Why a good frame can be a work of art in its own right

Catriona Gray retraces the history of frames, admires the craftsmanship required to make them and discovers what's the best way to preserve them.

From simple wooden surrounds 
to grand Renaissance creations, picture frames have played an important part in art history. They give vital clues to the origins of a painting, be it the elegant ebonised frames that set off the Dutch masters of the 17th century or the elaborate gilt confections that characterised the Victorian era.

Although a frame’s main purpose is to protect and enhance a picture, they can often be works of art in their own right, which is why it’s worth making the effort to preserve and protect them.

At Arnold Wiggins & Sons, in the heart 
of St James’s, London SW1, an impressive array of antique frames is stacked around the premises — some are packed closely together, with only their edges visible, others are hung upon the walls, where you can see Italian, French and English frames of every period and style.

Michael Gregory, who heads up this long-established company, has held a Royal Warrant as picture-frame maker to The Queen since 1991 and regularly lectures on the history and craftsmanship of this little-known subject.

‘I’ve always travelled and photographed art collections, from museums in America to English country houses, so we have a database to work from,’ he explains.

‘It gives us a reference point for when we frame a piece. When people come to us with a picture, we start from a historical perspective — what country is it from, who is it by and so on, to try to match it to something similar, whether that’s an original frame or a handmade reproduction.’

Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Picture Gallery

The idea of adding separate frames to pictures became popular during the Renaissance in Italy, when religious works began to be displayed in ornately carved tabernacle frames, as well as the simpler cassetta style, a box frame that is similar to the ones we favour today.

Over the centuries, the styles of frames often evolved in tandem with architectural movements — for example, the Kent frame, with its protruding corners and rows of Classical ornament, takes its name from William Kent, who revived the Palladian style of architecture in England.

Gilding became very popular and specialist craftsmen would apply a red-clay bole to the frame, before covering it with a wafer-thin layer of gold leaf.

Up until the second half of the 18th century, the decoration on frames was achieved by carving the wood, but, at that point, ‘compo’ frames started to appear.

Instead of the decoration having to be painstakingly done by hand, a mixture of whiting, rabbit-skin glue and resin was used to create a putty, which could be pressed into reusable moulds.

The neo-Classical architect Robert Adam popularised the technique, using compo to create the exquisitely fine detail seen in his schemes, such as in the elaborate interiors of Syon House in Middlesex.

The portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo

Compo and plaster frames dominated the Victorian period — they were much cheaper and quicker to produce, useful given the increasing demand coming from the rapidly expanding middle classes. The downside was that these frames were far more fragile than their carved counterparts and were liable to chip and crack.

‘In a way, 19th-century frames are even more precious than their predecessors because they’re so vulnerable,’ points out Mr Gregory. ‘Finding one in good condition is pretty difficult. The plaster gets damp if they’re kept in old houses, then, when the central heating goes on, they dry out and bits drop off. Because we don’t have the original moulds, a frame such as that can take huge amounts of time to restore if it’s badly damaged.’

Although temperature-controlled galleries and museums provide the ideal conditions for preserving an old painting — and, by extension, its frame — the sort of inherited or acquired pieces that spend their lives in private homes can experience a far tougher time, whether it’s being kept uncomfortably close to a radiator or suffering the occasional knock or scrape.

If some of your picture frames have seen better days, it’s always better to preserve them if at all possible, rather than replacing them — they are part of a painting’s provenance.

‘Sometimes, the best approach is simply to live with minor damage,’ advocates Rollo Whately, a framer who learnt his trade at Arnold Wiggins & Sons and Bonhams, and now has a shop in St James’s specialising in antique and modern frames.

‘If a chip is bothering you, you can blend away the mark with a little watercolour paint — an umber or an ochre, depending on the shade of the wood or the gilt. Another trick is to turn a frame upside down. They always get the most damage on the lower edge — if you turn it so that the worn side is above eye level, you are less likely to notice it.’

Details of the picture frames isolated on white

Of course, there are some instances when a frame really is beyond repair — or when 
a painting has no frame at all. The temptation can be to simply pay a visit to the nearest framing shop, but the end result will be far more harmonious if you bring it somewhere with a stock of antique examples, rather than forcing a contemporary frame onto a period piece of art.

‘I usually advise customers to bring their pictures in and come with an open mind,’ advises David Lacy, who owns and runs the Lacy Gallery in Notting Hill, London W11.

His father, Colin Lacy, set up the business in 1960, matching watercolours and drawings to old frames. When framing works on paper, he says that one of the most common mistakes is to over-mount them, which can look as if you’re trying to fill space. Sometimes, a better solution is to dispense with the mount completely, as close framing can create far more impact.

Finding the right frame for a picture can be a challenge — often, according to Mr Lacy, the best way is to bring it to a specialist and try a number of different types to see what works.

It’s worth remembering, too, that our tastes change over time — one generation might prize gilt and another white paint or natural wood — and that fashions also tend to be cyclical.

If you’re lucky enough to own a painting with its original frame, the best thing you can do is simply let it be and preserve its history for another generation.

Top right hand corners of three ornate antique gold picture frames.

Dictionary: know your framing terms

Bole
A coloured clay used as a base layer as part of the preparation for water gilding. Traditionally, red bole 
is used to give the gold leaf a rich glow

Gesso
The Italian word for chalk, gesso is a thick white paint used to provide a smooth surface for gilding a frame

Mount
The card surround used around watercolours and prints, often tinted or coloured. Its function is to keep the glass off the artwork, as well as being decorative

Rabbet
A channel or lip that runs along the inside edge 
of a frame, designed to support the painting or print

Slip
An inner, secondary frame that ‘slips’ between the main frame and the artwork

Stretcher
The wooden frame on which a canvas is stretched and fixed for oil painting. Sometimes, you can find 
little bits of wood (called wedges or keys) that have been pushed into the corners to tighten the canvas