Picture Frames and restoration


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

This is a frame for a smallish Landseer sporting painting – a typical English compo frame dating from the second half of the 19C.  As you can see, it has a removable, glazed slip inserted into the front of the frame which is secured by a lock.  There are many such frames in the Henry Cole wing of the V&A museum.There are actually two slips – the one behind this one is the same width but is inserted from the back of the frame and it is in this slip that the painting sits.  The glazed outer slip is additional and may have been for security or for for protection from the smog of 19C London.The problem with this frame, when it came to us was that the front-fitting slip, which is inserted with two pegs one side and a lock mechanism on the opposite side, had come loose and the key was lost!

This is from an email I sent the client when the problem had been resolved:

Dear __

I had such fun yesterday! I took the lock off the window on your Landseer frame, took it apart with trepidation, used a key from a bunch I found at home, inherited from Lord knows where – though it has ‘Raffles Museum, Singapore’ printed on the tag, as well as ‘Australian (crossed out) silver, suitcase’ handwritten, then discovered how your lock worked, filed and ground the key to fit the lock, filed the lock plate to fit the key, and … after lots of adjustment and readjustment – it works!

The slip is now secure in the frame again and the frame made good for another 150 years.  I need hardly say how satisfying this was!  There were two identical keys on the tag: I have kept the other in case we ever find that suitcase of Australian (crossed out) silver.


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,  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 — as evidenced in 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. Overall,
it is still a very handsome frame and whoever made it, in whatever workshop, was clearly very skilled.


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.



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 saw that it was walnut, which interestingly is on a slant, this being a way of minimising the use of (expensive) wood.

The first thing I did was remove the (later) slip. The bronze paint was removed fairly easily with paint-stripper but my hope that beneath the paint I would find walnut and water-gilded gold was sadly not realised.


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


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

Gesso is soluble in water (warm water is best) and removing 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.  



The reason 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 it was applied with. 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 centuries contained in the layers. I think of the person who carved this frame, in the 1680s 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 the frame may end up next, and what then might be done to it. This one piece of artwork has allowed people to live — a good job, money, for the original workshop; money for the person who covered it in gesso, and now me: what I am doing now, keeps me going.  

2Flowers-detail.jpgThree-stages.jpgThe best part of doing a job like this is the excitement you feel at the beginning, 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 the gesso — here carefully washing off the last residue of gesso on a lovely Spring day.  


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, re-cutting and gilding all done with the great craftsmanship that is typical of frames made in Paris during this period. This example needs some repairs, hardly visible in the photograph, but otherwise is all there.

English 17C laurel and berry frame, part dry-stripped.


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

Sometimes these frames have an oak leaf 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 site 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.


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





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.

7662-corner-oilgilded1I have removed later gilding from many frames over the past 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 its whole design, 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!