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