The following is an account from the Museum Collections Unit, University of St Andrews, on how an AIM conservation grant of £1,500 has helped to preserve Indian paintings on glass.
The University of St Andrews was founded between 1410 and 1414 and has accumulated artefacts of significance since this period. The Museum Collections Unit exists to manage and preserve the collections in its care and to make these collections available to the academic, scholarly and general public by study, publication and exhibition.
The Museum Collections Unit was awarded an AIM Conservation Grant to support the conservation of a collection of rare Indian paintings on glass. The glass paintings depict Hindu deities and are thought to have been executed in Southern India, probably Tanjore, in the mid-19th century. The paintings are displayed inside wooden frames and the decoration has been painted directly onto the surface of the glass using gouache and gold leaf, which was likely bound in a gum arabic solution.
The collection was presented to the University of St Andrews in the late nineteenth century by the Reverend Augustus Clifford Bell (1832-1874), who was a graduate of the University. Reverend Bell was Chaplain of the Church of Scotland St Andrews Church, Madras, from 1860 to 1874 and it is believed that he may have collected these paintings during this period.
These paintings are significant not only for their artistic merit but also because of the valuable insight that they provide into material culture and cultural relations between Indian craftsmen and the British in the 19th century. These pieces were produced by Indian artists for British patrons. Works of this type are often referred to as ‘Company Paintings’ because many of these patrons worked for the various East India companies. Due to the fragility of their construction and often because of their religious subject matter, it was very rare for travellers to bring glass paintings back to Britain.
Before conservation, the glass paintings were in a very fragile condition. It was feared that the areas of painted decoration within the remaining eight glass paintings were in danger of being lost due to the deterioration and flaking of paint away from the glass surface. The paintings were also loose and unstable within their original wooden frames.
With the assistance of an AIM grant, the Indian paintings on glass have been conserved. This complex conservation project was carried out by an ICON-accredited stained glass conservator, Mr Mark Bambrough of the Scottish Glass Studios. The basis of this conservation approach was adapted from an article entitled ‘Conservation of Indian Mica Paintings’ in the Conservation Journal (Summer 2000, Issue 35), published by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Seven of the painted glass panes were removed from their wooden frames and placed inside a fume cabinet and sprayed with a consolidant (5% Paraloid B72 and Acetone). This process secured the loose paint fragments and gold leaf back to the glass panels. The glass panes were then returned to their frames in a way that prevented further movement of the painted panels and abrasion against the original wooden back board. This was achieved by placing a sheet of acid-free brown paper and polyethylene foam between the painted panel and wooden backboard to create a physical separation between the two surfaces.
The glass panes were then secured inside the frames by using small pieces of polyethylene foam to hold the glass in place and prevent any horizontal movement inside the frames (please see enclosed photographs documenting the individual processes). One of the glass paintings, a panel depicting Vishnu, had been badly broken in the past and held together using non-conservation grade tape and mount board. This panel was carefully removed from its backing board and bonded together using conservation grade resin to create one single decorated pane.
The assistance of an AIM Conservation Scheme grant has enabled the Museum Collections Unit to conserve the Indian paintings on glass in order to preserve and promote public access to this rare collection. We are delighted that this vital conservation work has secured their future for the benefit and appreciation of museum audiences for generations to come.
Collections and Exhibitions Curator
Museum Collections Unit, University of St Andrews
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