After 32 years of working at the Art Gallery of NSW, Yang Yandong (Lily) has retired as Head of Asian Art Conservation. In 1989 Lily, alongside Sun Yu, established the Asian Art Conservation Studio at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Lily’s interest in conservation was inspired by her auntie who was the conservator at the National Gallery of China before she herself enrolled in 1981 at the Beijing Fine Arts Academy. She earned her diploma in scroll mounting and conservation under the training of conservator Wang Qing Ren as one of very few to have learnt from the acclaimed master. It was at the Academy that she met Sun Yu, who was to become her husband as well as her colleague at the Gallery.
Having graduated, Lily opened her own studio in 1984 in Beijing, the Dong Dong Scroll Mounting Studio. Over the next five years she worked mounting contemporary and old paintings including works by well-known artists such as Fan Zeng and gifts for the Barcelona Olympics.
In 1988, Sun Yu and Lily met Nicholas Jose, Cultural Attache at the Australian Embassy. Nicholas invited them both to Australia to prepare works for the new Asian Gallery at the Art Gallery of NSW, which opened in 1989. The Director of the Gallery, Edmund Capon, was so impressed by Lily and Sun Yu’s contributions that he asked them to stay.
Together Lily and Sun Yu, along with the paper conservator Rosie Peel’s support, established the first and only Asian Art Conservation Studio in the country. Lily and Sun Yu conserved and mounted hundreds of silk and paper screens and scrolls and have been integral to the presentation of the collection of Asian works on paper at the Gallery over the last 30 years.
Lily and Sun Yu made a ‘Great Wall’ Chinese style in the studio, applying more than 20 layers of paper attached with animal glue and sealed with alum. The wall enabled the stretching of wet paper and silk without the use of the distorting pressure of presses that were commonly used in Western practice. Two perfectly surfaced red lacquered tables were made for working with wet papers and for backing and mounting.
Lily’s vivacity and charm alongside Sun Yu’s calm and warmth made them a couple to be noticed and cherished. A parade of VIP guests was brought into their studio to be treated to a display of works in the midst of transformation. Many celebratory lunches were spent at the Yum Cha restaurant of current favour all over the city of Sydney with Lily presiding over the selection of dishes. When their daughters Emily and Rebecca were born, they became part of the extended conservation and Gallery family.
After Sun Yu’s death in 2010, Lily continued her work for another 12 years, applying her unique skills and incredible knowledge of aged paper and silk. She used the same skills and techniques to conserve several silk fans by Thea Proctor and Charles Conder, which were brittle and fractured by light damage. The return of such ‘lost’ works to spectacular condition thus earnt the respect of the Australian Art curators alongside the Asian department. Likewise, paintings in Chinese style by Brett Whiteley have benefited from her traditional scroll mounting skills and application of silks.
Lily also turned her hand to the care of a group of fragile posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec on poor quality papers that had been folded and creased. Removing the old canvas backings, they were then washed and lined onto paper using Chinese mounting and stretching techniques. Large scale contemporary artworks were also within her scope, including a work by Helen Johnson four metres in height in four vertical pieces pasted to a wall in a private home. These firmly stuck artworks Lily removed with a flourish, causing the owner a moment of great anxiety followed quickly by delight to see her evident skill and success on a work thought to be irretrievable. This work Lily remounted and it now forms part of the collection at the Art Gallery of NSW.
In 2016, Lily won the Edmund Capon Fellowship and spent three months working at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China, sharing and learning new ideas and skills. Many Australian conservators have had the benefit of her teaching courses and many visitors to the Conservation Department have enjoyed insight into a unique studio and practice, one that is unlikely to be replicated again in Australia any time soon. For any of us who saw Lily’s mastery at work it was always a joy to experience.
Like everything she does, Lily’s pleasure in her retirement is evident and she is planning her trip to London in 2022 to celebrate her daughter Emily’s marriage. We wish her the very best and hope to share more wonderful Yum Cha lunches together in the future.