Conserving a Mughal painting: Humayun's garden party, gouache and gold on cotton

This section of painting is what remains of one of the largest and perhaps most significant of all Mughal paintings. It was painted over a long period, initially by Persian and later by Mughal artists. Many of the figures have been expertly altered to become portraits of people who were not even born when the painting was started about AD 1550-55.

The problems dealt with by the Conservation Department were twofold. First, the dry flaking pigment had to be examined to make sure that it was still safely attached to the cotton support. Second, the painting was photographed using X-rays and ultraviolet light to find out if any of the altered figures concealed evidence of previous painting. It was thought that this might help identify the persons removed from the original painting. Unfortunately, as the cotton support had only been sized with rice-water before painting and had not been given a proper gesso ground, the earlier figures had been completely removed. A gesso ground would have been more likely to retain any traces of earlier painting. Although it is unlikely that we will ever know who was removed or why, conservation of the painting was successful. New conservation techniques are being developed continuously and it is just possible that conservators in the future may be able to discover more about the painting.

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