caroline villers research fellow lecture

Diversity, Variability, and Shared Culture: Material and Technological Choices of Non-Traditional Buddhist Temple Painters of Colonial Ceylon (AD 1750-1900)

Thursday, 10 May 2012

18.00 - 19.00, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre

British coat of arms with Queen Victoria at centre and red green and gold deities
Polychrome and painted decoration of makara arch and guardian deities surrounding the doorway to the inner shrine room of Kataluva Purvarama Viharaya (late-19th century) with the portrait of Queen Victoria placed within the British Imperial Coat of Arms (Photo: Vajira Jayathilleke)

Speaker(s): Professor B.D. Nandadeva (Caroline Villers Research Fellow, The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission

Organised by: Professor Aviva Burnstock

Cross-sections prepared from paint samples obtained from eighteen Buddhist temples located in the southern and western maritime provinces of the lowland area of Sri Lanka dated to the period between AD 1750 and 1900 when the region remained under the Dutch and the British colonial rule were examined. The objective of the study was to examine the hypothesis that the painters, who did not belong to the traditional painters’ caste, but came from a lower social rank, and whose caste-affiliated vocation was to perform exorcist rituals and non-ritual dance-dramas, evolved their own wall painting technology which was a hybrid of all available technologies that included partly the traditional native methods, materials borrowed from the Europeans, and the techniques they had been using in image production in exorcist rituals.

The examination of samples indicated that the artists have applied a thick white barium sulphate priming layer over a clay and sand ground as a primer. In some cases, barium sulphate has been mixed with calcium sulphate or lithopone. The paints applied over the primer were often covered with the application of a layer of varnish. Vermilion and orpiment were consistently identified as the red and yellow pigments. Black pigment used is carbon-based. Often, the same material used for the primer has been used as the white pigment. Blue and green pigments are yet to be determined. Often, the artists have first applied a thick layer of the pigment mixed with barium sulphate followed by a thin layer of the pure paint of red, yellow, or blue pigment.

The consistent use of vermilion in wall paintings in both up-country and low-country suggests that probably the low-country artists learnt it from the traditional up-country painters. The use of orpiment, which has also been used consistently, may have been either a low-country innovation or a technique learnt from the Europeans as the traditional yellow in up-country had been gamboge. It is, however, curious to note that neither of those minerals naturally occur in Sri Lanka, yet had alternative uses as ingredients in Ayurveda medicine, despite their poisonous nature. It is possible that the two minerals came to Sri Lanka from China via India as a medicinal ingredient, as both minerals naturally occur in China in large quantities. Widespread use of blues and greens, and the application of a varnish layer, both rare or absent in the up-country have been most probably results of inspiration received from the Europeans. It appears that the results drawn so far substantiate the hypothesis of the study.

B.D. Nandadeva (Nanda) who is a Professor at the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka earned his PhD in Art Conservation Research from the University of Delaware, USA. He also holds a Graduate Diploma in Rock Art Conservation from the University of Canberra, Australia, an M.Sc. in Architectural Conservation of Monuments and Sites from the University of Moratuva, and a BA (Hons) in Fine Arts form the University of Ceylon, Sri Lanka. He has also spent two years attached to the University of Thessaloniki and the British School of Archaeology at Athens, undertaking an independent study on Greek and Byzantine art. In his doctoral dissertation, he characterized the materials and techniques of Buddhist temple paintings from Sri Lanka using a range of analytical techniques that include optical microscopy, x-ray diffraction using powder cameras, FTIR, SEM, EDX, and TLC. The analytical results were used to compare the technological similarities and differences between three stylistically distinct schools of Buddhist temple paintings from three different geo-political regions of colonial Ceylon. He has also published or presented papers at international conferences on a variety of subjects related to Sri Lankan art and culture that include: rock art of a native hunter-gatherer community called the Vedda; a terracotta figurine art of rice-farming peasant communities of the dry-zone; rural earthen architectural traditions and techniques; Western influence on Buddhist temple paintings of colonial Ceylon; Ola-leaf manuscript cover paintings; the influence of war on contemporary art and artists; conservation issues in polychrome paintings on wood.

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