The Sword of Damocles

The Courtauld, London and CSMVS, Mumbai Conservation Collaboration

The Collaboration

The conservation of the early 19th century oil on canvas painting, ‘Sword of Damocles’, measuring sixty five square feet was the preferred choice of Mr. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General of CSMVS and of Dr. Deborah Swallow, Director of The Courtauld Institute of Art when they deliberated on a project to commence a collaboration between their two institutions. With the Trustees of the two institutions agreeing to pool in resources, this project plan turned into a reality, and the paintings conservation section of The Courtauld and the CSMVS Art Conservation Centre commenced to conserve and restore the Sword of Damocles, painted by the neo-classical French painter Antoine Dubost in the year 1804. The objective of this collaboration was to mutually develop a ‘good practice model’ and if successful, the scope of this relationship between the two could be enlarged to include other spheres such as conservation education and research.


The Sword of Damocles

Dr. Richard E. Spear, of the University of Maryland, has reported1 that this painting was exhibited along with three others at the Paris Salon in 1804 and that Dubost received a gold medal from Napoleon for it, and praise from Jacques-Louis David. The painting was acquired by Thomas Hope who effaced the Artist’s signature, by overpainting it, perhaps due to tensions between them, and later in 1917, the painting was auctioned in the Hope sale at Christie’s  as  simply  belonging  to  the  French School. It was there that Sir Ratan Tata acquired this painting and following his demise in 1918, it was bequeathed with more than a hundred old-master and modern paintings to the Prince of Wales Museum (Now CSMVS, Mumbai). It remained on view in the European Painting Gallery at CSMVS as an ‘Unknown’ painting till 2006 when with support from Dr. Kalpana Desai, then Director CSMVS and Mr. Dilip Ranade, Sr. Curator of the European Painting Collection, conservators, including Abraham Joel and Barbara Bertieri, removed the overpaint to reveal the attribution to Dubost.

The Team

An MOU between the two institutions was signed in 2011 and Dr. Aviva Burnstock, Head of the Dept of Conservation & Technology, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London and Mr. Paul Ackroyd, Conservation expert, National Gallery, London visited Mumbai and along with Mr. Dilip Ranade, and Mr. Anupam Sah, Head of Art Conservation, Research and Training, CSMVS examined the painting and prepared a treatment plan. Ms. Harriet Pearson and Mr. Mark Coombs,

post-graduates in easel painting conservation from the Courtauld and Mr. Omkar Kadu, Assistant Curator Conservation of the CSMVS worked over twelve months on the treatment of the painting. Mr. Trevor Cumine, an oil paintings lining specialist from London became part of the collaboration as did Dr. Satish Padiyar, an expert in French Art History. Support conservation staff from CSMVS MACC – Vaidehi Savnal, Dileep Mestri, Nidhi Shah, Sandeep Wareshi and Santosh Khanvilkar and Courtauld students, Clio Nisse, Kristina Mandy and Pearl O’Sullivan completed the team.

Condition of the painting

The brittle painting suffered from severe flaking and delamination, fungal damage and effects of previous restorations including a partly removed lining.

Brittle paint layers





Examination and analytical studies

The painting was documented in detail and all aspects of deterioration were recorded. The pigment and ground layers were identified by examining the cross sections under stereomicroscopes and electron microscopes. Ultraviolet fluorescence helped to locate previous retouching and varnish coats. Infrared imaging revealed underdrawings and pentimenti.


Examining the paint layers under a stereomicroscope




Cross-sectional analysis


Conservation – Restoration

The teams worked very conscientiously and over twelve months implemented various procedures that included removal of the earlier gelatine and tissue facing that was covering the painting; strengthening of the brittle paint and ground layers with successive applications of consolidants; partial removal of varnish layers and past retouching; temporary levelling of paint and ground losses, facing of painting to accord temporary protection to the paint surface allowing for a safe removal of the old lining. After tears were mended, losses filled, and temporary facing removed, the painting was lined using a non aqueous Beva adhesive in a vacuum envelope and finally the painting was mounted on a stretcher.

Removal of old gelatin facing                            Consolidation of paint and ground layers           Removal of old lining



Tear mending                                                   Removal of residual wax from surface              Injecting consolidants

To tackle difficult situations, innovative techniques were formulated including the use of syringes with tubular extensions to inject consolidants into areas difficult to access, air supports to provide a varying raising and lowering of canvas areas during treatment and assembling delaminated flakes using a net prepared with very fine mono-filament threads. The entire process has been documented and will be available for reference.


                                                                                       Assembling flakes on a mono-filament net

Current Status

The painting is in its final stage of treatment. In June 2013, The Courtauld invited Head of Conservation CSMVS, to the UK to visit and interact with various conservators and art historians at The Courtauld, National Gallery London, Tate Britain, British Museum, V&A, and other institutions where neo-classical paintings of the early 19th cent. were treated and displayed. During this visit, the rigorous and well planned academic programmes of The Courtauld Institute of Art’s various departments were assessed and they came across as very sound and useful resource for possible future collaborations. From August 2013, the final phase of conservation of the Sword of Damocles commences with the two Institutions hoping to showcase the painting to the world once again and celebrate it with a seminar, a publication and a hopefully with the announcement of a long term collaboration between them with wide, pertinent and useful impacts.

About the Authors

Omkar is an pass out of Sir JJ School of Art having specialised in portraiture with an MFA in Fine Arts Drawing & Painting. While pursuing his masters he taught art and designed and conducted workshops for schools & art colleges.

He has been working with the Museum Art Conservation center since its inception in 2004, for the last 9 years. He holds a postgraduate Diploma in Museolgy and Conservation. Omkar has a varied experience across diverse materials like Oil Paintings, Miniature Paintings, Contemporary Art, Paintings on Cloth, Polychrome on Wood & Prints on paper. Since his association with the museum he has participated in various workshops and courses like Training Programs at NRLC, FTIR, Paper conservation workshop by Mike Wheeler (V & A), Oil Paintings by Anupam Sah, Thangka Workshop by Mike Wheeler & Teresa Heady & Old techniques of gilding and silvering by Alexandra Skedzuhn (Berlin).

Omkar was involved with international exhibitions such as Indian life and landscape (V&A), Treasures of China, Mummy the inside story. He was also a part of the team that included the art institute of Chicago, which assessed the Jaipur city palace collection. Currently he is working on the European Painting-Sword of Damocles by Antonine Dubust, collaboration between the MACC CSMVS & the Courtald Institute of Art.

Vaidehi Savnal is currently working at the CSMVS MACC with the conservation of art objects. In the past three years, she has worked on European oil paintings (17th – 18th cent.), contemporary paintings, paper objects and prints by artists such as S.H.Raza, V.Gaitonde, A.Padamsee and also Indian Miniatures. She has completed her Masters in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology and her Post-Graduate Diploma in Museology and Conservation and has secured a first rank with distinction in both. She is currently pursuing a diploma in Built Heritage Studies and Conservation.

Apart from practical conservation work, she has been a part of the coordination team for the Leadership Training Programme conducted by the British Museum, London for museum professionals in India. She was also a part of the team that coordinated the 4 month exhibition, “Mummy – the Inside Story” in collaboration with the British Museum, London.

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 Resugence project.


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