For at least a decade the upper gallery of the Queen’s Hall in Victoria Memorial Hall here remained closed to the public. The famous paintings depicting the life of Queen Victoria, mounted within 12 arches in the rotunda of the central hall, could only be viewed by visitors from the ground level, obscuring the exquisite details that they offered.
The gallery was thrown open to the public on Tuesday, allowing visitors the chance to view the paintings from much closer, standing about 18 feet below them. West Bengal Governor M. K. Narayanan inaugurated the reopening of the gallery.
While the authorities of the museum could not specify either the exact date or the reason for closing up the gallery, it is believed that the decision may have been taken when a portion of the building was closed to the public for carrying out restoration work.
“We did not have enough security personnel until now, but we have made the arrangements and taken the decision to reopen the gallery,” Swapan K. Chakravorty, the curator of Victoria Memorial Hall told journalists. Museum authorities in recent times have unveiled several artefacts, including a piano used by Queen Victoria locked up in its Royal Gallery for years, but there is no word yet on when the Royal Gallery will be reopened.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is carrying out the renovation of the gallery and only ASI officials can comment on its reopening, Professor Chakravorty said.
The 12 paintings in the Queen’s Hall itself need to be restored. Each painting will be individually assessed and the restoration taken up soon, Professor Chakravorty added.
The paintings, often mistaken to be frescos, are actually oil paintings on canvas. Painted by Frank Salisbury, a famous British portrait artist, they depict events in her life from 1837 to 1901.
The first painting in the series shows the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain breaking the news of the death of her uncle, King William IV and her ascension to the throne.
Other significant events including her coronation, her first visit to the City of London, her wedding, the proclamation of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India and the celebrations of the golden and diamond jubilees of her reign. The last painting depicts her body, lying in State on the day of her death.
The architecture of the building itself provides for a stable environment for the paintings, which has ensured that they are better preserved, explained R. P. Savita, senior restorer and the head of the Preservation Unit of Victoria Memorial Hall.
“The paintings are at a height of at least 80 feet above the ground where the relative humidity is much lower than the ground level. At the same time, the dome of the building which receives most of the heat of the sun is at a high level, protecting them from heat damage,” he explained. Four bronze busts – of King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, Sir William Wilson Hunter and Florence Nightingale – have also been placed in the recently reopened gallery.