White Modernist frames

This photo shows different surfaces, white paint on gesso, tinted paint on gesso, pale green paint on oak, thin white paint on pine, gloss house paint. Three English frames from the 50’s, perhaps early 1960’s – These are the kinds of frames associated with Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and the postwar modernist movement.  Sometimes known also as ‘artist’s  frames’, these almost intentionally roughly made frames were a reaction against the gilded excesses of the neo-Baroque of the 20’s or the elegance of the neo-Classicism of Art Deco in the 30’s: sort of a frame version of Brutalism. They are some of my most treasured frames.While frames are often necessary (to hold glass, for instance) one way of being anti-frame, to get away from bourgeois gold, is to make them very narrow.  These date from the late ’50’s and 1960’s and remind me of architecture of that period.In France there had been a taste for white painted frames from the very end of the 19C.  The ‘Degas’ pattern is a reeded gesso frame left as plain gesso or part gilded, either on a flat or a convex section and made, as far as I can see, by extruding gesso in some kind of jig giving the frames a fairly mechanical look.  These frames were often used also for mirrors.

Three other French frames, mid 20C.  The larger one on the right has a textured surface with the feel of concrete – it would be good with an Art Brut rough graffiti-inspired painting.

Decorative frames

I recently lent some frames to a glossy magazine for a photoshoot about wallpaper.  They brought the frames back and I took my own picture – they look good as a little group …

Painted frames

Over the years I have come across a number of painted frames.   Prompted by three I recently bought in Italy, I photographed a group of them which can be found below.

For a dealer/maker of frames, the painted frame represents a refreshing change from the usual – I guess this might also have been true of the people who made them … There is often a remarkable decorative skill in these frames: some may have been chosen because they offered a cheaper option to whoever was paying for them  (ochre paint instead of gold leaf) but others really seem to be a labour of love – especially the one with the little sprite on it.  Most are of a more or less cassetta section, the flat area allowing space for any decoration.

Many painted frames from Italy are automatically said to come from the Marche, an area on the Eastern side of the country.  I am not sure if that is only where they come from of if they were made all over Italy – which is rather more likely.  There is very little literature on Italian painted frames, at least that I know of and I would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows more than the little I do about them.

Italian 17 C painted frames, outer 24 1.2 x 18 1/2″ (62 x 47 cms); inner 11 x 9″ (28 x 23 cms)

Above, let’s start with one in the Italian colours – red white and green!  The smaller, inner frame is reverse section, gold and pale pistachio, with a lovely patina.

Italian 17/18C ochre painted reverse cassetta, 16 x 14″ (41 x 36 cms)

Above, a typical ochre painted reverse cassetta frame; another, below which is a paler, almost apricot colour –

Italian 17C painted cassetta frame, 29 1/2 x 23″ (75 x 58 cms)

This frame looks like it could be made of stone and elsewhere on these pages I illustrate an elaborate baroque frame and I suggest it is carved and painted to look like limestone.  Marbleising, another faux-stone effect is often seen on painted frames as a decorative finish as in this rather beautiful example –

Italian 17C reverse cassetta with near-black painted frieze, marbled white, 16 1/2 x 13 1/2″ (42 x 34 cms)

and this one which, though cut down still is a good example of the decorative possibilities of marbled patterns, not least the use of blue, a colour otherwise not often associated with frames.

Italian 17C reverse wedge section cassetta with blue marbled frieze, 18 x 14″ (45.8 x 35.6 cms)

While these frames use marbleising as a decorative solution to the frieze in a cassetta, the frame below uses the technique to make a frame to imitate realistically the kind of marble surround that might be found in any number of Italian baroque churches.  The marble being imitated is known as Rosso di Levanto.

Italian 17C imitation marble frame, 34 x 27″ (86 x 69 cms)

Tortoiseshell is another substance that was frequently mimicked in these types of frames, here with engraved, gilded corners on a hazzled background.  Just like the centering on the rosso di levanto frame above, the artifice on the tortoiseshell frame extends to making ‘breaks’ where, were it real tortoiseshell, the leaves of shell would be joined.

Italian 17/18C reverse section frame with tortoiseshell painted pattern, 14 1/2 x 12″ (37 x31 cms)

‘Upping the ante’ a bit is this beauty with a sort of marble/watered silk frieze and a black-and-white leopard skin sight and back edge:

Italian 17C painted frame, 18 x 13″ (46 x 33 cms)

Another very unusual frame is this one with dots of raised gesso and black paint applied to the ochre coloured frieze of a roughly carved, fairly provincial, cassetta section –

Italian 17C rustic frame with painted ornament, 22 x 17″ (56 x 43 cms)

I am not the only person to have seen this and thought how ‘Bloomsbury’ it looked – the same could be said for this Spanish frame, and the detail I have taken of it.

Spanish 18C flat painted frame, 18 x 14 1/2″ (46 x 37 cms)

The possibility for creative detail on frames is shown to wonderful effect in this example, back in Italy now – note that the lacquered surface of this frame is similar to the black and white marble one above with a deep shine.  Also interesting about this frame is the gilded sight and back edges are actually lacquered silver.  There is an apparent cut in one corner of the sight of the frame but I think this is just where the maker ran out of wood and put an extra piece in to get to the corner!

Italian painted reverse cassetta, 27 1/2 x 20 1/2″ (70 x 52 cms)

The organic leafy/marbly pattern, in dark green has a rather William Morris on acid/Graham Sutherland feel – and, if I am not reading too much into it – there are some little sprite-like faces added by the framemaker.

Italian 17C painted reverse cassetta frame, 25 1/2 x 19: (65 x 48 cms)

Another frame, same section, is this one – where a marble/fabric pattern has been overlaid on a more usual centre and corner ornament, which is just visible in the detail of the corner, below.  The frame has a wonderful ‘leathery’ colour and feel to the surface.

I haven’t included the many types of white painted frames from the late 19th Century Degas frames to the ‘mod Brit’ frames from the second half of the 20th Century.    But this white painted frame seems to belong with the others – it may well be Italian, definintely 20C, poplar but keyed on the back – could be English perhaps? – it came from a picture framer in London.  It has a very attractive art Nouveau swirling pattern painted in thin red and yellow clay (the type used underneath water gilding) direct onto polished gesso.  I like the way the waves go around the corners and how the pattern is hardly there.

20C painted frame, 31 1/2 x 21 1/2″ (80 x 55 cms)

While many of the Italian frames above have an even, all over surface, the one below which I think is Spanish and is larger than most of the previous frames, has a bold design with centre and corners in yellow circles –

Spanish 17C reverse cassetta with painted centre and corner ornament 42 x 31″ (107 x 79 cms)

To end this group I have added a few 19th Century frames from France and Spain: these have a very different feel to the more organic and painterly frames from Italy.

Spanish 19C frame with Art Nouveau painted design, 23 1/4 x 20″ (60 x 51 cms)

If you look carefully at this one you can see that the corners have what can only be draughts counters set into them!

The one below is French and has a very ‘Victorian’ gothick feel –

French 19C gothick painted and gilded frame, 20 x 16″ ( 51 x 41 cms)

French 19C pale green painted boxy cassetta frame, 13 1/2 x 9″ (34 x 23 cms)

These last two frames, later 19C and French, are painted green/ eau di nil.  We have copied both of these frames quite successfully, the smaller boxy section frame made a much larger size but this same, rather medical, green colour.  The frame below is also painted pale green, which works wonderfully on a a grainy oak frame.

French 19C green painted oak moulding frame 16 1/2 x 13 1/2″ ( 42 x 34 cms)

Tramp frames

19/20C Tramp frame, 20 1/2 x 16″ (52 x 40.5 cms)

Known as ‘Tramp frames’ or ‘Black Forest frames’ or ‘Hobo frames’ these sorts of frames date from the late 19C to the first half of the 20C.  A Wikipedia entry  says that it was an ‘art movement found throughout the world’ but concentrates on those found in North America.  Actually, they fairly frequently come up in sales in Paris, and David Lacy often has some in his London shop (both of these came from him).

The frames are  typically made up of layered thin slices of wood, often with the notches that you can see in the example above.  The theory is that they were made on long winter nights by simple folk/prisoners of war/tramps but, whoever made them, they can be very sophisticated.

Tramp frame early 20C, 25 x 21″ (63.5 x 53 cms)

While many of these frames can be crude and rather folksy, sometimes they can also be really beautiful and have that balance thing going on that I like so much.  They must have taken quite a while to make (those long winter nights again) but are often constructed with a confidence in the pattern that is disarming.

And they are all different!  Many frame types are more or less generic — a French Louis XV pastel frame or an English Carlo or a Venetian pastiglia frame — but these, though they share the basics of this assembled construction and unfinished, or stained and part painted, surface, are all designed differently, as if that was part of the challenge, like God doing snowflakes.

20C Tramp frame made from clothes pegs, 23 x 19″ (58.5 x 48.5 cms)

A frame I recently bought can also be thought of as a Tramp frame though it is not made up of the usual layers but, rather, of split ordinary wooden clothes pegs.  To be honest, I didn’t realise this when I bought it, which I did just because its so good to look at. There were three half-pegs missing but I raided the laundry bag at home and, amazingly, they were almost exactly the same.

Detail showing profile of clothes pegs

I like minimalist music, Steve Reich or John Adams, where a simple pattern of notes (the clothes peg) is repeated in a loop but the loop is then offset to create a pattern, like the interference patterns of two waves.  The other thing that came to mind with the raw unfinished material in this frame is so-called Brutalist architecture — like the wonderfully repeating Robin Hood Gardens Estate in Poplar in East London (now very sadly being demolished.)



Spanish 19C polished wood frame, 14 x 11 1/4″ (36 x 28.5 cms)

This simple frame shows the impact of elegant design.  It has a slightly cushioned back edge, barely visible in the photo above — and was probably a print frame (it has a double rebate, sometimes used to keep artwork away from the glass).  It may have been one of many such made in a workshop in the 1860s, or 1900s — I don’t know — but whoever came up with it had a very good, pure, eye for design.

Papier maché


Spanish 17th or 18th Century black and gold frame with centre and corner ornament in gilded papier maché, 52 3/4 x 47 1/2″ (134 x 121 cms)

A very unusual Spanish frame with paper-moulded centres and corners.   This is quite a large frame and the boldness of the ornament means that it needs a strong, possibly modern, painting to frame.


19C polished hardwood frame, wedge section with brown polished outer edge, 36 x 27″ (91 x 69 cms)

Interesting frame, I am not sure what the wood is but it is polished to show the fine overall grain.  Might be in the Japanese style? It would make a marvellous mirror.


6879 -

Italian ? painted reverse wedge cassetta frame – 29 x 28″ (73.5 x 71 cms)

Elegant but confident painted frame with silvery gold sight and back edges, the painted surface a slightly uneven dusty green.  I had always thought how good a frame like this would look on a Lucian Freud painting…



Spanish 18 or 19C painted reverse plate frame, 17 x 14″ (43 x 36 cms)


This is a very attractive painted frame.  The painted wheat ear-like flowers and leaves remind me of Bloomsbury ornament.  I also like how the sides of the frame taper slightly and are of different widths.



French 19C frame with applied embossed and gilded ornament, 18 x 13″ (46 x 33 cms)

Frames covered in embossed paper are fairly unusual — this one is in very fine condition and great care has been taken with the gilding.


White/off white painted and textured frame, probably English from the 1950’s, 21 x 15″ (53 x 38 cms)

Modernist frames are often the creation of artists and frame-makers working in conjunction.  They can also be quite wacky and inventive.