Two ancient Chinese wall painting fragments and a modern copy


Leeds Museums and Galleries has two very old fragments of Chinese wall paintings from sacred caves in the collections. The oldest, shown above, was donated in 1931, by the artist Frank Brangwyn.

This is part of a larger religious painting, from a Buddhist shrine. In a letter from R.L. Binyon at the British Museum to Brangwyn, dated 19 Sep 1931 he says “The figures appear to be part of a large composition in which saints would be grouped around a central Buddha or Bodhisattva.  The principal figure may represent an empress or great lady.  The object she is holding was generally used as a symbolic screen against the dazzling presence of the Emperor”. Binyon dated this painting to the Ming dynasty, between 1368 and 1500
Wall paintings are found at many sites in northern China, most famously near Dunhuang City in Gansu province, which is on the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. Dunhuang was once as important for international business trade and cultural exchange as Shanghai and Hong Kong are now. In Chinese ‘Dun’ means huge and ‘huang’ means prosperity.


Location of Gansu province and Dunhuang City in China. From Wikipedia.
From the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when Emperor Wu (156-87BC) appointed Zhang Qian as a pioneer traveller to the West (the equivalent of Central Asia now), the Silk Road began to develop. In the following Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), Sui Dynasty (581-618), and Tang Dynasty (618-907) the route grew further, communicating with even more traders and peoples. The cave paintings around Dunhuang capture the exchange of art styles and beliefs, as the West and East met. 
According to current research, there are around 700 caves close to Dunhuang and about 492 have paintings inside. If the total length of these paintings was added together it would measure around 45 kilometres, and this is why some people called them ‘The library on the wall’.
‘The library’ preserves the art, the religion and society of the time.  The paintings and sculptures of Buddha show how highly he was respected as a god, and the cloud-like smoke symbolises people’s desire to fly, to get closer to god. The decoration and clothing in the portraits of worshippers and others show us their changings manners and life styles, because of the mixture of cultures. One can also see changes in the technology of tools for farming, manufactures, architecture and war. Images of musical instruments and dancers hint at the development of music and dance performances. Vibrant living animals and classic flower patterns tell us the fables of the time, but also the pattern of ancient species. Folk culture is also recorded in festival-like scenes.
Western research on the silk road began, rather notoriously, with the work of Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) who travelled to Central Asia four times between 1900-1931. From these trips he brought back a huge quantity of precious manuscripts, paintings and artefacts, which are now mainly housed in the British Library, British Museum and National Museum in New Delhi. While the British mainly regarded him as a great adventurer, who allowed westerners to look more closely at Asian cultures, many Chinese researchers think of him more negatively. From 2002-2006 a major international research collaboration called the ‘International Dunhuang Project (IDP)’  collected and digitised the large corpus of manuscripts and painting fragments, to all enable more extensive research and make an ‘Online Silk Road’. For further information about this International Dunhuang project, please visit:

Looking through images of Dunhuang wall paintings there are a few of religious scenes which are similar to the first Leeds fragment, see above. Unfortunately this Leeds’ fragment is now rather dark, and has suffered major cracking across its surface. Its seems to be secured onto a leather backing, but we cannot be sure of this until a more detailed examination by a conservator is undertaken. One website image very clearly shows a woman holding a similar sceptre.

Reference website:  

The second smaller fragment in Leeds was probably donated by Sir Alvary and Lady Gascoigne, when they presented Lotherton Hall to Leeds in 1968. It is much lighter in colour and shows a woman with a halo who may be a Buddhist arhat or saint.

A new gift to Leeds, initially presented by the director of the Chinese National Coal Mining Museum to Margaret Faull, director of the UK National Coal Mining Museum, in 2010-2011, and then passed on to us in June 2011, is a printed copy of a detail of a wall painting, which compliments the earlier fragments very well. 

The high quality printing has been done using a collotype print of a digital laser scan. Key for us is the similarity in the raised headdress or crown decoration on this copy, and the crown details of the lead lady in the 1931 Brangwyn gift.  You can see an image of the real version of the complete painting this detail belongs to at

Do come and see these three wall paintings at Lotherton Hall.

By Estelle Wu and World Cultures Curator Antonia Lovelace

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