At Udaipur’s City Palace painting conservation lab, centuries-old artworks meet modern technology and an expert touch

Housed on the second floor of the Zenana Mahal (palace for the royal ladies) in one of the erstwhile royal living quarters of the City Palace, Udaipur is a painting conservation lab which is one of its kind in India. The Conservation Laboratory has been primarily set up to cater to the conservation needs of the large and varied collection of the City Palace Museum.

Currently undertaking its first project that involves the documentation and preservation of Mewar paintings dating from the 17th century onwards, it became fully functional in January 2018 (23 paintings have been conserved since then) and works towards restoring extraordinarily large artworks on paper, most of them centuries’ old and some measuring up to 4’x6’.

 At Udaipurs City Palace painting conservation lab, centuries-old artworks meet modern technology and an expert touch

Treatment of a drawing on paper. Image courtesy of the author

A modern lab inside a heritage structure

Keeping in mind that the structure is a heritage monument, the originality and layout of the space had to be retained while planning the laboratory.

Art Conservation Consultant S Girikumar of the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF) recalls that the space was constrictive and therefore allowed minimal alteration. He adds, “Several pillars and arches dividing the whole area into rooms had to be retained. The space was narrow and elongated, and the niches, cupboards and windows had to remain as is.”

The equipment and working tables were made movable for convenience and optimum utilisation of space. Keeping these restrictions in mind, each section was demarcated for a specific conservation purpose.

In the first space, an office was created with workstations, where all the data related to the conservation treatments is processed and stored, and the section next to it has been designed mainly for the mounting of artworks. The next two spaces are working areas for the conservators, equipped with instruments required during conservation treatments.

The fifth section is the “wet” area of the laboratory and is logically housed where the bathroom was originally located. The old plumbing was restored and this area was fitted with sinks, a washing sink, and a deioniser plant, thereby allowing all aqueous treatments to be done here. The last area houses a low-pressure vacuum suction table measuring 5’ x 10’.

Girikumar adds that the original niches and cupboards in the laboratory space have been adapted for use in the storage of conservation materials and tools. “The Palace is made up of narrow spaces and several alleyways and staircases. Transporting paintings to the laboratory is challenging, hence provision was made for a 16 ft hydraulic lift that helps in safely transferring the paintings from the courtyard to the laboratory with minimal vibrations,” he shares.

The Conservation process

The steps involved in the conservation of any artwork are specific to its material composition and condition.

The first step is always a thorough examination and documentation of the nature and condition of an artwork, both written and photographic. A condition assessment report records the deterioration noticed in the artwork in great detail, and proposes a tentative course of treatment.

Conservation Consultant Saloni Ghuwalewala explains, “Treatment often starts with cleaning the object. In the case of Mewar paintings, the next step is consolidation of the flaking paint layer. Due to fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature, and the comparatively dry weather in Udaipur, the paint layer on these paintings has a considerable amount of cracking and flaking. These areas are ‘consolidated’ using a suitable adhesive.”

A recurring problem been noticed in the paintings currently under treatment are the brown paper tapes, pressure-sensitive tapes and pieces of newspaper stuck to the reverse that cause stress to the paintings. These are removed either mechanically or by using different solvents depending upon the nature of the adhesive used.

Suction table being used for treatment of painting. Image courtesy of the author

Suction table being used for treatment of painting. Image courtesy of the author

Another kind of damage noticed in these paintings is ‘delamination’, in which layers of paper support get separated due to loss of strength in the adhesive between the layers. These are re-adhered using appropriate adhesives.
Tears and losses are mended and infilled using Japanese tissues of suitable strength and thickness. The fibrous nature of these tissues helps to merge with the original paper support and also give it the required structural stability. It is also unique in that it allows for least expansion and contraction, thereby minimising stress and damage to the paper support.

The low-pressure vacuum suction table in the laboratory helps in humidifying these large paintings in preparation for flattening, the last step in a treatment, and gets them ready for mounting and framing.

Bhasha Shah, a full time conservator at MMCF says that the highlight of the laboratory is the low pressure vacuum suction table measuring 5’ x 10’, the largest available in India. “It has been customised to cater to the oversized artworks in the Museum collection,” she reveals and reels off the many purposes it serves, “It can be used to humidify artworks by introducing a fine mist, and can be used for controlled heating and low vacuum conditions that help in certain conservation treatments for sensitive artworks.”

The challenges of conservation

The fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity over the years have adversely affected the paint layer in many Mewar paintings. This has resulted in the loss of binding medium in several areas of the paintings resulting in flaking of the paint layer and in some cases, the under drawings have even been revealed. In several instances, parts of a painting can also be completely lost due to wear and tear.

Ghuwalewala explains that fading can occur due to a number of factors, the primary one being exposure to light which is an irreversible damage. She further adds, “Reintegration/Inpainting the areas of loss depends on many factors. Ethically, interfering with the original intention of the artist is not considered appropriate, and the losses can attest to the history of the artwork. Keeping this in mind, areas of paint loss in these Mewar paintings have not been retouched. However, in case a hole or loss in the painting has been reconstructed to impart the required strength, then one has to inpaint it using a matching neutral colour so as to make it less obvious. This makes the painting look aesthetically complete, but on closer examination can be seen as being different from the original.”

She cites the example of a drawing depicting ‘Maharana Jawan Singh and Col Bentick at 1832 Ajmer durbar’ as presenting unique challenges. The treatment took around three-four months to complete.

Consolidation of paint layer being carried out under stereo microscope. Image courtesy of the author

Consolidation of paint layer being carried out under stereo microscope. Image courtesy of the author

It is a preparatory sketch done on a large sheet of handmade paper measuring 48’’ x 37’’ and it is made of four smaller sheets joined together,” she states. “This sketch had been kept folded for a long time, leading to creases and losses. The paper had become yellow, suggesting build-up of acidity and resultant brittleness in the paper. The extremely fragile nature of this artwork made it difficult to handle, let alone treat.”

After making sure that the pigment did not bleed in water, an aqueous treatment was considered the best way by the conservation team to remove the acidity and reduce the yellowness. To make handling easier, it was separated along its joints into four parts. Each piece was individually subjected to ‘float washing’ and then rejoined.

The team says that arranging loose and detached pieces back in place was ‘like solving a jigsaw puzzle’ and that missing areas in the paper were infilled with tissue of similar strength, thickness and texture.

Another artwork, ‘Maharana Jagat Singh hunting tiger at Tikhliya Magra‘ had a corner cut off and that piece was used to mend a loss in the centre of the top edge of the painting. Using the steam pencil to detach the piece was tricky, as the water vapour could affect the pigments. Nevertheless, with extreme care, the task was accomplished. The piece was reattached to its original position, and the loss on the top edge was infilled.

The City Palace Museum has created new storage spaces for various collections. The Mewar paintings, once conserved, will be mounted using archival quality mount boards and then stored in the newly-created paintings storage area.

The paintings will be kept in flat file drawers interleaved with archival quality tissues. These materials ensure the long-term preservation of artworks. The storage units have been customised and designed according to both the size of the paintings and the available space in storage areas. These rooms have been equipped with a customised ventilation system to maintain an ambient temperature and relative humidity levels and ensure that there are no abrupt variations of the same.

Ensuring that centuries-old artworks are preserved and presented to younger generations, this conservation lab ensures that the new and old come together to preserve the best of Mewar art and culture has to offer.

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