FROM simple wooden surrounds to grand Renaissance creations, picture frames have played an important part in art history. They give vital clues to the origins of a painting, be it the elegant ebonised frames that set off the Dutch masters of the 17th century or the elaborate gilt confections that characterised the Victorian era. Although a frame’s main purpose is to protect and enhance a picture, they can often be works of art in their own right, which is why it’s worth making the effort to preserve and protect them.
At Arnold Wiggins & Sons in the heart of St James’s, London SW1, an impressive array of antique frames is stacked around the premises—some are packed closely together, with only their edges visible, others are hung up on the walls, where you can see Italian, French and English frames of every period and style. Michael Gregory, who heads up this long-established company, has held a Royal Warrant as a picture-frame maker to The Queen since 1991 and regularly lectures on the history and craftsmanship of this little-known subject.
‘I’ve always travelled and photographed art collections, from museums in America to English country houses, so we have a database to work from,’ he explains. ‘It gives us a reference point for when we frame a piece. When people come to us with a picture, we start from a historical perspective—what country is it from, who is it by and so on, to try to match it to something similar, whether that’s an original frame or a handmade reproduction.’
The idea of adding separate frames to pictures became popular during the Renaissance in Italy when religious works began to be displayed in ornately carved tabernacle frames, as well as the simpler cassette-style, a box frame that is similar to the ones we favour today. Over the centuries, the styles of frames often evolved in tandem with architectural movements—for example, the Kent frame, with its protruding corners and rows of Classical ornament, takes its name from William Kent, who revived the Palladian style of architecture in England. Gilding became very popular and specialist craftsmen would apply a red clay bole to the frame, before covering it with a wafer-thin layer of gold leaf.
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