A state-of-the-art programme salvages the memorial’s 400 oils and 1,000 water colours
Just a year ago, the priceless art collection at Calcutta’s grand Victoria Memorial was in danger of being wiped out forever. The brilliant hues of many of the paintings were hidden under a thick layer of dirt, the canvases were chipped or flaking, and the frames were falling apart.
No longer. With a state-of-the-art programme to salvage the memorial’s 400 oils and 1,000 water colours underway, the once decaying works are well on the way to being restored to their original glory. Among the restored paintings are the famous 18th century painter John Zoffany’s Claude Martin and his Friends and George Farrington’s evocative oil Murshidabad.
The restoration programme was no hastily executed cut-and-paste job. It was a painstaking three-month exercise undertaken by an 11-member team of British restorers led by Patrick Lindsay and Jane Macausland and assisted by a group of local restorers. With a budget of about 4 million and sophisticated equipment including ultra-violet tube panels, the results have been incredible.
(Left) Daniell’s View of the Fort and Farrington’s Murshidabad: restored
Nineteen priceless oils and about 200 water colours by 18th century European artists, which were badly damaged, have already been salvaged and saved from further ruin. It was a challenging job. When the exercise began, many of the paintings seemed irreparable, thanks to what memorial restorer Mainak Shankar Ray describes as “quack restoration” by earlier restorers.
Indiscriminate overpainting, bad retouch jobs and the failure to remove the dust on canvases before retouching had only further wrecked the already decaying paintings. According to Lindsay: “The surface dirt hadn’t been removed before retouching nor had the varnish been removed. The retouchings were badly matched without any knowledge of the paint layers.”
A touch up job on Claude Martin by memorial restorers some years ago, for instance, ended up ruining the painting further. With at least 60 per cent of the canvas indiscriminately over-painted, the original greens and blues were hidden and a small painting within a painting was completely concealed. Worse, the canvas ended up developing awful cracks. Today, the new team has restored the painting to its original shape and it is proudly displayed in the memorial’s gallery.
Farrington’s Murshidabad was another unfortunate victim of a “quack” repaint job. The blue sky on it had turned sooty black. When the team started cleaning the surface with special solvents, they discovered that dirt was deeply embedded in the canvas. It took them four months to unearth the boats and the mosque from beneath all the dirt.
(From top) Fleming’s Cheetah, Ghyal of Chittagong and Peacock
Restoring Thomas Daniell’sView of the Fort at Thana Near Bombay, Maharashtra, which was also concealed by layers of filth, wasn’t easy either. “The dirt had to be scraped out with needles and scalpels and by applying solvents without disturbing the painting,” says Ray.
Apart from the oils, 212 water colours from the invaluable Flemming collection, mostly studies in Indian wildlife, have also been through path-breaking cosmetic surgery. The process of restoration was elaborate: Flemming’s Peacock, Cheetah, Crocodile and Ghyal of Chittagong were first put in water-laden trays to remove the acid: then the folds were evened out by using imported potato starch gum and tissue paper after a careful bleaching.
Maintaining the restored paintings isn’t easy though, because the city’s high level of humidity distorts the canvases. But with plans to house the restored paintings in a Calcutta gallery with controlled air-conditioning, even that won’t be a problem any more.