This book is based upon the photographs taken by Mr. and Mrs. John B. Vincent in 1948. Mr. Vincent's colour films are the first to be used in the production of colour plates of the wall paintings at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in the Tun-huang oasis. Mrs. Vincent has described in her book The Sacred Oasis, 1953, her adventurous journey to the caves and the ten days which she was able to spend there. Mr. Vincent was there for even shorter time but both deserve credit and gratitude for the work which they were able to accomplish in photographing the caves and especially the wall paintings.
For twenty years I had been familiar with the amazingly well-preserved paintings on silk and paper brought to London from Tun-huang by Sir Aurel Stein in 1908, and patiently unfolded and mounted at the British Museum. I had studied the photographs taken soon after by Professor Paul Pelliot of the wall paintings; tantalised as we all were, by the glimpses from this great picture gallery in the heart of Asia. I had visited the collections of fragments of wall paintings from Turfan and Khotan in Berlin (now alas largely perished) and New Delhi; and had seen the few remains from Kozlov's Central Asian journey in Moscow--but none of this gave any clear picture of how Buddhist caves of the earlier period looked. It was therefore with excitement that I heard in 1951 that the Vincents had brought to London a series of ninety colour transparencies of the interiors of thirty-four different caves. It is true that they had been taken without sufficient equipment, mostly by flash and in no case with arc lamps, for there was at this time no electricity generated at Ch'ien Fo-tung. But there were more than enough to reveal the rich colouring of Tun-huang painting, and many fine details--I was eager to see this material published, and readily agreed to write descriptions and an introduction.
Closer study increased my interest, but revealed the rashness of attempting to write about what I had not seen. The iconographic difficulties proved far greater than I had anticipated and the stylistic development charted by the Tun-huang Institute proved to be incomplete and partly deceptive. The Wei style emerged clearly enough, and it was evident that the late T'ang and Five Dynasties painting was not unlike much of the Stein collection. But between lay some four hundred years of artistic history which was obscure.
Several important publications appeared while this study was in progress, and I am . . .