Picture Frames and restoration

Below are some recent restoration projects – there are more frames in the following pages.

A frame for Schedoni

We were recently asked to do some minor restorations to a frame for this painting by Bartolomeo Schedoni (1578-1615).  The frame is from the 19th Century, not contemporary with the painting but of exceptional quality.  I think that the frame is Roman? from about 1780/1800.

All the ornament is carved and perfectly gilded.  Particular care has been taken in the gilding and the contrast between flat and burnished areas – just look at the shell-like leaf on the burnished background below!Some two complete rows of ornament was missing – you can see the ‘shadow’ of something that was there in the photo above.  We decided not to replace this.  It is still overall a very handsome frame and whoever made it in whatever workshop were very skilled.


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Two small 18C frames, on the left Italian, on the right French, both about 5 x 3 1/2″

Bringing back to life a 17C French frame.

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A chance purchase at an auction of a bronze painted frame has led to many hours of conservation work to bring it back to an original surface.  

Looking at the back I could see that it was walnut, which interestingly is on a slant at the back, this being a way of minimising the amount of walnut (expensive).

The first thing to do was remove the (later) slip.  The bronze paint was removed fairly easily with paintstripper but my hope that beneath would be walnut and water-gilded gold was not to be realised.

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Instead, under the thick bronze paint was a thick coat of gesso.

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IMG_0949.jpgThe thickness of the gesso had obscured much of the detail of the carving.

Gesso is soluble in water, warm water is best – it can be a messy business – I have a steam-producing machine and the legendary sucker from Mr Willi in Switzerland, itself lovingly restored by Devon at Robson and Francis in Brixton.  

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The reason why it is possible to do this is that the original gilding, the surface I am trying to get to, is oil gilded and so not soluble in water. However the surface that gilding is on, a clay type surface (black, yellow and red in different parts of the moulding) is water soluble and wants to dissolve.  So picking away at the surface has to be done as carefully as the thick later-gesso will allow.  

In the gesso I have found lots of dust mixed in and hairs from the brush that applied it. There are old repairs in putty and lots of filled-in worm holes from which I have carefully extracted the gesso. The hours spent carefully scraping and picking, revealing the detail in the flower heads and leaves, have given me time to consider the passing of time, the centuries contained in these layers.  I think of the person who carved this frame, in the 1680’s or thereabouts, the hours spent carving the flower-heads, the deep under-cutting and, of course,the painting it must have been made for.  I think of the future – where it may end up next, and who might do what to it. This one object has also allowed people to live – a good job, money, for the original workshop; for the person who covered it in the gesso another living and now me: what I am doing now, keeps me going.  

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It is coming together – the best part of doing a job like this is the beginning, the excitement, and the end – finally seeing all of a piece what has been revealed.  The gesso dust is very fine and leaves a chalky residue as the water dries out, the middle section in this photograph.  The part on the left is wetter, more saturated and looks less chalky.

Now finished removing gesso – here carefully washing off the last residue of gesso on a lovely Spring day.  

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This Lovely little French Louis quinze frame was recently dry-stripped to give a decappé finish.  It is remarkable that so much work went into making something so small – the sight size is just over 8×6″ – the section, design, carving, recutting and gilding all done with the great craftsmanship that is so reliably typical of frames made in Paris in this period.  This example needs some repairs, hardly visible in this photograph, but otherwise is all there.

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French Louis XV corner pattern frame, 8 1/4 x 5 1/4″ (21 x 16 cms)

English 17C Laurel and Berry frame, part dry-stripped.

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English 17C carved and silvered frame, 29 ¼ x 24 ½” (74 x 62 cms)

Sometimes these frames have an oakleaf and acorn pattern, sometimes laurel and berry. This one is not very clearly either …

The frame is 17th Century, English.  Standard 30 x 25″ portrait size.  Someone thought it a good idea (19th C?) to paint the original silver leafed frame brown with an oil gilded sight edge.  What makes it stranger is the brown paint has been given a bit of wood-graining.   This photo shows it half-stripped, the brown paint manually picked away from the silver. The frame will be lacquered when the brown paint has been fully removed – this will prevent the silver from oxidising and going an irreversible black.  Originally the lacquer would probably have been yellowish, so that the silver becomes more gold-like in appearance.


18C Louis XIV centre and corner frame, partially stripped.

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French 18C frame, top and left with later oil gilding removed, 26 ¼ x 20 ¾” (67 x 53 cms)

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The same photograph but in black and white. This shows more clearly the difference between the original surface (top and left) and the later oil gilded surface.

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I have removed later gilding from many frames over twenty years but am still astonished by the difference a few microns of ill-conceived regilding can make – and not just to the surface of the frame but to the whole design of the thing which relies on the detail of the carving and recutting of the gesso – all lost.  I am not sure why anyone ever thought this was a good idea – but I am glad they did as it gives us a chance to remove it!


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