Wednesday, 23 November 2005

Picture framing: fun but an art not for the faint-hearted

by Christopher Proudlove�
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mona lisa

They stand ranged around the walls of our new living room like ranks of drunken soldiers each relying on the other to stop them falling flat on their faces. How long it will take before we pluck up the courage to start hanging our pictures
- and indeed how many we have space for - remains to be seen.

The scene reminds me of set-up days at an art gallery or auction sale. Just as they arrived off the back of our removal van, when pictures are delivered for exhibition or sale view, they all land at once.

It must be a constant nightmare for organisers of such events, but they know what to expect, and having been trained in such matters, they know how to display and light the works to show them off at their best.

We, on the other hand, haven't a clue. Like all collections (and a bit like Topsy) the number of objects we own just grew and grew. But they arrived at the old house piece by piece over a period of many years.

Consequently, we either acquired pieces for specific places, or else when we found something we felt we couldn't live without, we forced ourselves into finding a home for it.

It may have looked like a junk shop, but it all made sense to us and we also like to think that the stuff sat happily next to each other in some semblance of order.

The challenge now is starting with a blank but much smaller canvas.

Had we lived in the 17th century, where and how to hang pictures would not have been a problem, although general lack of funds might have been an issue, but that's another story.

Well-heeled gentlemen collectors had rooms set aside in their homes to house what became to be known as their "cabinets of curiosities" and contemporary paintings and prints from the period show the walls literally covered from floor to ceiling with pictures.

What TV's Changing Rooms team would have made of it doesn't bear thinking about.

To see the detail in the pictures nearest floor would have required the viewer to get down on hands and knees, while a pair of binoculars would have been useful for those uppermost in the room. No surprise then that a set of high library steps was always kept handy.

Today's collectors also have the heartache of coming to terms with the fact that the vagaries of fashion over the years has resulted in many fine picture frames being scrapped to be replaced by something considered "more modern".

It's a happy occasion, therefore, when an auction house picture cataloguer can describe a work as being offered in its original or contemporary frame -- the latter meaning not modern but contemporary with the work it surrounds.

The arithmetical increase in value is of course dependent on the picture in question, but the difference can be so spectacular that dealers and collectors are now seeking out antique frames in an attempt to undo some of the damage done by their predecessors over the years.

To put a picture back in the kind of frame in which it left the artist's studio is akin to reuniting twins separated at birth.

I know many picture dealers who have shelves tucked away at the back of their galleries on which lie dozens of fine but forlorn frames, each waiting for the right picture to turn up and enable its owner to make a killing.

We once experienced a small moment of success ourselves. Arguably our finest needlework sampler, dated 1815, was found languishing in an antique shop where it had been framed with stripped pine, not unlike the ready-made frames being churned out today on the High Street.

It looked hideous but the sampler was precious and we snapped it up for less than £20. Then, a few weeks later, we came across a magnificent Victorian mahogany cushion-shaped frame that had long since lost its contents.

We probably would have bought it anyway but if memory served -- and it was a complete hunch -- the size looked broadly similar to that of our precious sampler. When we got it home, the two fitted together so snugly that clearly they were made for each other.

The consequent rise in value aside, the sampler remains precious to us and will be one of the first things we hang once we come across that courage that I mentioned earlier.

In the meantime, we are on the lookout for frames by the English virtuoso woodcarver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).

Masterly carvings

Gibbons was born in Rotterdam but returned to England in 1672 and was appointed by Charles II as Master Carver in Wood to the Crown, a role he continued to fulfil throughout the reign of George I.

Sir Christopher Wren employed him for the architectural decoration.of Blenheim and Whitehall Palace, while the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, contains examples of his masterly carvings.

Working mostly in limewood, Gibbons' trademark was carved cascading fruit, leaves, flowers, foliage, fish, and birds which were so delicate they could be applied with equal success to panelling, furniture, walls and fine frames

Gibbons is said to have produced a cravat made of limewood in a perfect imitation of Venetian needlepoint. The "cravat" was so lifelike that having worn it in 1763, Horace Walpole commented: "There is no instance of man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers".

However, such things are the stuff of dreams and museum exhibits.

Today's collectors are more likely to find frames from the Victorian and Edwardian eras and many of them remain surprisingly affordable.

Stripped of their contents and previously discarded, it is only now that they are becoming appreciated for what they are: real wood, quality-made (although admittedly by machine and mass-produced) throwbacks to a period when quality was valued and even the simplest photograph or print was cherished.

Some of the most charming frames to seek out are those veneered in bird's eye walnut, maple, painted (or "scrumbled") pine and the so-called Oxford frame with its unique characteristic of sides of "which cross each other and project some distance at the corners" as the Oxford English Dictionary. puts it.

Or "the barbarism called an Oxford frame" as one writer expressed his distaste in Modern Parish Churches published in 1874.

No one is really sure how this type of frame got its name but it has been suggested it was introduced to echo the book corners used by printers of publications for the Oxford Movement.

In existence from 1833-1845, the movement was a small pressure group at Oxford University who argued against the increasing secularisation of the Church of England.

The challenge then is finding appropriate artworks to go inside all these previously redundant frames.

Among the dozens of pictures we own, you can count on one hand the number that have seen paint.

One contains a lovingly embroidered baby's bib that we bought from a church jumble sale for 1p. It's probably no older than the 1940s.

Another was the best way we could think of to display a hand-coloured and beautifully embossed invitation and its accompanying envelope to a wedding that dates from the Regency period and a third shows a vase of flowers. In fact, the “vase�? is created from cardboard and the “flowers�? are seaweed.

We are still looking, as the tin trunk in the garage stuffed with pictureless old picture frames can testify!

Pictures show, top:
This lovely late 17th, early 18th century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa turned up in a provincial saleroom in the summer and was valued as much for its contemporary carved giltwood Florentine frame. It sold for £3,400

Below, left to right:

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was among a group of artists, including the Pre- Raphaelites, who from the 1850s reacted against the mass- produced Victorian frames and developed a distinctive so-called “tabernacle frame�? like the one pictured here framing his watercolour A Votice Offering, otherwise called The Last Roses. Inspired by Renaissance altarpieces, the architectural frames have fluted pillasters, Ionic capitals and a frieze of anthemion drawn from Greek antiquity.

This George III giltwood frame is notable for its boldly carved acanthus leaves. The portrait is of Elizabeth Myddleton (c1730-1772) chatelaine of Chirk Castle

United in love and picture frame, in this case a carved Florentine giltwood example worth £400-600

A rare Charles II giltwood frame carved with cherub masks flanked by swags of fruit and flowers and a pair of dolphins. Note the similarity of the top with the brass-faced longcase clocks of the period

This highly masculine ebonised oval frame is the perfect accompaniment to a portrait of a male sitter. Frame and watercolour portrait each date from circa 1800 and are estimated at £300-500

alma-tademaacanthuscouplecharles iiebonised

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