Why experts who frame paintings look at the bigger picture

  1. posted by Paul Stafford
  2. • 5th September 2016
  3. • Industry News

Frame Paintings

A London picture framer says a frame is often as important as the painting it holds, offering clues to the art’s origins.

Think of reproductions of Old Master paintings in art books. Each is a hard-cropped rectangle of rich, dark colours adrift on a void of white paper. Yet the drama of great paintings did not end at the edge of the canvas. Their proper display required a frame, which concealed the edges as it married the picture to the texture and detail of surrounding contemporary furniture.

Today, too often, the frames of Old Masters are replacements that do not match the artwork, and are adrift of any particular interior.

Michael Gregory is the royal patent holder for picture framing, and director of Arnold Wiggins & Sons in Bury Street, London, who I visit in a beaux-arts maze of galleries and auction houses near St James’s Palace.

He helps curators and collectors choose the appropriate frames, then designs and supervises their manufacture. Each is a one-off. “In a gallery setting, the correct frame is usually the only thing that tells you about a painting’s original context,” he says.

We are in his first-floor office, where clean white walls are hung with sheets of pencil-drawn frame patterns and moulding profiles. On our short walk upstairs we pass a couple of hundred period frames, stored like books on a shelf. This is the Arnold Wiggins library, a catalogue of the European framer’s craft over the past five centuries — and a resource for Gregory’s designs.

Gregory explains that many types of frames evolved with developments in architectural detail. Similar sculptural flourishes are found on the carved masonry of 17th-century houses, such as on “auricular” frames with fleshy scrolls and pediments. These seem as comfortable with Rubens’ rolling figures as with civil war generals standing stout as a convenient column, yet they would be inappropriate around Mondrian’s platonic grids of black, white and primary colour, and for the neoclassical purity of a David or Ingres.

Old paintings have often had troubled lives and if they are divorced from their original frames, reinstating them appropriately is a decision that depends on close understanding of a neglected form of art and craft.

Gregory is a wood carver by training, having studied at the City and Guilds of London Art School between 1976 and 1980 before moving on to Wiggins because “it was the best”.

“Very few people look closely at the frames” he says, and he is wary of trendiness. “If you’re not careful, a new frame can be fashionable, and 20 years later someone else will come along and change it for something equally fashionable.”

A century ago, Arnold Wiggins was a craftsman and dealer. His son Jim started collecting frames after the second world war. Back then, a young Frank Auerbach was painting the dawn chorus of a new London while Old Masters went for a song. “Jim would buy a 17th-century portrait by a follower of [Sir Peter] Lely for £3, just for the frame,” Gregory tells me.

And he wasn’t the only collector. After Lord Leighton’s “Flaming June” (1895) was found boarded up behind a Clapham chimney breast, it was sold in 1963 to a Polish frame maker, who paid £50 for the woodwork whereupon the separated canvas ended up in Puerto Rico. The original frame had been made by Arnold Wiggins himself, and in 1994 the company painstakingly replaced it — for 500 times the sum paid by the Pole.

Gregory has travelled throughout Europe to find exceptional frames made as recently as the 1950s to develop Wiggins’ physical archive. Having become director in 1993, he recently moved the lot to Bury Street. “The art market has shifted,” he says. “Serious collectors of Old Masters only want the very best, and that extends to frames.”

Making accurate replicas of frames can improve on their original materials. Southeast Asian jelutong is Gregory’s timber of choice for gilded work, being exceptionally stable and easy to carve. “It’s a lot like balsa. Very inert, low sap. I once made a frame from authentic pine that twisted — it was ruined.”

In the first-floor workshop, Phyllida Ashton works at a bench, much as she has for the past 19 years. She rubs and shaves the edges of a newly cut jelutong frame to thwart any impression of mechanised precision.

Ashton explains how gesso — a mixture of chalk and glue — is applied in layers, and sometimes sculpted with hand-cutting tools before the liquid clay bole is applied as a primer for gold leaf. The origin of the frame will determine the colour of bole to be used; clay from Bologna is orangey-red like the brickwork of the Italian city’s medieval towers, while French bole tends toward shades of burgundy.

Bole always has an effect on the gold and the characteristic alloys and preparations of gold range widely. Ashton has 16 types of gold leaf to choose from on her bench, but the leaf is always individually sourced to match the project.

Ashton shows me a finished recent commission to replicate a larger authentic “Tintoretto” frame — a black-painted, chunky Italian model from the second half of the 16th century.

She has taken pains to dull the gold and knock the edges where the hands of centuries normally wear them away. “Old mitred corners are always open from shrinkage,” says Gregory. The copy is indistinguishable until you look very closely at the shaken, split timber of the original.

Gregory works with six artisans. He keeps them occupied by tailoring their skills to commissions, but they are freelance craftspeople with their own workshops. “The downside is you don’t have a collective, working together. That’s the real disaster of the 21st century.”

I ask whether it is always necessary to replace a frame that isn’t the original.

“If there’s a painting with a fine historic frame, but of a later period, I will sometimes defend it,” says Gregory, explaining that a frame can add provenance to an object that has, after all, journeyed through time. Yet a frame design that fits the era of the painting creates a bridge between the picture and the place it was made for. “When a frame is wrong, it disturbs your whole appreciation and reading of a work of art. When we get it right, people don’t know we’ve been there.”

  • Phyllida Ashton prepares detail work for a frame by applying a layer of gesso, then another of liquid clay bole
  • Michael Gregory, director of Arnold Wiggins & Sons
  • Detail of a frame
  • Gesso — a mixture of chalk and glue — is applied in preparation for gilding
  • Ashton distresses the corners of a frame by hitting it with a large beach pebble

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