What goes around: The art of framing

The right frame doesn’t just set off a painting to perfection, it can also increase its sale value. So why are they so often overlooked? A new exhibition at the National Gallery aims to give frames their due, as Emma Crichton-Miller reports


In July 2007 a magnificent painting came up for auction in the Important Old Master and British Pictures Sale at Christie’s London. Raphael’s portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino (1492 – 1519) (below) had originally been commissioned to seal the duke’s betrothal to Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, a cousin of the French King François I. The sumptuous, billowing, strawberry-red sleeves of the coat, the fine fur collar with its delicate, individually delineated hairs and the richly patterned gold velvet costume had been painted both to enhance the duke’s physical stature and to advertise his wealth, with the discreetly held gold box in his right hand indicating his dynastic legacy. It was the most important Raphael to come to sale since 1892.


Raphael, Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, 1518. Sold at Christie’s London in July 2007. Photograph courtesy of Paul Mitchell Ltd

In the run-up to the auction, the painting was not on general view. Those who asked to see it were taken into a special viewing room, where the painting was set like a precious relic in a magnificent Renaissance gold frame, surrounded by a curtain. Here it glowed with vivid intensity, the lighting in the room enhancing the masterfully painted play of light over the red, silver and gold clothing, the gilded frame strengthening the contrasting effect of the green background, the black hat and Lorenzo’s dark eyes. The eye of the viewer was attuned to the exaggerated curves of the Duke’s costume by the lively sinuous pattern of scrolling vine and foliage carved on the frame’s frieze, which also echoed the leaf pattern on the duke’s torso.

For the many people who saw the painting in those circumstances, the impact of the experience will have been crucial in their appreciation of the picture’s value. Yet when the painting sold for an astonishing £18.5 million (well beyond the top estimate of £15 million), then a world auction record for Raphael, who thought about the frame? Who would have imagined that, far from the being the one the painting had always inhabited, the frame had been bought specially for the occasion of the sale from one of the world’s leading experts by Richard Knight, co-head of Old Master Paintings? For Paul Mitchell, the scholar and dealer who sold the frame, it was its union with one of the greatest Renaissance paintings ever to grace a contemporary saleroom, and not the Medici nuptials, that represented the perfect marriage.


Possibly by Titian, The Music Lesson, circa 1535. From the Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames exhibition. © The National Gallery, London

Frames are the Cinderellas of the art world; they do a tremendous amount of work. They protect the artworks they support; they show off the qualities of a picture, drawing attention to its formal structure, its patterns and colours, enabling them to resonate fully with a viewer; they mould the response of the viewer to the work by suggesting the value we should attach to it; they accommodate a painting to its setting, acting as a liaison between the dream world of art and the decorative scheme of the museum, gallery or private home the work inhabits. They are partly furniture and partly sculpture. At their best, they are works of art, carved by the foremost sculptors of their day, and yet their own brilliance must also serve that of the paintings they encase. As Dr Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, puts it drily in his elegant guide, A Closer Look At Frames: ‘Frames are thus not a marginal consideration in the history of art.’

And yet, anomalously, to all but certain connoisseurs and collectors, museum curators and auctioneers and the artists and dealers who depend upon them, they are practically invisible. In books of art history, in auction catalogues, the frame is expunged. In museum shops, postcards feature the artwork alone, without the frame that has been a critical part of the visitor’s experience of the work. Partly this is a necessary recognition that the artwork, especially if it is an Old Master, has most likely been separated from its original frame. Paintings have regularly been reframed by new owners, both to assert ownership and to incorporate the work within different and sometimes elaborate interior decorative schemes. But the consequence is a collective blindness to these often remarkably beautiful creations.

‘The best frame-makers could charge more for their frames than many artists could for their paintings’

In April, Penny is hoping to put that to rights. Retiring from the National Gallery this year, he is leaving as his legacy the exhibition, Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames (1 April – 13 September), the first of what he hopes will become a series of exhibitions on frames. He has had a fascination with the subject since he was made Keeper of the Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean Museum in 1984. The Ashmolean has an excellent historic collection of frames, including the grandly swagged, beribboned and gilded 17th-century frame Grinling Gibbons created especially for the portrait of the Ashmolean’s founding donor, Elias Ashmole.

Later, as Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery from 1990 until 2000, Penny spent two years personally making a detailed study and inventory of every frame in the collection. This has become the basis for a personal global archive of frames. He also embarked on an investigation into how the National Gallery’s 19th-century directors had set about the business of framing, much, he says, to the puzzlement of many colleagues: ‘It was respectable to be interested in Victorian furniture 30 years before it was respectable to be interested in Victorian frames.’

It was even a frame that was responsible for his famous rediscovery of another Raphael, The Madonna of the Pinks. Invited to visit the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle to advise on his collection, Penny noticed that the painting, then considered a cheap copy of the original, was framed in an extremely expensive 1850s frame, a Renaissance revival example designed by Giovanni Montiroli — ‘a fantastic piece of boxwood carving.’ As he reports, ‘Immediately I realised that at the time they were sure that it was a Raphael,’ and so he volunteered to have the painting re-examined. The rest is history. The frame, now discarded for a more appropriate early 16th-century Venetian one, still lies in his office, with the painting’s Alnwick inventory number attached.


Portrait of a Woman as Cleopatra, Venetian, 16th century, showing a mirror in a Sansovino frame. Courtesy Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames is not the first museum exhibition on the subject. Over the past 30 years there have been several, for instance at the Rijksmuseum in 1984, the Chicago Institute of Art in 1986, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1990, and at the National Portrait Gallery in 1996. This last, which focused entirely on English frames, unleashed such a storm of interest that the NPG created a dedicated website, still a primary source of information.

These have mostly been survey exhibitions, however. With this new show, Penny hopes ‘to deepen the study of the subject’. And where better to start than with these exuberant, idiosyncratic early frames, with their scrolls and masks, their bare-breasted female ‘terms’ and bouncing cherubs, their goats’ heads and birds plucking fruit? They mark a moment in Venice, in the early 16th century, where they are thought first to have emerged, when frames became independent from their traditional architectural contexts within churches and palaces.

While earlier tabernacle frames, mostly built to house sacred images, evoke religious architecture, these Sansovino frames mix miniature pilasters and broken pediments with decorative details lifted from contemporary furniture, printed illustration and even stucco ceilings. Confusingly they owe nothing to the architect Jacopo Sansovino, a Venetian contemporary whose style was more strictly classical than these imaginative caprices; indeed, they were only named ‘Sansovino’ frames much later, and were also made in Florence and other parts of Italy. So popular were they by the early 17th century that the spendthrift Duke of Buckingham was importing them from Venice for his pictures, though English frame-makers soon cottoned on to the new fashion. As Caroline Campbell, the exhibition’s curator, points out, ‘They were designed to be aesthetically pleasing in their own right.’

‘In today’s art market our clients expect to see things in a form that is immediately presentable on their walls’

As such they hail from a time when the most celebrated frame-makers in Europe could charge more for their frames than many artists could charge for their paintings. In 18th-century France, a master framer such as Jean Chérin, whose elegant, intricately carved works represent another peak of craftsmanship, had had to become both a master carpenter (menuisier) and a master sculptor (sculpteur) to ply his trade. According to Mitchell, such frames can be ‘enormously dynamic, with great subtlety in both design and execution.’

Today, however, the status of the frame as a work of art in its own right has declined. While most of the frames to be exhibited in the National Gallery show come from one private collector, dealers report that such enthusiasts are extremely rare. Christie’s, along with Sotheby’s and Bonhams, no longer holds dedicated frame sales, although there are such sales in Paris and at the renowned frame auction house, Conzen, in Düsseldorf. Marcus Radecke, Christie’s European director of furniture, explains that ‘it’s become a very small market’. Occasionally frames appear in furniture sales. In October 2013, for instance, a large north Italian, early 18th-century frame, ornamented with putti, dolphins and shells and flower-filled cornucopiae, which had been turned into a mirror, fetched a substantial £52,500 at Christie’s London on an estimate of £25,000–£40,000.


Titian, Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, c. 1528, from the Sansovino Frames exhibition. © The National Gallery,London

On the other hand, as Michael Gregory of the antique frame business, Arnold Wiggins & Sons, suggests, ‘People are more aware of the image today, than they are used to looking at real life objects — and so, paradoxically, the frame has become critical.’ Museums have been forced to raise their game, reframing not just for scholarly or conservation reasons but to enhance the visitor experience, and collectors are growing more demanding. James Bruce-Gardyne, the auctioneer the night the Raphael made its record price, and Senior International Director and Head of Private Sales for Old Master Paintings at Christie’s, says that reframing has become an intrinsic part of the presentation of works of art, ‘integral to the process of auction or private sale’. He comments: ‘In today’s art market our clients expect to see things in a form that is immediately presentable on their walls.’

While for Modern and Contemporary works of art this may lead collectors to such hi-tech specialists as John Jones in London, for Old Masters the first stop are the frame dealers, with stock accumulated over many years, waiting for the right picture to come along. Conzen has been in business for more than 160 years. Gregory comments ruefully, ‘People don’t really understand how long term I work.’ He recently framed a pair of Dutch pictures for a museum after 22 years of looking for the right frames. It is not enough simply to put on any old good-quality frame; the frame must, in Gregory’s phrase, ‘crystallise’ the painting.


A selection of frames from the 17th and 18th centuries at Paul Mitchell Ltd. Photograph courtesy of Paul Mitchell Ltd

The National Gallery, for instance, has a remarkable early French frame of quite spectacular workmanship which was commissioned in 1710 by a Parisian collector to hold Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633–4). It entirely overpowers the artist’s carefully balanced composition, and goes against Poussin’s own stated preference for plain mouldings and matt gilding. Mitchell, moreover, has waged a long campaign against the careless reuse of French 18th-century portrait frames, tipped on their side, for Impressionist landscapes. The cartouches and ornamented corners used to focus interest on an important sitter play havoc with the very different geometries of these 19th-century paintings. You can, he says, ‘asphyxiate with rococo’.

Dealer Charles Daggett, who specialises in 18th- and 19th-century frames, confirms however that today, ‘75 per cent of the collectors who visit me have a very clear idea of the sort of frame they want.’ This upsurge of educated interest has led to a terrible shortage of supply. As Daggett comments, in nine out of 10 cases, ‘It is the frame that is contemporaneous with the painting that fits it best.’

Despite this, it has become fashionable to frame contemporary works in Renaissance Italian or Spanish frames, as Picasso and Matisse did, making those most highly sought-after frames even scarcer. Rollo Whately, however, is one of a number of framers, including Gregory and Mitchell, who will create almost exact copies of original period examples, with the same techniques and materials as the artisans of the past. Unless there is a great deal of elaborate carving, he says, a good copy is often the best solution. An original, however, is still a joy: ‘Because they are neglected by conservators, frames that are two or three hundred years old can still be found in perfect original condition. Frames are great survivors.’ As the Sansovino show will demonstrate, by exhibiting one particularly fine survivor with the National Gallery’s recently restored and reattributed Titian, Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (about 1528), when the marriage of frame and painting is right, both parties sing.

Louvre, Paris 1942. Interior view during World War II showing empty picture frames (the art treasures of the Louvre had been evacuated). Photograph: akg-images/Paul Almasy

Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames is on at the National Gallery in London from 1 April to 13 September

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