Collection Care blog

08 May 2020

Conservation of 19th century ivory miniature portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah

Patricia Tena, Conservator

In the late 18th century, British and European artists such as John Smart and Ozias Humphrey introduced the concept of painting portrait miniatures on ivory to local artists in northern India. By the mid-19th century, Indian artists also used relatively small ivory discs or sheets to paint topographical views and genre scenes as well. In 2018, the Visual Arts section added to its existing collection of works on ivory, two portrait miniatures reputed to be the infant sons of Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87), the last King of Awadh and date based on stylistic grounds to c. 1840-42.

Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711

Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711.

One of the two portraits show a young child of about 12 months old based on the fact he is pictured being supported by a bolster on the ground and cannot sit up properly. The second portrait displays a slightly older child of no more than 2 years old pictured seated in a European style chair. J.P. Losty (formerly the Head of Visual Arts) suggests that these two sitters were most likely to be the second and third sons of Wajid Ali Shah, as the first-born was deaf and mute and hence passed over. The second son being Falak Qadar ‘a fine-looking boy’ who would die prematurely of smallpox at the age of 11[1] and the third son being Hamid Ali (1838-74) would become the prince-apparent. Hamid Ali would later visit Britain in 1857, photographed by Leonida Caldesi at an exhibition In Manchester in July 1857[2].

On acquiring these ivories, the Visual Arts section arranged to have these portraits assessed and obtain proposals for the long-term preservation and storage. The miniatures came to conservation in late 2019 as part of the annual conservation programme.

The objects were both very vulnerable in the present storage box as the ivory substrates were effectively loose in the box and did not come with any ‘accessories’ such as backboards, glass or frame.  Both the watercolour media and the ivory substrate were in a stable condition. However, over time, there was considerable media loss mainly on the edges, probably caused by a change in frame/enclosure and being in close contact with a frame or glass that rubbed against the paint layer. Unsuitable materials such as adhesives and poor quality paper or card used for the framing will have contributed to the discolouration, accretions and staining on the edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.

As part of the treatment proposal, the pair of portraits did not require conservation treatment apart from cleaning prior to their rehousing. New enclosures were built in order to accommodate a very hygroscopic material such as ivory. One of the most common damage to ivory miniatures are cracks caused by a combination of restriction of movement to the ivory support and changes is the relative humidity. Ivory needs room to move within its enclosure; if it warps and the frame or support prevents it from doing so, it will inevitably crack.

One of the miniatures prior to being sealed in enclosure.

One of the miniatures prior to being sealed in enclosure.

The miniatures were hinged on top and bottom edges, then the hinges were threaded through a museum quality cream backboard and a Plastazote base. The hinges were secured onto the back of the Plastazote. The rest of the enclosures were built around the base, allowing space around the edges and between the miniature and the Vibac glazing. Mount backboards with Japanese paper flaps were provided to each miniature, these flaps were used to seal the Plastazote enclosures. The Vibac had to be slotted in place with a flush surround made out of mount-board. This allowed for a window mount to be adhered on the top to finish off the miniatures.

A buckram covered tray was made to measure taking care not to exceed the depth of the prints and drawings reading room drawers.  A Plastozote cut out was fitted in the tray to offer extra protection and prevent movement while being accessed by readers. The board with original inscriptions was mounted and rehoused in a Melinex enclosure, all made to fit the tray and to act as a protective ‘lid’ to the miniatures.

Finished miniatures and their tray.

Finished miniatures and their tray.

With the pair of ivories in their new housing, it is now possible to make the works available for consultation to registered readers by appointment.

For more on the historical background of these pieces head over to the Asian and African studies blog!

[1] R. Llewelyn-Jones 2014, p. 77

[2] Ibid, illustration no. 3.

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