Conservation of the David Sassoon Painting - A Fairy Tale

Dileep Mestri1, Anupam Sah2

1. Conservation Assistant, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Museum Art Conservation Centre. 

2. Chief Conservator-Restorer, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Museum Art Conservation Centre. 

David Sassoon, the Merchant Prince of Bombay, seemed weighed down and tired as his dusty, life-size, early twentieth century portrait, created with oil paints on canvas, arrived at the Museum Art Conservation Centre of the CSMVS.





Before Treatment                                           During Treatment                                            After Treatment   

The painted canvas, soft at some places and hard at others, with cuts and tears, a gaping hole and many large blisters, sagged under its own weight that was made even heavier by a thick canvas that had previously been (lined) stuck behind the painting with an adhesive of wax and resin.

As for the image, it looked dull under the varnish that had darkened considerably to a brownish hue.

David Sassoon’s image was surrounded with a dark coat of paint that hid all background details of the painting.

The paint layer at various places was fractured and peeling off as small flakes of paint. The edges of the canvas were in bits and pieces and ready to fall, just waiting for the removal of the rusted nails that were holding the canvas to its stretcher. The huge frame itself was in a sorry state. Despite this, hope sparkled in the beautiful eyes of David Sassoon and in the hearts of the Managing Committee of the David Sassoon Library that had requested the CSMVS to conserve their painting.

The Art Conservators-Restorers and their support teams at the CSMVS documented the damages and then de-framed the painting very gently. The most important part of the painting is also its most fragile layer, the image. The first task was to gently consolidate the flaking paint layers otherwise they could inadvertently be lost forever. Once the painting was safe to handle, it was turned face down, the additional lining canvas was carefully removed and then so was the wax-resin adhesive in a patience-testing, long drawn and slow process.

The next step was to hold in place the various tears on the weakened canvas. A heat-melt synthetic adhesive, that can easily be removed, arrested the tears with the help of specially designed patches. The numerous nail holes and canvas losses, some measuring as small as 3 mm in diameter, were filled up one by one with similar textured cloth to bring the entire canvas assembly to one uniform thickness.

The cleaning of the darkened brown varnish from the image of David Sassoon revealed the true mauves, reds, whites and creams of his robes, his skin, and his eyes shone forth with a fairy-like light as that of a visionary

and gentle soul of steely resolve. The removal of the overpaint from the background areas revealed completely the shapes and colours of a pillar, the backdrop curtain, the books, and the footstool on the floor, all hidden earlier in a bid by previous restorers to quickly camouflage the hundreds of pinhead sized paint losses and canvas repairs in certain areas. A number of oversized patches and repairs were removed, and as these were over very small damages underneath, more and more portions of the original painting came forth adding to the smiles shared by the conservators.

The canvas was weak, heavy and held together by the very thin conservation patches, and therefore it was decided to line the painting with a thin and strong canvas that could take the ‘stretching load’ off the original painted canvas. The conservation team prepared the lining cloth and the adhesive to ‘cold line’ the painting. After a few procedure rehearsals, the multipurpose vacuum table at the conservation centre was switched on. A gradual low pressure suction was developed, the adhesive lined canvas was placed on the table and the original canvas was placed on it in turn, face up, ensuring that no air bubbles remained betwixt the canvas layers. A single, large, synthetic, non-permeable sheet was placed on this assembly, and the vacuum was gently and progressively increased, then held steady and finally gradually decreased until the assembly was in tandem with atmospheric pressure, and the painting successfully lined.

The hundreds of small losses were then filled up and levelled and a protective coat was applied on the painting. Meanwhile, the frame had been repaired. The painting was then pressure tacked on a new stretcher and the filled up areas were retouched a hue that matched the immediate surrounding areas.

After a few weeks of observation, the painting was framed and as soon as that was done, almost as if David Sassoon longed to leave this art hospital and go back home, the painting was taken back to the freshly renovated Sassoon Library and Reading Room and installed high up on a wall from where he can survey all who pass through the portals and all those who sit and read.

The painting is there now, a glowing tribute to a dignified gentleman, who will continue to live many hundred years more in our hearts and minds and on that canvas too. We sometimes go there, up the Library steps, and look up at the portrait. All those months of working together, bringing back to life a glorious image damaged over time, seem like a dream. Quite a fairy tale, and what a happy ending.




Removal of Wax                                                                       Frame Repair





About the Authors

Dileep Mestri is a Conservation Assistant at Museum Art Conservation Center of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. A permanent staff of the museum, he has been associated with the museums conservation center ever since its inception in 2008. Working on decorative art, oil paintings, paper and stone artefacts from the museum’s collection, other galleries and exhibitions. He has attended various workshop held by NRLC, INTACH and CSMVS Museum.

Has recently completed post-graduation diploma in museology and conservation from CSMVS museum. Completed B.F.A. from Sir J. J. School of Fine Art, Mumbai in 2001.

Anupam Sah is a heritage conservation-restoration practitioner and trainer and is presently the consulting head of art conservation, research and training at the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre, Mumbai. He also directs projects and training programmes for The Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation as well as for A HeritageLab (India) Pvt Ltd. Anupam works on conservation projects with a Systems Approach based on the premise that various problems are inter-related and form networked cycles of effects and causes. Interventions at the appropriate place can effect large changes in the system and bring about desirable change.

He  has  rendered  services  to  the  Government  of  India’s  Ministries  of  Culture,  Tourism,  Urban Development, various State Governments, INTACH, World Bank, UNDP, UNESCO, and others. As a trainer he has designed and conducted more than 200 workshops and training courses both in India and abroad, for various institutions. He is the project leader of Art Conservation Resurgence project. 

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