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Collection Conservation

Paper conservation case study

A Stream of Stories: Indian Miniatures from the National Gallery of Australia
The Gayer–Anderson Collection
Introduction | Gallery | Listing | Conservation

detail: Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India 'Baz Bahadur and his mistress Rupmati hunting' c.1780 opaque watercolour, gold leaf, tin leaf,: The Gayer-Anderson Gift 1954, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia detail showing the embellishment of costume and jewellery with gold, and the characteristically fine brushwork of miniature paintings in the Gayer-Anderson gift
Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India
'Baz Bahadur and his mistress Rupmati hunting' c 1780 opaque watercolour, gold leaf, tin leaf, The Gayer-Anderson Gift 1954, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia  more detail

The paper conservation department at the National Gallery is currently investigating a collection of Indian paintings and drawings known as the Gayer-Anderson Gift. Although small, this group of works is quite broad in its content. It includes vibrant 19th-century souvenir watercolours from the Kalighat school of Calcutta , 20th-century woodblock prints in the Japanese tradition, and 18th-and 19th-century works from the Northern Indian provinces. The collection also includes a variety of unfinished works, preparatory drawings, tracings and stencils which reflect the studio tradition of the great Mughal period of miniature painting; and our studies have focused on this last category of works.

In essence, a miniature painting is a coloured drawing, its precise outline filled in with layers of colour and detail. These were often the result of the collaboration of a number of artists specialising in drawing, or portraits, or background. The paintings, their borders and bindings were usually undertaken by different hands. Most of the miniatures in the Gayer-Anderson Gift were produced as album leaves, tradition. They are small, intimate images, many of them surrounded by decorated borders and often offset either to one side or below centre. Some are double-sided and include calligraphic works on the verso.

The drawings in the collection are mixed in style—while some are very rudimentary, many are precisely delineated. Some include notations in script or pigment to indicate the appropriate colours for the different areas of the finished painting. These would have been prepared by a master draughtsman.

There are several examples of pouncing stencils—pin-pricked drawings which facilitated the duplication of popular images. By dusting charcoal powder over the back of a pouncing held in contact with a sheet of paper, a transfer was produced. This would then be strengthened with brush and watercolour into a more permanent drawing. The collection also contains a number of ink drawings on skin and paper which were used for tracing. Both tracings and stencils were important tools in the miniaturist's tool-box and would be re-used throughout the artist’s career.

Most of the miniatures are painted on a wash, a sturdy laminate of several sheets of handmade paper glued together. The papers are characterised by a warm beige tone and show both coarse and fine fibre bundles—an indicator of a mixed fibre stock. We have identified hemp, cotton, and cereal fibres in those examined. The paper support was not always totally covered with pigment, but used to great effect for flesh tones and landscape.

detail: Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India, 'A group of ladies bathing' c.1780 opaque watercolour, gold leaf, tin leaf, The Gayer-Anderson Gift 1954, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia detail: Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India,
'A group of ladies bathing' c 1780 opaque watercolour, gold leaf, tin leaf, The Gayer-Anderson Gift 1954, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

A miniature painting was built up in layers. A white ground of chalk or lead was commonly used as the foundation, veiling the underdrawing and acting as an opaque base for the more transparent watercolour layers. White was also used for design connections. Pigments are characterised by a vividness and richness of hue. This may be explained by the use of pure pigment and very simple mixtures, and by the binders selected. Gum Arabic was common, although gamboge was preferred for Indian yellow. Crushed seeds of the tamarind were also used, and a simple trial we carried out with this binder imparted an extraordinary vibrancy to the pigment.

We have identified many of the pigments on our miniatures using microscopy, energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDXA) and examination with infrared and ultraviolet light. Some of the more exotic examples are Indian yellow, a rich warm yellow from the dried urine of cows fed on mango leaves. This pigment is easily identified by the bright fluorescence when viewed with ultraviolet light. Orpiment, a poisonous sulphide of arsenic, was detected using EDXA. Another yellow which we have yet to positively identify on our works is an organic yellow from the flowers of Butea frondosa (flame of the forest). This tree also produces a red gum which was powdered and scattered during the festival of holi. The common blues include the mineral pigments lapis lazuli and azurite, and the organic pigment indigo. Prussian blue was identified on the Khalighat watercolours. Reds include the semi-opaque red lead and vermilion which were often used in mixtures and for simple border surrounds. Greens are often simple mixtures of indigo and Indian yellow, or orpiment, although terre verte and copper greens have also been identified. Gold was commonly used in leaf and liquid form for costumes and jewellery; this we have confirmed in the intricately tooled clothes in the works of the Hyderabad school.

Indian miniatures are noted for their exquisite detail and for the lustre of both the support and the pigments. This lustre was achieved by the use of a glue size to prepare the paper support, and burnishers to impart a smooth surface for the fine brushwork. Burnishing was continued throughout the stages of painting to maintain the smooth surfaces and to bond the pigment layers to the support. Brushes were extremely fine, reputedly those with hair plucked from a live squirrel were favoured.

We are continuing our examination of items in the Gayer–Anderson Gift, with a group of works from the Hyderabad school offering the opportunity for an in-depth investigation of the materials and techniques of a specific region.

Susie Bioletti

India 'A Hindu lady going to worship ' c.1675 opaque watercolour, gold, The Gayer-Anderson Gift 1954, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia India 'A Hindu lady going to worship ' c.1675 opaque watercolour, gold, The Gayer–Anderson Gift 1954, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The Gayer–Anderson collection was formed by ‘Major Robert Grenville Gayer–Anderson Pasha (1881–1945) Colonel Thomas Gayer Gayer–Anderson CMG, DSO (1881–1945). Born in Ireland and schooled together in Kent, both brothers followed service careers, but along separate though occasionally converging paths. Robert, a London medical graduate, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was seconded to the Egyptian Army from 1907 to 1917. After retiriment in 1920 he served the Egyptian government in several senior capacities until 1924: the honorific of ‘Pasha' was conferred in recognition of this service. Thomas graduated from the Royal Military Academy and served in South Africa, the Sudan, Egypt and India, 1926–29. Both were mentioned in Despatches (Thomas seven times) and both were at Gallipoli

The Gayer- Andersons were identical twins. They were intensely conscious of their relationship and thought of themselves as a unity: thus they were able to acquire miniatures independently yet build and hold the collection in common with untroubled unanimity. Thomas collected vigorously and widely during his time in India . Other sources were Cairo, London and Dundee.

A large proportion of the collection consists of drawings. Thomas was a keen draughtsman and so was prompted to seek out images in that medium. Of his highly productive 1927 swing through Rajputana he recorded that Indian drawings were then so little considered locally that owners would ot produce them unless pressed to do so.

The twins were of one mind in the decision to make a gift to Australia of a substantial part of the collection (some of it went to the Victorial and Albert Museum, London ). Though separated by great distances early in their careers, both made close friendships with Australian contemporaries. Thus Thomas recorded in 1954 that even their choice of close friends was a ‘twin similar happening'. Though he was in South Africa and Robert in North Africa, the friends they chose were similar in character as well as appearance — they were noted for their fine horsemanship and for their unusually large moustaches! Their high regard for Australians was reinforced at Gallipoli.

At the formal stages of committal to Australia, the surviving twin Thomas Gayer wrote:

It is a source of the liveliest satisfaction to me to know that the pictures and objects in this Gayer –Anderson Gift, each one of which has been acquired, tended and loved by myself and my twin Brother, are now going to a new home where they will be permanently cared for, studied and admired in a land for whose People we I always had so sincere an admiration and affection.

Bill Hamilton

 

This article was first published in the Gallery's publication artonview 13 autumn 1998