Behind the scenes at the Framing Department | The National Gallery, London

Behind the scenes at the Framing Department | The National Gallery, London


Harriet O’Neill, Vivmar Curatorial Assistant: When visitors come to the National Gallery they don’t necessarily come to look at the picture frames, they come to look at the pictures themselves. But when you start looking at frames you realise that they’re incredibly rich. They can be bold, they can be plain, they can be highly decorative. They’re really interesting when they’re original or integral to the work of art and actually might even be an extension of their meaning. But in every case they’re essential to how we look at and experience paintings. Here in the Framing Department a lot of research is done into every frame in the National Gallery. Central to the research methodology is these framing dossiers, which really contain the history of the framing of the specific work of art. The Sansovino exhibition was inspired by a reframing decision made by Peter Schade in 2012 when he discovered that there was a frame that would fit Titian’s Fracastoro, which had been cleaned and confirmed to be by Titian in the previous year. The philosophy of the Framing Department is to try and find frames which are roughly of the same period and date as the works of art that they’re going to surround And the Framing Department at the moment is headed by Peter Schade who has a particular interest in historic frames. Peter Schade, Head of Framing: This is a frame that we recently bought. It’s a Spanish early 17th century frame, a so-called Herrera frame. Very idiosyncratic like many Spanish frames are. Much of it has got original surface, quite a lot of the gilding is very beautifully preserved. But at some point, other parts of it must have been damaged and were repaired, and were repaired quite badly, or repaired with the wrong sensitivity. For instance, you can see here that those two are the original Spanish 17th century jewel-like shapes, very hard and sharp, and actually quite flat. And then in the 20th century, they applied these slightly too tall, slightly too fat and slightly too bulbous-looking repairs, and actually there are a lot on this length. Luckily they’re a little bit too big, so what I’m going to do is, I’m just going to carve them smaller rather than to knock them off and put other repairs on, but then, they’re sound in many other ways, and taking them off and gluing other pieces on might damage some more of the original substance whereas just recarving these existing repairs is probably a gentler way of making it look right. Because the frames are still fully-functioning as frames in the Gallery, they have to be fit to house paintings. We resize them or we restore them. We copy frames altogether from scratch. I carve frames. We gesso them, we gild them, and then we age them. It’s a very subtle process to make them look convincingly like old frames. We also repair frames. Quite a lot of our paintings have still got 19th century frames. And quite a lot of those are composition frames where the ornaments are not carved in wood, but made out of plaster. A very important part of my work is not just repairing frames, or making frames, but it is front of a computer finding old frames that we can acquire for the Gallery. We’ve managed to complete the purchase of a beautiful Venetian frame for a painting by Titian. When we have a frame here on sale or return, on consideration, we have a full-sized reproduction made of the painting, put it into the frame, so that I can then take it into the gallery and show it to the curator to discuss it and get his approval for a reframing. Matthias Wivel, Curator of 16th Century Italian
Paintings: It really does make a difference for the painting, compared to the existing frame that we’re now replacing. Peter Schade: I think it makes a huge difference. The existing frame is much later. It’s a 17th century French frame. But apart from it being a frame in bad condition, it’s also a frame very unsuitable for the painting. It really crowds the composition. It crowds it, and therefore flattens it, I think. Matthias Wivel: And makes it recede. Peter Schade: To be able to buy frames of this quality, we need the support of outside donors. And in this case, for the first time ever, we approached the general public to take an interest and to actively support, with relatively small amounts of money, this acquisition. We hope that this frame will enhance the way the painting is displayed in the gallery and even to people who don’t look at the frame, the painting will hopefully look better. Some will look at the frame and will be able to enjoy the frame as part of the painting.

4 thoughts on “Behind the scenes at the Framing Department | The National Gallery, London”

  1. Marvellous. I'm staggered though by how little exposure your wonderful videos seem to get. Does no one know you're THE NATIONAL GALLERY??!?!? Thank you for sharing this tidbit of insight into frames.

  2. The National Gallery runs a course every week on Stories of Art. It has felt a great privilege to have had both these lovely chaps address us as part of it. Sign up if you can!

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