Mysterious portrait of Indian Navy sailor has been conserved

The painting has links to the long and proud history of Indian men and women in the Royal Navy

11 Jul 2023


As part of the over two million objects in the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the painting ‘Appreciating the Situation’ may seem unassuming, but its link to the long and proud history of Indian men and women in the Royal Navy makes it something special. Now visitors can get close to the painting, conserved and framed, after it was unveiled by a son of the subject.

‘Appreciating the Situation’ conserved and on display in the HMS Gallery Credit  2.jpg
© NMRN Nikhil Ahluwalia alongside ‘Appreciating the Situation’ prior to its conservation


Originally chosen by Chat Over Chai, a local community group, as part of the Exchange Community-Led research project, little was known about the painting. The ultimate goal was to find out more about this mysterious painting, assisted by members of the Royal Navy’s Diversity and Inclusion team and staff from the museum. Ultimately all the team had to work with was two names, Ahluwalia and Chowdhury, and a mysterious label with a code on it, when it came down to finding out who painted the work, and who was the Sub-lieutenant in it.

All three groups used their expertise and experiences to unravel the image. The title itself ‘Appreciating the Situation’ is in fact a navigational term in the Navy, fitting as we later discovered that the subject and the painter then trained in navigation and became pilots.

Chat Over Chai felt a deep connection to the mysterious subject due to the South Asian heritage of many of its members, and some recounted that he looked like a family member, and were taken with the reflective tone of the portrait.

As part of the project the National Museum of the Royal Navy employed a researcher who, along with our curators, uncovered the name Suresh Ahluwalia, and the fact that Suresh had unfortunately passed away in 2017. When the family were contacted the existence of a portrait of their family member was a complete shock. From the family it was discovered that Suresh attended naval college in the UK alongside his good friend Inam Chowdhury in 1955. Confirming that the subject of the painting was indeed his father, Nikhil Ahluwalia and his wife Sunil were invited to see this historic family portrait go on display.

In the words of Nikhil’s wife Sonali and daughter Tara, Suresh was a kind man eager to help wherever he could, had he known about the project he “would have been very pleased. And hearing from the community group how much it has meant to a lot of people, I think he would’ve been very emotional, because he was very giving, he loved people. And to have an impact on people he had not met, I think that would’ve been something that was quite significant to him.”

‘Appreciating the Situation’ conserved and on display in the HMS Gallery Credit NMRN.jpg
© NMRN ‘Appreciating the Situation’ conserved and on display in the HMS Gallery 


Conservator Reuben Ruxton from Brick House Conservation Ltd worked on the project:

"As an emerging conservator it’s always an interesting opportunity to work on more modern works which provide their own broad range of challenges. I also personally enjoy the chance to work on projects that reflect a shift towards a broader representation in the works being chosen for care and display. Sub-Lieutenant I.A. Chowdhury’s Appreciating the Situation provided me with both of these privileges."

"The soiling and blanching of the unvarnished paint surface as well as residues of paper adhered to the painting, meant the full effect of the work was dulled and some of the artist’s more gestural strokes were unintelligible. The heavy blanching, particularly prevalent on the sitter’s coat may have been caused as a result of exposure to high humidity. I treated this using a reforming solution. Since the painting was unvarnished and very matte, I used QOR paints and watercolour medium on putty fills to reintegrate the losses and to match the low level of gloss of the original paint layer."

appreciating the situation story - conservation story 2.png


"The treatment of the blanching on back of the sitter’s painted jacket increased the contrast and heightened the effect of the light on its front, while the removal of soiling and adhered paper residue restored the sense of depth to the depicted room as well as making the drapery and furniture more coherent. The painting was previously housed in an ill-fitting frame which had caused abrasion and losses to the paint layer. It now sits securely in a new frame with TruVue Optium Uv filtering glazing and a backing which minimises future deterioration, while allowing the reverse of the canvas to still be visible."

appreciating the situation story - conservation story 1.png

The project, including the conservation, was funded and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the National Museum of Scotland and Royal Museum’s Greenwich to explore community led participatory research. ‘Appreciating the Situation’ was unveiled in the HMS Gallery by Nikhil Ahluwalia in April. The portrait is now on permanent display in the HMS Gallery.

‘Appreciating the Situation’ serves as a timeless legacy to two friends who left their homes to serve in another country, an experience felt by members of the armed forces even today. This portrait, far more than the sum of its parts, takes pride of place at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

To see the portrait for yourself book online at 


Related topics