The series on the table for examination

The collection of 24 drawings held at the Museum Volkenkunde depicts various birds from the western foothills of Himalaya, in the today-states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. The region was the scenery of small kingships established in the various hills and valleys such as Kangra, Guler, Mandi, Chamba, Basohli, Bilaspur, etc… These drawings were most likely productions of the Kangra workshop and were probably executed during the first quart of the 19th century.

At the end of the 18th century, a new pictorial style called “company painting” begun to emerge in the region around Calcutta, the port and capital of the British Raj. Native artists were requested to paint images to please the eyes and taste of the English colonials and other Europeans merchants, travellers, officials, etc. Some were interested in recording local fauna and flora, occupations and trades and others were more in search for exotic and local curiosities. The painting of birds was a big hit among the English good society members. The most famous work being the album painted between 1777 and 1782 for the Impey’s who commissioned local artists, among other Zain ud-Din, for the painting of the various birds, animals and native plants, life-sized where possible, in their natural surroundings. Company painting also developed in north-west India but in a lesser extent since the region was the last one to be conquered by the British and because the community of westerners was less consequent than in other regions such as Delhi, Mumbai and the eastern part of India. It is most likely that the Indian artists from the Pahari lands were reached by this fashion, but it is still unknown if these drawings were the results of a commission or not.


The drawings of Himalayan birds from Prof. Vogel’s former collection

These drawings were formerly part of the collection of Prof. Jean-Philippe Vogel who purchased them when he was in India. Jean-Philippe Vogel (1871-1958) was a Dutch sanskritist and epigraphist. From 1901-1910, he was superintendent of the Northern Circle (present-day Pakistan, Kashmir, Punjab) of the Archaeological Survey of India. Then, from 1910 to 1912, he occupied the eminent position of Officiating Director General of the same institution. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he occupied the Chair of Sanskrit and Indian Archaeology at the Leiden University from 1914-1939 and founded the Kern Institute in 1925, together with N. J. Krom. The present collection today held at the Museum Volkenkunde represents his legacy and epitomizes his passion and expertise for Indian painting, which led him to contribute to the creation of the Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba in 1908. Behind much of his work, one suspects his ambition to mediate between East and West and to connect the “Old World” with the “New South Asia”. In that sense, the artworks are directly inscribed in the context of global history which took place during the turn of the nineteenth century. Vogel was an eminent personality who contributed to the set-up of Indian Studies in the Netherlands, and therefore to stimulate the interest and contribution of a further generation of Dutch scholars in the field. See previous post. Little is known about Vogel’s collecting practice but, according to his writing, he was particularly interested in portraits of historical figures such a Sikh and Pahari rulers. Nevertheless, a series of 24 drawings of birds stands out for the naturalist depictions of the avian fauna of the region. One says that Vogel purchased this group of drawings because it is related to his own name ! We also know that in 1905, while he was surveying stone carvings and inscriptions in the Kangra valley, he met a descendant of the Kangra artists to whom he bought a set of drawings. Vogel described the drawings as much degraded by insects, and so are our drawings of birds.

Particularly striking are the representations of the Indian crested cuckoo, the spotted quail and the crimson woodpecker reunited on the same sheet of local handmade paper (here on the right).

Similar series are holdings of the Chandigarh Government Museum and Art Gallery in India. Moreover, the Victoria & Albert museum in London owns another series which appears to be the final version of the MV drawings. There, the birds were painted individually on a sheet of paper in a more complete and elaborated manner. However the papers used are much deteriorated and discoloured and this affects the general aesthetic and legibility of the pieces. The VM works are clearly sketches which were made as study documents before the conception of the final works. Several birds are painted on the same support and the scales are not respected. We can also notice the various levels of execution and the differences in skill from the different artists of the workshop. Some animals are finely executed with minute details and rich colours in fluid and natural postures, whereas some others are more roughly sketched and rendered in static poses.

Depictions of an Indian crested cuckoo, a woodpecker and a spotted quail. Opaque watercolour and black ink on handmade Indian paper. RV-3025-121. 27,5 x 16 cm.

Both birds below, an unidentified brown and white bird and a black merel, are today on two separate sheets of paper. These were initially painted on the same support. The sheet was folded in two and, over the time, the fold split up and resulted in the separation of the genuine piece of paper.


The beginning of the project: matching the birds

One of the first work was to identify the birds species. The vernacular name of the birds was handwritten in Devanagari script above each animal. These were sometimes translated in the museum database since one of the former curator was able to read the script. The online catalogue of the Victoria and Albert museum provided precious information on the identification on some specific birds such as the openbill or the stork.

Out of curiosity and being a novice in ornithology, I wanted to find out whether the painted birds were faithful to the originals and easily recognisable. Therefore, I searched for accurate images in a website specialising in birds from India. The below results show that most of the painted birds match significantly with their alive counterparts. Particularly striking are the depictions of the Indian purple sunbird swigging on the trunk of a bush, the openbill, the painted sandgrouse, the sarus crane, the marsh sandpiper, and the vented bulbul. Some birds, the most common species such as the doves or pigeons, were impossible to identify, since the painted physical features were not sufficiently precise.

Another image is quite surprising: the representation of an Indian rhino. Rhino were painted in India since Akbar’s time (the first Mughal emperor from 1550 to 1565) in different manuscripts such as in the Baburnama. The animal was widespread throughout north India: from today-Afghanistan in the west to Assam in the east. Today, the animal is confined to protected areas in the states of Assam and west Bengal, in the north north-east India and in the southern part of Nepal.


The techniques and materials

All of the supports of these drawings are made of the same type of paper. Paper is an handmade product which was sourced locally. We know that there were two important paper manufacture centres in north-west India: the first one located in Kashmir, in the surroundings of Srinagar and the second one in Sialkot in the today Punjabi Pakistan. At the present state of our study nothing allows us to determine where the paper used for the bird drawings come from, but from the microscope analysis, we can establish that the paper pulp was made from recycled materials: old hemp fibres in the form of rags, bags, ropes, etc and cotton (many red and blue fibres coming from recycled cotton cloth were found) and waste papers.

However, two drawings were made on European machine-made paper. This indicates that western papers were imported at the beginning of the 19th century in that particular region (European papers were imported far before that but in more accessible regions, such as Bengal, Gujarat or Maharashtra, with the presence of westerners attested from the 16th century onwards). Moreover, both drawings do not feature the same type of rodents holes than these found in the other drawings of the series, so they were certainly part of a different lot.


The technique of production involves several steps:

  1. The paper is first burnished recto and verso with an hard stone, an agate, a shell or a glass stone. The burnishing is an extremely important part of the process since it renders the support suitable to receive the ink and aqueous pigments: it closes the paper interstices, smoothens the asperities of the surface and improves its mechanical and optical properties. With the raking light images, we can notice that the burnishing was roughly done on the recto with a network of uneven and parallel polished lines and on the verso with a rapid series of narrow and cross marked lines. Usually a burnishing is carried out between each step of the process. This allows for the layering of paints and creates a rich and intensely  pigmented material which is so characteristic of the Indian miniature paintings.
  2. The first draft is roughly made with a charcoal or a burnt twig.
  3. The second sketch is cursively drawn with the help of a brush and a reddish ink.
  4. The final outline is then made with a black ink and a thin brush.
  5. A primer is applied all over the design, usually a coating of lead white, to prepare the support for the colours.
  6. The colouring takes place by gradually filling up the design with successive layers of paints.
  7. At the end, the details are meticulously painted with extremely thin brushes, such as the hair, jewellery, fabric pattern, flowers, etc.
  8. Then the decorative borders are painted.

The condition of the birds

An in-depth examination and study of the drawings allows me to establish a diagnostic and an appropriate conservation treatment decision. Initially the works were probably randomly piled up in a storage or in a workshop. The rodents have badly eaten away the paper, digging real holes throughout the whole pile. Some sheets were probably sticking out of the pile since some supports show large areas of paper losses in the edges. In some cases, the traces left by the rodents teeth are still visible today. Other works have large areas of ingrained dirt along one edge, indicating the conditions of storage were not ideal. There are also large tidelines meaning that the drawings were water-damaged at some point, in the past. However, albeit these deteriorations, the painted images are still in relative good condition and very much legible.


The conservation project for their longevity

The conservation treatment will aim to stabilise the supports from further degradations and make the drawings suitable for safe handling, display and future research. The support will be surface cleaned with a cosmetic sponge and a soft brush. The areas of dirt, accretions and smudges will be attenuated with specific erasers and a scalpel. The mechanical deteriorations such as the tears, creases and worn areas will be mended with remoistenable Japanese tissue paper. It has been decided with the curator and head of conservation that the losses will be filled in to make the works attractive to the public. Some tests will be run to determine the type of paper which will be more suitable and sympathetic for that specific intervention (Japanese paper, European handmade paper, Indian type of paper…). Then the drawings will be mounted in order to facilitate their further display.

Mechanical removal of insect and rodent remnants with a scalpel on the drawing RV-3025-103

The project is funded by the METAMORFOZE NETHERLANDS and by the Boumeester Foundation.

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