Conservation of wall paintings at Thakur Satyanarayan temple: a brief account

This hundred year old temple needed an uplift. It had wall paintings that were not clearly visible due to layers of grime and there was also heavy flaking to make the condition worst. The temple authorities had already tried a few artists to over paint the damaged paintings. The new over-painting of course looked brighter, but the quality and style were a big mismatch with what was originally there. One of the visitors discussed the awkwardness of the newly created painting and introduced the concept of “Conservation of heritage” to the temple authorities. Thus a search for a conservation team begun. Finally the HPA (Heritage Preservation Atelier) team was invited to visit the temple and advise further course of action regarding conservation/revival of the original wall paintings.

At first look, the paintings appeared beyond repairs and some of them were unrecognizable. It was difficult to figure out what was depicted in the original painting. We started with studying the paintings and doing some research to figure out their origin and artistic influence. We took some close-ups and pictures in raking light.

A closer study revealed two basic aspects of these paintings:

  1. They were done in oil based colours, and
  2. They had a lot of gilded stucco work

Another important fact we discovered was that most of them had derived their theme from the oleo-graphs or canvas paintings of the famous artist of the time, Raja Ravi Verma.

Original chromo lithograph created by Raja Ravi Verma
One of the copy of Raja Ravi Verma painting

We drafted a treatment methodology for panels of each of the four walls, because almost all the panels of a wall had similar damages(with just a few exceptions).

Some common treatment procedures were:
1. Pre-consolidation and/or facing
2. Cleaning
3. Consolidation
4. Final cleaning
5. In-painting

Cleaning

Cleaning had a drastic effect on the paintings. We could see the actual colours that artists had applied once we could remove the thick layer of grime deposited over the years (nearly a century).

Removal of damaging components to avoid further damage.

If the grime remains on the surface, it can be a substrate for many microorganisms or spores of microorganisms because they find a home to stay, as it acts as a food and substrate to which they can hold onto. So, most important thing is to remove any deteriorating agent.

Similarly, if there are any accretions, they can also be damaging as it can loosen or chemically alter the original material. Any substance that was not present originally and is obscuring the painting or contributing to its deterioration must be removed.

Over-painting

A few panels were over-painted in recent past with acrylic colours. One of the panels had the original painting (along with older grime and damages) intact to a large extent, but it was a challenge to bring it out without any damage while removing the upper acrylic layer.

In the painting of Lord Rama called Sagar Garv Prahar, title was discovered in the original lower layer when upper layer of acrylic paint was being removed carefully.. Cleaning of the overpaint was first carried out in less important and plain areas. Even after removing overpaint there was a dark layer of grime on it. We created a customized gel and a micro-emulsion to clean this over-painted panel.

Saagar Garv Prahar during removal of over-paint and further cleaning
over-painted verses conserved
Preparing cleaning micro-emulsion

Cleaning by removing aged grime and other oxidized surface layers

In most of the paintings, there were mainly a presence of grime layer and accretions which were treated in a different manner. Mainly all the original paintings had a dark layer of grime that was screening the original paintings.

This grime seems to be over a layer of natural polymer that might have been applied over the paintings when they were originally created. A pH adjusted water with small amount of gelling agent and Triton X 100 helped in removing the grime as shown in the following video.

Careful cleaning of a wall painting

For accretions like drops of lime and cement on the paintings which were there due to the construction of new ceiling of SabhaMandapa, mechanical cleaning was done. Otherwise, it was more or less same treatment as in the other three walls.

Consolidation

Consolidation was another elaborate step for many paintings. It had to done carefully with different materials in layers and with different material according to the depth of the gap and the type of gap or detachment.

Treating a detached paint layer

Lime mortars with varying composition relevant to the damaged layer in the plaster or paint, were used.

Re-construction of lost areas and in-painting

The gilded stucco work was in three types of art work areas:
1. in the paintings characters
2. borders of the paintings
3. Arches

The gilding and the stucco were damaged at many places. There were many places where the sinopia or under-drawing was exposed because of the detached and lost stucco over it.

Exposed Sinopia

We carefully recreated the broken gilded stucco at some places and gilded it. We made sure that the original is not removed or damaged.

Finally, we in-painted the missing areas.

Some results

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