The spectacular regalia of early 20th-century silver thrones from the royal family of Dungapur, India, includes an intricately hand-embroidered silk parasol with silver mounts. This parasol would have been installed above the ruler seated on the throne (Fig. 1). The parasol has an elegance that complements the grandeur of the silver thrones, with their burgundy velvet upholstery and Indo-European design developed during the British colonial rule of India.
The parasol has eight panels covered with light-weight silk in a vibrant blue hue with a repeating pattern of silver embroidery. The intricate floral motifs are comprised of six types of silver wire, formed into spirals or twisted bundles. These wires are so fine, some no larger than a strand of hair, that identification of the threads was done under a microscope. Highly skilled Indian embroiderers would have sewn these decorative spirals to the silk stretched taut on a rectangular frame. The panels were then cut out and stitched together on the parasol’s frame. The frame itself is constructed of a steel armature with eight bamboo ribs, and attached to a wooden pole covered in silver sheet decorated with areas of gilding. A green silk lining was applied to the underside to conceal the frame, and the edges of the parasol were finished with a woven silver border and silver fringe.
Conserving the massive silver thrones and footstools for display began when the objects were acquired by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2013. The thrones and footstools underwent treatment in 2016, and the parasol was the final piece requiring conservation prior to the collection being exhibited at the museum. The silk on the parasol was severely faded, and so fragile that it could no longer be safely opened for display. After consulting the curator, Dr. Kimberly Masteller, on its condition issues, the conservation of the parasol took an unusual turn by moving from a project undertaken solely by the museum’s conservators to a larger replication project that spanned three continents.
In late 2018, Lesage Intérieurs, a Paris-based textile firm, known for historic fabric reproduction, was selected to make our replica because it employs master embroiderers in Chennai, India, who were well-versed in the historic embroidery techniques used to construct the parasol. Conservation fellow Stephanie Spence travelled to Paris in February 2019 to view embroidery samples and fabric swatches at Lesage. New fabrics were chosen for the replica by matching color swatches with the blue and green silks. Fortunately, the original bright blue color had been preserved under the circular cap at the top of the parasol, so a similar fabric was selected for the display replica (Fig. 2).
Sending the original embroidery to India was not feasible, so the embroiderers used photographs and a detailed digital color map of the six thread types, laboriously outlined by hand on Adobe Photoshop in the Conservation Department, to illustrate the exact size and detail of each design element (Fig. 3). Over the course of several months, embroidery samples were then created in Chennai and sent to Kansas City for approval. Embroidery of the replica began in November 2019, with eight embroiderers working simultaneously on the panels over a six-week period (Fig. 4). The finished panels were delivered to the Nelson-Atkins in December 2019.
The final step was to reassemble all the parts of the parasol. Textile conservator Cara Varnell was brought in to lead this phase of the project with assistance from museum conservation staff (Fig. 5). Reassembly took approximately four weeks to complete. The original frame, silver border and fringe were used with the embroidered replica to restore the parasol. Meanwhile, the fragile original is safely preserved in the museum and is available for study. Now, in 2021, this multi-year project is near completion, and the parasol is ready for display, returning the thrones and their regalia to their original splendor. The Nelson-Atkins is thankful to the Richard J. Stern Foundation and David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation for their support in this project.
–Stephanie Spence, Objects Conservation Fellow, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (all photos courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)