Posted on: 20 February 2013

Conservation of Indian Mica Paintings
By Mike Wheeler
Senior Paper Conservator, Paper Conservation, V&A

The V&A has a collection of about seven hundred paintings on mica originating from India which include examples from Murshidabad, Patna and Benares in eastern India and from Trichinopoly in southern India. Most of the examples at the V&A date from the mid- nineteenth century. Popular subject matter included Hindu gods and goddesses, religious events, trades-people and flora and fauna of the sub-continent. The majority of these paintings were produced in standard sets for the colonial tourist market. They imitated paintings on glass, which were popular in Europe and were also used in India by artists for preserving tracings of their family paintings and to decorate glass for temple lanterns 1 .

The paintings from Trichinopoly are small in size (120 x 90 mm) and are painted on one side of very thin, flexible sheets of mica. A particularly interesting series from Patna dating from 1860 show the production of opium, (Figure 1). These are painted on slightly larger (160 x 200 mm) thicker sheets of mica and are painted in thick watercolour on both sides of the transparent support. The mica paintings were identified as a priority for treatment and re-housing in a survey of works of pictorial art in the Indian department carried out by Paper Conservation in 1994.

Mica is a transparent mineral composed of complex mixtures of potassium silicates. The variety of mica used most frequently by these Indian artists is Muscovite (H2KAl3 Si04)3 which is found widely throughout south India. The mica is formed between strata of granite and the transparency of the material is a result of the heat and pressure created between the layers of rock during formation. Mica consists of many interlocking platelets, resulting in a laminar structure which can be split easily into thin sheets.

Mica presents many problems as a support for painting on due to the smooth surface as this provides very little key for the paint to adhere to. Examination of a sample of the paintings on mica in the V&A has revealed a variety of painting techniques, but little or no preparation of the mica prior to the application of paint. The pigments used were mixed with varying quantities of binding medium and thickly applied with a brush. In a few instances paint has been brushed on to both front and back surfaces of the mica sheet to increase the opacity and give a more three dimensional appearance to the painting. The relatively thick nature of the applied paint implies that the artists did not necessarily intend the paintings to be viewed by transmitted light.

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One of nineteen drawings illustrating processes in the manufacture of opium at the Opium Factory at Gulzarbagh, Patna, in Bihar.

Patna, India
Date: ca.1857
Artist: Shiva Dayal Lal, born 1815 - died 1884

Gouache on mica.

This Company Painting (a painting made by an Indian artist for the British in India) is done on mica (talc) and comes from a series of nineteen illustrating processes in the manufacture of opium at the opium factory at Gulzarbagh in Patna, Bihar. According to the artist Ishwari Prasad, his grandfather, Shiva Lal (c.1817-1887), began to make the designs for these paintings in 1857. They were commissioned by Dr D. R. Lyall (the personal assistant in charge of opium-making) for a series of wall paintings in the Gulzarbagh factory. However, Lyall was killed in 1857, during the Indian Mutiny, and the scheme was abandoned. This picture shows the opium being tested for purity by seven men, who are standing at two high tables laden with plates of it.

Copyright: © V&A Images

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Thanks to Supratik Chaudhuri for suggesting this article.

Thank you!!!!Very nice knowledge....thank you!

Thank you!

Very informative link

Best Mica was mined in Kodarma, Hazaribagh, also in Gudur in Andhra then it was mostly used for Company Painting ( not electricity or heat resistence purpose)

I like this picture, it is an opium factory in Bihar.

Are there any of these priceless works left in India?