To gild or not to gild — that is the question

To gild or not to gild — that is the question

Artists, patrons and critics have argued for centuries over the right way to frame a painting. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste, says Andrew Graham-Dixon

I have recently helped two friends choose frames for paintings they own, an experience that reminded me how fraught with complication (and fascination) the business of putting frames on pictures actually is. Each friend took a very different approach, as I might have expected, since they are very different people. 

Friend A is a retired builder and decorator, who had inherited a pleasing but not especially valuable depiction of a Devon landscape painted by a follower of Constable sometime in the 1860s. The picture as it had come down to him was in quite bad shape — murky, with one or two tears in the canvas — and had no frame on it at all.

Friend A was happy to follow my advice. First, I arranged for a restorer to remove what William Hogarth used to call the ‘smoke of time’, revealing a beautifully fresh dawn sky in which some abbreviated birds could now be seen to wheel and swoop; some trees with foliage as delicate as sprigs of parsley; and a woodland stream being traversed by a man in a cart distinctly reminiscent of Constable’s rather more famous Haywain

Next, I took the picture to a framer, who suggested a restrained but nonetheless substantial gilded frame of the kind Constable himself often put on his smaller pictures. My friend agreed, and the restored and reframed painting now looks thoroughly charming, hung on a background of William Morris wallpaper above the mantelpiece of a Sussex farmhouse.

A fiddler by Walter Sickert. Photo courtesy Andrew Graham-Dixon

A fiddler by Walter Sickert. Photo courtesy Andrew Graham-Dixon

Landscape by a follower on Constable. Photo courtesy Andrew Graham-Dixon

Landscape by a follower on Constable. Photo courtesy Andrew Graham-Dixon

Friend B is, as it were, a different kettle of friend: a fund manager with a large collection of (mostly) modern works of graphic art, including a number of enormous Art Deco posters. He wanted to find a new frame for a vibrant small painting of a fiddler by Walter Sickert, which he had purchased at the Maastricht art fair for more than a few bob. 

It was already in a muted, carved gilt frame of 19th-century style, similar to those chosen by the artist himself for many of his works; but this was not to my friend’s taste and certainly did not harmonise with the predominantly dark, simple, sober frames on nearly all the other pictures in his home. 

I suggested that some form of compromise might be found. He went to his regular framers, John Jones in London, and they came up with a sensitive solution to the problem: a moulded ebonised frame, chunky but not too much so, with a line of gilding around its innermost edge. Hung as it now is in Friend B’s house, the picture still has its own presence and announces its difference from the other, much larger images with which it is surrounded, but does not stick out like a sore thumb.

To gild, or not to gild? To choose a plain frame or a more ornate golden one? It is a question that has divided taste for centuries, and continues to do so. The earliest recorded frames put onto paintings in England were, in fact, not dissimilar to the one devised for my Friend B by John Jones. They were made of plain dark wood, relieved or aggrandised by one or two lines of gilding applied by brush. 

Not many such frames survive, but you can catch a glimpse of how they looked from a picture on the wall behind the sitter in an early 17th-century portrait of Sir John Kennedy by Marcus Gheeraerts. What is most striking to modern eyes is the fact that the upper moulding of the frame, on that picture within a picture, actually serves as a kind of curtain rail, from which a curtain indeed hangs. During Elizabethan and early Jacobean times, it was the custom to protect paintings behind curtains, which were often made of fine and rich materials.

Sir John Kennedy of Barn Elms, 1614, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, with a curtained painting in the background. Photo Bridgeman Images
Sir John Kennedy of Barn Elms, 1614, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, with a curtained painting in the background. Photo: Bridgeman Images

The poet George Herbert was gratified to see that a portrait of himself, owned by Lord Dorset, had been hung within ‘a Frame covered with greene taffita’. Of the frame itself he had nothing to say, which suggests that it was the covering of fabric rather than the plain wood surround that mattered, in his eyes and those of his contemporaries.

The vogue for picture curtains soon died out, and at the same moment frames themselves became more splendid — carved and gilded creations that might even cost more than the paintings they were intended to house. In Holland, a taste for sober, dark frames (with or without curtains) persisted well into the 17th century and beyond, as can still be seen on a visit to the Rijksmuseum or Mauritshuis today. But everywhere else in Europe, the age of the baroque was also, par excellence, the age of the magnificent gilded frame. 

Originally designed to protect a picture as it travelled, the frame increasingly had the function of proclaiming value, flaunting the preciousness of art

Italian princes, French kings and Spanish noblemen all insisted on elaborate gilded frames for their most prized paintings. So did Charles I of England, perhaps the most ambitious of all 17th-century royal collectors. The account books show that he spared no expense when it came to framing his more treasured acquisitions: in the early 1630s, he paid his Serjeant Painter, John de Critz, a small fortune for 12 gilded frames in which to put the celebrated Twelve Caesars (11 by Titian and one by Bernardino Campi).

The frame itself was still at that time a relatively recent invention. As Jacob Simon points out in his book The Art of the Picture Frame  — by far the most entertaining and perceptive account of the subject I have come across — frames for paintings had only become commonplace during the Renaissance, when artists and their patrons formed the novel idea that pictures might be treated as covetable and collectable objects: movable commodities, to be bought and sold, rather than fixtures of a particular church, abbey or monastery. 

Originally designed to protect a picture as it travelled, the frame increasingly had the function of proclaiming value, flaunting the preciousness of art: hence all the gold leaf, the curlicues, the swags and the swagger. Small wonder that artists themselves, who just a few generations earlier had mostly been regarded as craftsmen, and certainly not as genius-creators, welcomed this development. Many of them came to see the gilded frame not merely as confirmation of their rise in status, but as an aesthetic sine qua non. 

Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery, c. 1647, by David Teniers the Younger. Photo Bridgeman Images
Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery, c. 1647, by David Teniers the Younger. Photo: Bridgeman Images

In the late 1630s, Nicolas Poussin advised a patron who had just acquired one of his pictures to put on it a frame ‘gilded quite simply with matt gold, for it unites very sweetly with the colours without clashing with them’. Perhaps the gold frame also suited the innate theatricality of baroque taste. In the case of Poussin, I often feel it is rather like the proscenium arch of an actual theatre, framing the actions and the agonies of the painter’s dramatis personae with an appropriate formality and solemnity.

The gilded frame would remain the automatic choice for most artists and collectors until the late 19th century. In 1886, reflecting the ‘art for art’s sake’ climate of the fin de siècle, the critic Peter Fitzgerald noted that ‘the universal taste of mankind for some hundred years has fixed on gold or gilding as the tone or colour for framing paintings... Gold seems to enrich everything it touches... It somehow, too, suggests the notion of an abstract boundary or zone between the vulgar surrounding world and the sort of spiritual life of art.’ But there had been dissenting voices, going back to the early decades of the 19th century. 

Battle lines were drawn. The advent of self-consciously modern painting brought self-consciously modern attitudes to framing, further inflamed by counter-reaction

Not everyone saw the gilded frame as an uplifting metaphor for the otherworldliness of art. The English portrait painter Thomas Lawrence had been roundly attacked for using a massively elaborate type of gold frame for the pictures he sent to exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: it was an attention-seeking device, said his critics, and selfish in that it drastically reduced the space for other painters to show their work. In fact, by the 1880s the taste for gilded frames was by no means as universal as Peter Fitzgerald claimed. 

In Paris, the Impressionists had upset almost as many preconceptions with their choice of frames as they had with their sketchy use of paint. The frames they chose were plain and — shock, horror — white. The painters may have had artistic reasons for this — a number of the Impressionists were interested in colour theory and optics — but their main motive was surely a desire to set their work apart from the art of the past. 

In 1881, a journalist sympathetic to their cause, Jules Claretie, went so far as to assert that ‘the most original aspect of these revolutionaries is the surrounds of their works, which are white. Gold frames are left to old painters, tobacco-chewing daubers, opponents of light paintings.’

Georges Viar, collector and friend of Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Vuillard, beneath a Degas painting in a white frame. Photo by Francois Antoine Vizzavona. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais  Frank Raux 

Georges Viar, collector and friend of Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Vuillard, beneath a Degas painting in a white frame. Photo by Francois Antoine Vizzavona. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Frank Raux 

With that, the battle lines were drawn. The advent of self-consciously modern painting brought self-consciously modern attitudes to framing, further inflamed by counter-reaction from what the avant-garde now came to think of as the Establishment. So it was that, in 1884, the Paris Salon — bête noire of the impressionists — passed a rule banning all pictures in frames of white, or any other colour than gold; even as late as the 1930s, the Art Institute of Chicago refused to hang paintings unless they were in gilt frames. All of which just made young and adventurous painters even keener to avoid gilding. 

By the start of the 20th century, all kinds of painters — in Britain alone, Augustus John, William Orpen and C.R.W. Nevinson come to mind — were putting their work in white frames; and that was just the start of the modern framing revolution.

International Exhibition of Modern ArtArmory Show, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 24-April 16, 1913, showing white and gold frames. Photo The Art Institute of Chicago  Art Resource, NY  Scala, Florence

International Exhibition of Modern Art/Armory Show, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 24-April 16, 1913, showing white and gold frames. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY / Scala, Florence

By the 1940s, Mondrian had all but done away with frames altogether, placing his canvases in shallow boxes with such slim edges that they barely separated the painting from the world (which was exactly as he wanted it). By the 1960s, many of the Abstract Expressionists in America were exhibiting their large canvases without frames at all, inspired in part by the idea of creating a pictorial space or arena that might seem as though spreading — or ‘leaking’, in Morris Louis’s choice of words – into the real space of the world inhabited by the viewer. 

In England during the same decade, John Bratby, who was hardly a pictorial revolutionary although he was very much an angry young man, took to sticking a leaflet with framing instructions to the back of his every canvas: ‘Ideally there should be no frame... precluding stupid encroachment upon the periphery of the picture-surface... encroachment, however small it may be, will impair the artist’s pristine visual conception.’

Piet Mondrian surrounded by his frameless works. Photo by Rogi André (Rosa Klein). Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais  Georges Meguerditchian

Piet Mondrian surrounded by his frameless works. Photo by Rogi André (Rosa Klein). Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian

Of course, collectors will always want to reframe pictures according to their own tastes. After all, a picture’s frame is just about the only thing owners can  change without actually vandalising their own property. This can certainly result in unintended ironies. When Impressionist paintings became so expensive that they turned into trophy acquisitions, many of those acquiring them — especially collectors of more conservative tastes — promptly took them out of their original white frames and put them into ornate gilded ones instead. 

Likewise, while many adventurous Russian painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries disliked gilded frames, because of their association with wealth and decadence, wealthy Russian collectors today will often reframe those same paintings as if they were salon pictures. They feel comfortable with gold frames.

Is there anything wrong with that? And does it really matter? I would say not, because a frame can almost always be changed, or changed back, without harming the work of art; and surely one of the most interesting things about frames is the way in which they continually reflect the differing tastes of differing generations, differing individuals, differing classes of people and, indeed, differing nations. 

My experience with Friends A and B is a case in point. Friend A, quite conservative in his tastes, wanted a frame like one that might have been chosen originally by the painter of his picture. Friend B, who is more adventurous and more self-consciously modern in his own tastes, chose his own plainer frame accordingly. Did either of them get it wrong? Who am I to say? I’m just happy that they are both happy.