As with paintings, the reverse of a frame offers a rich insight into its origin and age. The reverse can reveal far more than the work itself, from old, torn and worn gallery labels tantalisingly suggesting provenance that is yet to be established, to the indistinct inventory chalk marks from past auction houses. The canvas and construction of the stretcher, and artists suppliers stamps all go on to reveal the hidden history and production of the work. This all helps towards providing us with the evidence to establish the work’s authenticity.
Those familiar with joinery will marvel at the construction of frame joints, which can only be revealed by inspecting the back of a frame. From the raw sawn simple lap joints of a 16th century cassetta frame, to the French mitre jointed frames, secured with a spline – see Lot 54 in our catalogue, A Monumental French 17th Century style transitional Louis XIV gilded composition frame, where the spline is shown in the last photograph. Many of the Flemish and Dutch frames also display an array of lap halved joints, mitred half joints and open mortise and tenon joints to name but a few
Historical accuracy can be complex but shouldn’t be restrictive. Throughout history, frames on paintings were replaced for various reasons, but, more often than not, these were aesthetically driven choices. Some frames of the Italian Baroque, for example, feature designs which harmonised more with the palatial surroundings of seventeenth-century collectors than with the paintings themselves. In later periods, however, particularly in museums, frames were simplified and ‘standardised’ across an entire collection with the ostensible aim of focusing attention on the paintings themselves and not on the frame. The French Impressionists, to take another example, favoured more weathered, ornamental frames from a century earlier. Such extremes in the approach to framing are testament to the diversity of taste as well as the subjective nature of which frame is deemed appropriate to which picture. In selecting a frame it is therefore important to consider not only historical accuracy, but a balance of other factors such as the painting’s tones, compositional complexity and scale, as well as the aesthetics of a given space.
Our sale offers a wide range of choices, from 16th century Venetian to 20th century British. How to choose your frame? Here are some of the factors we suggest you should take into account:
For example, is the frame being repurposed as part of an interior design scheme for your home? As Paul Fox, Head of Interiors, has suggested, a frame can act as a decorative item of its own accord. It might frame another painting that is already framed (or not), it might frame a piece of wall sculpture, a mirror, or even the peep-hole in your front door, such as in a well-known New York apartment from a 1990s sitcom.
Is the frame going to frame a painting for yourself? If that is the case, you may or may not wish to follow any rules regarding what might be considered historically correct. If you are a dealer, intending to frame a painting and then sell it on, historical accuracy might be more important.
All frames must protect and conserve the painting, and allow the artwork to be portable.
Professionally, people talk about works of art that are ‘overframed’ or ‘underframed’. Obviously, the size of the painting is important relative to the frame, and a frame can be too big or too small for the artwork. But you should also think about the subject matter. A very ornamental French gilded frame would overwhelm a subject that is delicate, muted and quiet. In addition, the patina of the frame can be used to complement and accentuate colours in the painting. Interior decorators often use colours as accents in room design. You may wish to accentuate a warm colour in an otherwise ‘cool colour’ painting by choosing a frame that has warm colour tones.
If you are studying our online catalogue or, indeed, planning on visiting our Chiswick Headquarters during the preview on Saturday 12 March, Monday 14 March or Tuesday 15 March, what’s the best way of studying the frames you are interested in?
We have provided photographs of the back of the frames in the online catalogue. If you are here in person, a member of staff can assist you if you wish to make a closer physical inspection. Inspecting the back of the frame will reveal many secrets as Luke describes above. Our specialists can advise on what you see.
Composition or ‘compo’ (a sort of plaster made with chalk, glue and linseed oil) was much more widely used from the 19th century. As it dries out, it will often show cracking, and you can see the plaster beneath the surface.
Frames are gilded using small 22-carat sheets which are laid by hand. Sometimes you can see the overlap of the sheets. Look for the sheen of the gold: substitutes such as bronze paint will reveal themselves via the visibility of brushstrokes, and will look much more brown than gold. Similarly, cheaper metal leaf develops an orange hue over time.
Luke Price, who will be present throughout the preview dates.