How to choose the right frame for your picture
10 expert tips on finding the perfect frame by Matthew Jones, managing director of leading framers and conservationists, John Jones London
Selecting a frame isn’t just about choosing a colour and a material. When a work comes into our studio, we take time to assess its condition, considering how a frame can not only present a work most effectively, but also protect it from damage and degradation. It’s also important to consider where the work will be displayed: is it going stay in the same place for many years, will it be in a home or a gallery, or will it be required to travel? All of these early questions guide us in choosing the right frame. We carry out condition reports, and we always recommend that we visit the client at the location where the work will be hung so that we can make assessments.
When framing a work, I take time to research its history, looking at how it has been framed in the past — considering the input of gallerists, curators and the artists themselves. Along with this archival research, it’s vital to get out and see the shows, which can be an excellent guide for hanging works ranging from Old Masters to contemporary pieces. Everything I do is built around knowledge: I’ve been a framer for around 30 years now, and can honestly say I’m learning all the time.
Occasionally, I’m presented with a work that for aesthetic or historical reasons needs to stay in its original frame. It’s something I see with a lot of Old Masters, and, at the moment, the amazing amount of wonderful Modern British art we’ve been working with recently, such as Ben Nicholson, and Henry Moore. In this case, it’s important to check that the old frame is safe, and upgrade it where we can — there’s often a lot that can be done to improve its quality and longevity.
We framed drawings for an exhibition, Henry Moore, From Paper to Bronze, at Waddesdon Manor. We worked with The Henry Moore Foundation to make sure our frames matched the style that Henry Moore drawings have always been framed in, so that they harmonised with the others from their collection. We have an archive of frame profiles at John Jones so that we can remain true to an artist’s approach. Sometimes artworks can incur damage from original frames that sit badly, so we make an assessment and work from there.
When a work comes into our studio, it enters a ‘safe’ environment, with humidity and temperature perfectly controlled — something that’s an especially important consideration for the works on paper that we handle. Of course, clients’ homes — and even museums and art galleries — aren’t always so regulated. For those concerned about creating the right environment for works of art, it is possible to request an expert assessment of UV and humidity levels. As conscientious framers, we always say that our job isn’t done until the work is on the wall, and we can walk away feeling assured of its safety.
Where a work is displayed in less than ideal environmental conditions — such as somewhere particularly humid, or with high levels of light— the frame can be used to regulate and counter outside conditions, or even to create a specific microclimate. Working with our conservation studio, we produce sealed enclosures that allow the right environment to be maintained, regardless of external factors. It’s something I’d advise for a collection travelling, for example, from London to Singapore.
It’s important, however, that whatever you seal up with the work isn’t going to cause damage. We take time to prepare works before sealing them in the frame, potentially cleaning and de-acidifying the piece, and replacing wood pulp boards with museum-quality cotton boards. We use sealing techniques to help isolate conditions within the frame from those outside, whatever those might be. The materials selected during framing then manage this microclimate, and can include Artsorb to control humidity and Microchamber board to keep it free of pollutants.
We sometimes spend more time talking about the choice of glazing than we do about the design of the frame itself. When choosing the most appropriate glass to cover a work, there are five important things to consider.
Number one — and perhaps the most important — is UV filter: glazing can be used to protect works from this most damaging form of light that might cause colour to fade. Two: it’s also important to choose a low-reflective material that won’t interfere with the surface of the work when it’s displayed. Safety should also be a concern — ideally, the material in the frame should allow the artwork to be shipped and handled with minimal risk of breakage. The fourth consideration is weight: some materials can make a frame incredibly heavy, but there’s an acrylic we use that reduces weight by 50 per cent. Finally, the cost will be reflected by these choices, and depends on the priorities for the artwork and the client.
A conventional frame isn’t right for every work: in the past, we’ve produced custom light boxes to display Banksy stencils, and have come up with creative solutions for even the most complex projects.
Ralph Lauren came to us with a very old American flag, which was incredibly fragile. Our challenge was to ship the work to Paris, and display it on a high wall, up four flights of stairs. We made a folded stretcher frame, allowing the piece to be folded and unfolded, then added a big, ornate gold frame made in two sections — installing the work tentatively from the landing. It was a big challenge, not least because we were trying to explain the project to contacts based in America. Nevertheless, it arrived, was installed and looks fantastic. It jumps out as a perfect project.
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While a plinth can be a simple white base, we try to produce pieces that work with the sculpture and get it noticed, such as a work by Liz Neal we have displayed in the John Jones private collection. Again, it’s also important to consider where a sculpture is going to be installed, and what it will be displayed alongside.
I’m working with a Conrad Shawcross piece at the moment, which will eventually be displayed outside. It’s about look and feel, but it’s also important that the plinth is capable of withstanding the elements. Other conditions include size, usability and security.
I’m never afraid to say when a work doesn’t need a frame — it’s something that happens, and which I’m very open about. In our framing showroom at John Jones, I’ve hung a painting without a frame. We did, however, make the stretcher for the piece, working with the artist from the beginning to make a panel which was the right depth, shape, and which sat well on the wall. We might frame it one day to protect it, but it certainly doesn’t need it from a visual point of view.
A good frame can completely change a work. I very much want the outcome of the project to offer what I call ‘the three wows’. When you first see a work that’s been framed, you should be drawn immediately to the image itself. We then like the eye to cast out to the frame, and — finally — to make a connection with the object in its entirety. If you’ve got a slight imperfection on the frame, or a slight imbalance in colour, it’s going to distract you from your enjoyment of the image. It’s really about harmony.
For more information on framing, visit johnjones.co.uk.