Ponderings on the Greatness of Frames

In the past I have gone to art galleries to admire paintings. But more recently, I’ve been learning about frames, which means my eyes are now distracted from the art to gaze at what’s around it instead.

Often neglected, usually summed up by the phrase ‘big and gold’, these ornate constructions are beautiful craftsmanship in their own right, sometimes just as fascinating as the paintings themselves (sorry art historians).

Frames are often overlooked, but they perform the dual purpose of protecting a piece of art as well as showing it off to its best potential. In theory, a good frame does not overpower a painting, but compliments it – pretty tricky when you’re big and gold but tastes change over the years. In museums, art galleries and stately homes, different frames are also used for different occasions; which accounts for why many museums and art galleries have more frames than paintings. It’s fashionable to keep your art looking snazzy and up to date; frame changing is like the haircut of the painted world.

Now I am by no means an expert, but here are some of the interesting things that I have learnt about frames over the past couple of weeks.

The parts of a frame have different names. Now in the past I have definitely described your standard national art gallery frame as ‘gold and fancy’, but I can now go into a bit more detail. My description would start at the sight edge (where the picture and frame meet) you then move to the frieze (the flat bit if there is one) and scoop (the hollow where the frame rises from the flat bit to its outer protruding edge). The knull is name of this outer part which is the highest point, the part of the frame that reaches out to the viewer, before falling back, sometimes into a backwards scoop and finally the back edge.

From the 17th century frames were mostly carved of wood, but by the late 18th and early 19th century a material known as composition, probably because everyone had their own recipe for its composition, was being used. This mix of chalk, animal glue and linseed oil amongst other things was easily moulded into the desired ornate shapes that could then be added to wooden frames, a method much quicker than carving. However, unlike wood it doesn’t exactly stand the test of time, it tends to crack at regular intervals due to shrinkage over time.

If I asked you to imagine an art gallery frame and then asked you what colour it is I’m sure the first think that would pop to your head is gold. And you would be correct, many frames you see in galleries are gilt, covered if gold leaf. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. There are two main types, water or oil gilding. Telling these apart takes a considerable amount of experience. Water gilding takes a considerable amount of preparation; layers of animal glue and chalk, the formulas of such would of course vary on the maker, ultimately to make the surface smooth. Gold leaf can be applied thinly allowing the detail to come through. This process can create a more polished surface if burnished with an agate stone, but even when matt there is an enhanced depth of colour to the gilding. Oil gilding is done straight onto an unprepared surface, saving dramatically on preparation time and the gilding applied with an oil based adhesive. It tends to be matt in appearance and over time can develop really tiny cracks, which you would probably need a magnifying glass to really see clearly. To confuse matters some frames have both types, because why not.

So that’s the basics on shape and construction, but what about all the actual swirly bits. In true arty style they have lovely names. Here’s a few examples to look out for.

This style is called coin and ribbon, for obvious reasons, with flower to the corners. It’s a 19th century British gilt composition frame.


Below is a British 18th century carved wood frame. Look closely at the flat frieze, which has an interesting texture where sand has been added before gilding. It’s followed by what is called egg-and-dart carving.


I may not be a frame expert, but there is a brilliant blog run by people that are which can be found here. I’d highly recommend it, the things that can be revealed by frames is incredible.

It’s also worth having a look at museum collections online (the pictures used here are from the Royal Collection Trust, which has an extensive frame collection catalogued and viewable online). As appreciation in the importance of frames in growing, slowly and steadily museums are starting to catalogue frames and pictures separately. But hopefully, next time you head to an art gallery, you’ll look beyond the pictures . . . particularly to their outer edges.


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