The Frame Blog

Articles, interviews and reviews to do with antique and modern picture frames

Charles Henry Savory: The Practical Carver and Gilder

The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide, and picture frame makers’ companion was a handbook for modest commercial and amateur craftsmen which enjoyed unexpected popularity in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, running to five editions between c.1874 and c.1877 [1], and continuing to be reprinted until at least 1900. But who was the author?

1 COVER of Practical carver & gilder smThe Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide, and picture frame makers’ companion, ‘By a Practical Hand’, cover of the fourth edition, c.1877: published in London by Kent & Co., and in Cirencester by C.H. Savory

Many people who are interested in the history of picture frames will have come across this book; it pops up in bibliographies, it graces countless libraries, and copies of it are for sale ubiquitously on the internet. It gives a fascinating picture of practices, recipes and fashions at what might be called the High Street end of the market during the last quarter of the 19th century. It doesn’t do, perhaps, precisely what it says on the can – there isn’t any real information on carving; but what it does cover can be summarized from the contents pages: Mouldings; Picture and Looking-glass Frames; Plate Glass; Silvering Plate Glass (I don’t think that you’re expected to try this at home); Composition Ornaments; Gilder’s Tools; Preparations Used in Gilding; Gilding; Interior and Exterior Gilding; Cleaning and Restoration of Oil Paintings; Picture Frames and Their Manufacture (5 pages); Mitreing Picture Frames; Mounting Pictures; Fitting-up and Hanging Pictures; Mount Cutting; French Polishing, Varnishing and Staining; Receipts and General Information.

2 Book Title page of 4th ed sm The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide…, title page of the fourth edition

One edition or earlier, slender version seems to have been called The Amateur Picture Frame Maker’s Instruction Book, and sold for sixpence. The fourth edition of The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide had 201 pages, covering all the various chapters indicated, and cost ‘Two Shillings and Sixpence’ (12.5 pence) – an increase of 500% over three or four years. It evidently fulfilled a need: a lacuna of instruction in the growing market for cheaper, mass-produced frames, affordable by many more people of all sorts of conditions and classes, which reflected the similarly vibrant market for economic versions of other ‘luxury’ goods during the 19th century. As the writer states in his preface,

‘If any comprehensive book on the subjects treated on had been published, this volume would not have been written, but it is intended to supply a want, and a measure of success is anticipated in consequence.

If I get appreciative readers who can say in the words of Tennyson-

“Well hast thou done, –                                                                                              In setting round thy first experiment                                                                With royal framework of wrought gold”,

the effort will not have been in vain.’

3 Back page with carving kit sm

The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide…, advertisement page of the fourth edition

For a while, this book was categorized as anonymous in twentieth century bibliographies of picture framing history, or under its author’s nom de plume, ‘A Practical Hand’, but later it was given to its publisher and provincial printer, C.H. Savory of Cirencester – probably because in later editions, he advertised in the back pages a patent kit – ‘The Amateur Picture Frame Maker’s Tool Chest’ – available from himself, under the guise of ‘Carver & Gilder’ rather than as the proprietor of the Steam Press, Cirencester, which printed the output of ‘A Practical Hand’. So who was this C. H. Savory, with his two distinct trades and his flourishing bestseller? Some of his history is traceable online, and some of it has been made available in this article through the kindness of Savory’s great-great-grandson.

4 Joseph Savory Indenture 1808 extract ed sm

Extract from the indenture of Joseph Savory, 1808. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory

Savory may have descended from Huguenot ancestors, although his nearer forebears were yeomen farmers in Gloucestershire [2]. His father, Joseph (1794-1866) became a cabinetmaker in Cirencester: his indenture as an apprentice survives, showing that Joseph’s father, Richard, was a staymaker, and that he paid £10 to William Eyles of Cirencester for a six-years’ apprenticeship for his son. By 1808, when this document was drawn up, apprenticeships were beginning to be abandoned for a more informal arrangement of seven years’ training, which avoided the stamp duty imposed on an indenture, but Cirencester must have been far enough from London and the South for this traditional entrance to a trade to be the norm – as it was still in Bristol, for instance, in the late 18th century [3]. The rules of apprenticeship reached back to the Statute of Artificers, passed in 1563, and the sections governing them were only repealed in 1814; apprenticeships continued to form an appreciably important method of training in the skills of various trades until the mid-19th century.

The price Richard Savory paid for his son to become a cabinetmaker is just below the median cost of £11 in the late 18th century [4]. Averages were inflated by the greater cost for these places paid in London and Bristol, and the higher prices of apprenticeships in e.g the law, so £10 was probably slightly above the average for a provincial town, and indicates that William Eyles was a craftsman of good standing who could offer valuable instruction. As an investment it obviously paid off; the long hours expected of an apprentice over six years produced a level of craftsmanship which could comfortably maintain a man and his family, all being well.

5 Joseph Savory father of CHS 1833 ed

I.G Green, Portrait of Joseph Savory, 1833. Courtesy of Richard Savory.

By 1833, at the age of 39, Joseph was married and had a five year-old son, Charles Henry; in that year he had small portraits painted of himself, his wife Mary Ann, and Charles, looking prosperous, flourishing, and well turned-out.

6 Charles H Savory as a boy aged 5 1833 ed I.G Green, Portrait of Charles Henry Savory, aged five, 1833. Courtesy of Richard Savory.

Nine years later, in 1842, Charles was apprenticed in his turn, this time to a printer, Henry Smith of Cirencester. His term was seven years, and the cost to Joseph Savory was £15. It’s interesting that there should have been such a variation in the trades followed by these three generations; a route from farming stock, through a staymaker and cabinetmaker to a printer, argues that there was little room for businesses in a town the size of Cirencester to admit more than one master craftsman and his apprentice, and that the sons of the house had to move on, into whatever trade might offer.

7 Charles H Savory 1842 Indenture as printer s apprentice ed sm Indenture of Charles Henry Savory, 1842. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory

Charles Savory must have been as thoroughly inducted into his particular business as his father had been. According to the terms of the indenture, he was ‘to be in his Master’s service from six o’clock in the morning till nine o’clock at night from Lady Day to Michaelmas, and as soon as it is light in the morning till nine o’clock at night from Michaelmas to Lady Day, except half an hour for breakfast, and one hour for dinner and half an hour for tea (except on Sundays)…’ He was to receive one shilling a week during the first five years, £10 at the end of the sixth year, and £15 at the end of the seventh. Thus he emerged from his novitiate aged twenty-one, with at least £15 to start up his own business wherever he could, or to enter as a skilled journeyman into another printing workshop.

The next we hear of him is in the 1851 census, when at the age of twenty-three he is a printer and compositor in Lincolnshire: driven across the width of the country to seek employment in his trade. He returned to Cirencester some unknown time after this census return, and seems to have occupied premises in Coxwell Street to begin with, at the ‘General Printing and Ruling Office’.

8 CHS &wife Mary nee Beck with eldest child MEBS 1858 ed sm

Charles Savory with his wife Mary (née Beck), and his eldest child, 1858. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory

By 1858, aged thirty, he had married Mary Beck of Pewsey, Wiltshire, and had a child of his own (Mary Elizabeth Beck Savory); he was evidently prospering, and like his father, Joseph, had his young family recorded – this time by the still fairly avant-garde process of photography [5]. He moved further into the centre of the town, to St John Street (previously, and latterly again, Black Jack Street; Slater’s Directory of Gloucestershire shows that he was in Black Jack Street in 1859), where he operated as ‘Printer, Stationer, Bookseller, Bookbinder’, and, after twelve years in business, installed ‘The Wharfdale Patent Cylinder Printing Machine’.

9 No 6 Black Jack Street 2 ed No 2 St John Street (now no 6 Black Jack Street), Cirencester

Savory was evidently interested in technological advances; he saw how new crafts such as photography might be combined with his own skills in printing, since the business he began in Cirencester grew to include fine art prints and postcards, as well as illustrated books, and one of his sons became a professional photographer. Perhaps the advent of photography also spurred the combination of his printing business with the framing workshop on the same premises, so that everything could be executed in-house. There is no evidence that he learnt in any formal way how to produce picture frames; he may have referred to himself as a ‘Carver and Gilder’ in his book, but almost no carving is involved in any of its pages – instead, it is a manual which concentrates on using other new processes to produce its results, as we can see in the chapter entitled, ‘Mouldings’:

‘There was a time in the history of the trade when the carver and gilder who had an order for a frame, had either to make, or get made, the pattern moulding required; but with an increased population, and higher intelligence, a taste for the fine arts has become more popular, and consequently the carver, gilder, and picture frame maker has been patronized to a much greater extent, especially since the introduction of the beautiful art of photography. Within the last quarter of a century mouldings manufactories have sprung up in London, and in some of the principal towns in England; in such demand have been picture frame and other mouldings, that the engineer has applied his knowledge for a more rapid production, and has produced a machine that, by the aid of steam power, will turn out an enormous amount of work.’

10 H Morell mouldings sm

Hyman Morell, trade catalogue from 1910, republished in facsimile by Dover Books as Victorian Wooden Molding and Frame Designs, 1992; p.20

Savory gives a couple of paragraphs to methods of copying ornamental mouldings by hand-carving, using different planes; but it is obvious that these would have been fairly primitive patterns, and that the main thrust of his activity relied on purchasing ready-made lengths of mouldings – turned out by machine-driven lathes, or embossed in soft woods, or covered in applied compo decoration. The ‘four classes of Mouldings’ which he discusses are, first, lengths of plain wood with various profiles; second, ‘Mouldings in the White’, or the same lengths ‘covered with whitening ready for the gilder’; third, ‘German Mouldings’; and lastly, ‘Veneered Mouldings’.

‘German Mouldings…are used for common work, and for those whose means will not allow them to order gold frames’.

They are one step further on from the whitened mouldings, in that they have been whitened and

‘then covered with silver leaf, after which a lacquer is spread over them, giving them a gold colour…They are washable’.

Savory doesn’t have a very good opinion of these imported mouldings (‘usually made with very common wood’); instead, his book points the reader in the direction of ‘Geo. Rees’ mouldings…A Complete List of Mouldings with Designs and Price Lists of Mounts, Ovals, &c., &c., post free for 2 stamps’, and he also carries an advert for ‘George Rees, Savoy House, 115, Strand, and 41, 42 & 43, Russell Street, Covent Garden’.

Rees’s lists of mouldings (in which the profiles and decorations would have been described briefly, but probably not illustrated) were transient records which have disappeared; it was not until engraved drawings of the decorated profiles were added to these catalogues that they began to survive, so that the ones we still have tend to date from the later 19th or the early 20th century. An example is Hyman Morell’s 50th anniversary catalogue, published in 1910 (above), and now republished in facsimile.

11 Ashworth Kirk & Co sm

Ashworth, Kirk & Co Ltd, Nottingham, illustration from original catalogue, first quarter of 20th century

Another example is Ashworth Kirk’s catalogue (c.1920s?), which demonstrates how sophisticated these books became in the 20th century. When pre-cut and ready-ornamented mouldings of such elaboration were available for the provincial workshop to buy ‘in twelve-feet lengths’ (as Savory points out), the skills the framemaker required no longer included carving to any extent; just the ability to assemble the frame rapidly – but then, of course, usually to gild it.

The gilding stage seems to be where Savory’s practical skills came in. He takes around 40 pages to explain the ins and outs of gilding; it is by far the longest section in the book, and its elaboration indicates that he has been speaking from experience:

‘A piece of parchment…is nailed half way round the [gilder’s cushion], and is meant to keep the gold leaf from flying off, as the least disturbance of the atmosphere is enough to send the gold flying… The gilder…carefully takes up a leaf of gold, and dexterously brings the metal to the front of the cushion, when with a slight puff of wind from his mouth on to the centre of the leaf, it is made to lie perfectly flat.’

He had been apprenticed at the age of fourteen, when he had effectively left home for seven years; however, living with a cabinetmaker for all of his childhood, he may very probably have been taught by his father how to gild, and have joined in with the workshop activities, parcel-gilding details on furniture, boxes and cabinets, and even perhaps the odd frame. Children were drafted into work at an early age during the 19th century; this was a matter of course, and – if they could help with a family business – they very frequently did so.

12 Gilders tools ed The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide…, ‘Gilder’s tools’, p.52

This theory is given weight by Savory himself; the chapter on the actual task of gilding (after the chapters on tools and preparations) begins:

‘If there is any knowledge fully in our possession, it is certainly that which comes to us by experience… There may be objections raised as to the following methods, but the rules laid down are from practical knowledge, and have been followed thousands of times and produced capital work… It is likely some of the cheap gilding executed in London and other large places may not have the amount of work bestowed upon it as is recommended in the following pages, but our object is to lead those seeking information in a path that will crown their efforts with success.’

These may well be the sentiments of a man who is aware of having not been apprenticed in the regular way of his youth to a carver and gilder, and who may feel that his instructions are therefore open to the criticism of professionals, but who has equally been taught the skill of gilding by an expert, and has often practised it. This would also explain the emphasis on practice: The Practical Carver and Gilder’s Guide…, ‘By a Practical Hand’.

It may also explain why he drops into his book all sorts of references – quotations from poems, Shakespeare and the Bible, and nods to examples of decorative work in various locations:

‘The ancient and classic cities of old attest by their ruins the antiquity of the art of carving. Capitals, columns, vases, and friezes show, as the poet Cowper wrote, that they did “Not forget the carving and the gilding”…’

…or, on double gilding:

‘That work of this class is superior there is no doubt, and that it was thought so in the time of Shakespeare may be inferred from the speech of Fabian, in Twelfth Night, who says – “The double gilt of this opportunity you let time wash off”.’

He wrote the first version of his book when he was around forty-six; at that point, according to the census taken three years earlier, in 1871, he was supporting not only his wife, Mary, and three of his children (Mary, 13; Charles, 5; and Frederick Mortimer, 3), but his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, and his niece and his nephew (6 and 2), with the help of one live-in seventeen year-old servant. Two other children (Ernest Wyman, 9, and Ada, 7) were probably away at school. He owned an apparently successful printing press, having invested a few years before in his Wharfdale patent cylinder printing machine, and was running a framemaking and gilding business on the side.

However, with five children and other dependents, extra money must always have been welcome, and perhaps – since he was already publishing books by other authors [6] – he started writing himself, in an effort to earn a little more for the maintenance of his large household. His own books (as far as anonymous works can be attributed) include The Paper Hanger, Painter, Grainer, and Decorator’s Assistant: containing full information as to the best methods practised in paper hanging, panelling, room decoration, and recipes, ‘By a Decorator’, 1878 (?), and also Life and anecdotes of Jemmy Wood, the eccentric banker, merchant and draper, of Gloucester. Also an account of the remarkable trial with reference to his will…, 1883 [7]. None of them seems to have had the success of The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide…, with its multiple editions, but this one book may have helped Savory to survive.

13 EWS Steam Press receipt for frame 1879 ed

Receipt for framing a picture, signed by Ernest W. Savory, 1879. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory.

By the time of the next census, in 1881, his eldest son, Ernest Wyman Savory, is working in the family business as ‘Assistant (Bookseller)’, and Savory himself appears as a ‘Printer & Bookseller’’ He is head of a family which now includes his wife, his children Ernest (19), Ada (17 and still a ‘Scholar’) and Charles (14 and also a ‘Scholar’), a boarder, and one eighteen year-old servant. His eldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, is already married to Thomas Bullock, and is in possession of a two year-old son; his other son, Frederick Mortimer, is 12 or 13, and must have been away at school. The presence of a boarder argues that finances may still have needed propping up, but that Ada at least had not been removed from school as soon as she reached fourteen. There is no mention in the census of the carving & gilding business, but it was obviously continuing (see the receipt, above), and C. H. Savory must have passed on his skills to his son, Ernest. Sadly, he didn’t survive to see what Ernest made of them. Two years later, at the early age of 55, Charles died – possibly of overwork – and was buried in Chesterton Cemetery.

14 Charles H Savory Summary of willHe left an estate which would be worth around £130,000 today [8], but which almost certainly included the value of his house. Ernest was now, at 21, the head of the family and the inheritor of the printing press and the carving & gilding workshop. He must have been taught everything his father knew, since he kept both businesses going – and more, caused them to flourish. Six years after his father’s death, Ernest, together with his younger brother, Frederick Mortimer Savory, appear in the Cirencester trades directory for 1889 (extracted from Kelly’s Directory of Gloucestershire):

Savory Ernest W. Printer Publisher Book Seller & Gen Stationer 1&2 St John Street
Savory Ernest Wyman Carver & Gilder, Picture Frame & Looking-Glass Manufacturer 1&2 St John Street

Savory Frederick Mortimer Art Photographer 8 Castle Street

15 EW Savory Pair of giltwood & compo girandoles PICTURE only

Bonhams, Knightsbridge, Sale 17879: ‘Period design’, lot 68

In proof of Ernest’s success, Bonhams sold in 2010 a pair of ‘late Victorian giltwood and composition girandoles by E.W. Savory of Cirencester’, which bears out his dedication to his father’s workshop – and possibly proves the worth of the knowledge behind The Practical Carver and Gilders’ Guide. The lot notes record labels (which have sadly not been photographed) on the backs of the girandoles, describing their maker:



St John Street, CIRENCESTER,

Framing, Gilding and Re-gilding…

Patronised by H.R.H. the PRINCE OF WALES

It would be very nice to know in what way, exactly, Ernest had been patronized by the Prince of Wales, but it was certainly an accolade which his father would have appreciated. Another specimen from the workshop was sold by Christie’s in 1999; the label on this looking-glass credits ‘Savory Carver and Gilder’, and may therefore date from the time immediately after Charles’s death in 1883, when Ernest was not yet resigned to using his own name instead of his father’s. In this case, it may after all have been C.H. Savory who had received royal patronage.

Ernest married a Cirencester girl in 1888, and they had seven children. The printing business grew. Ernest printed – for example – a series of eight county maps, which utilized every spare scrap of space for advertising, and sold for sixpence each.  He continued to diversify, and produced chromolithographic postcards – comic, glamorous, landscape, and reproductions of works by contemporary artists; also, for instance, signed portraits of composers.

16 EWS Ltd taken on VE Day 1945 edE.W. Savory, Ltd, Fine Art Publishers, Park Row Studios, Bristol, on V.E. Day, 1945. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory

In 1889 he opened an outpost of the Stream Press in Bristol, and in 1895 moved the whole business from Cirencester to Bristol. By the time the 20th century opened he and his family were living in the elegance of no 4, Rodney Place, Clifton, now occupied by the Rodney Hotel, and by 1906 E. W. Savory Ltd (no longer the Steam Press) had moved into Park Row Studios, now part of the University of Bristol [9].

17 EWS in his studio with some of his works Unknown companion but probably another Bristol artist c1910. Ernest Wyman Savory (left) in his studio, c. 1910. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory

The carving and gilding workshop seems to have been abandoned with the move from Cirencester. Ernest himself painted, but there is no indication as to whether he framed his own paintings [10]. The business had come a very long way from C. H. Savory’s first printing workshop in Cirencester; but although Ernest was entrepreneurial, driven and ambitious, he was building on his father’s own related qualities – and perhaps also on some of the rewards reaped by the unlikely success of a small craftsman’s manual.

18 Steam Press logo sm

19 CHS 1860s ed sm

Charles Henry Savory in the 1860s. Photo courtesy of Richard Savory


With grateful thanks to Richard Savory for his help with his family’s history and for the use of so many photographs.

[1] There seem to be no publication dates connected with the book until 1900, long after Savory’s death. In his December 2012 addenda to his book, The Art of the Picture Frame, Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, National Portrait Gallery, 1996, Jacob Simon gives this assessment of dating the various editions: ‘The Practical Carver and Gilder’s Guide seems to have been issued in a series of editions as follows: 1st ed., 1873 or later (probably 1874), 140 pp + [xii] pp adverts; 2nd ed., 1874 or later (perhaps 1875), 176 pp; 3rd ed., 1874 or later (perhaps 1876), 176 pp + [viii] pp adverts; 4th ed., c.1877, 201 pp + [i] p. adverts; 5th ed., c.1877 or later, 205 pp + [iii] pp adverts. Authorship of the 5th edition is given to Charles H. Savory: earlier editions are described as ‘By a Practical Hand’.’ See addendum for p.194, note 38.

These dates truncate even further the time lapse between editions than the generally promulgated dates used by secondhand bookshops (1874-85), and reveal how popular and what a bestseller it must have been.

[2] Richard Savory, ‘I fairly blessed that bullet’: Harry Savory’s war, unpublished booklet, Foreword, p.3.

[3] Malcolm Kitch, ‘Apprenticeship and occupations in Southern England, 1710-1760’, Research Paper 24, Brighton, 1996, p. 5

[4] Ibid., p.8

[5] Savory’s family photograph was taken exactly 20 years after the earliest photograph of a man, taken by Daguerre in 1838, and seven years after the collodion process was introduced, bringing photography to a much wider audience.

[6] For example, in 1872, Savory published Notes on the Roman Villa, at Chedworth, Gloucestershire with a Catalogue Descriptive of the Articles Deposited in the Museum Attached to it. With a Plan, by Professor Buckman & Robert W. Hall; in 1877 he published Legends, tales, and songs in the dialect of the peasantry of Gloucestershire, with several ballads and a glossary of words in general use; he also published (undated) Joseph Stratford’s Gloucestershire Tracts: good & great men of Gloucestershire. These indicate that his publications were usually fairly slender, and local in scope. He also published a series of county directories for Gloucestershire (Savory’s County Almanack), which apparently first appeared in 1857 and carried on until 1917.

[7] They may also have included Amateur Handicraft, ‘By the Author of “The Lathe and its Uses”, “Turning for Amateurs”, etc.’, and The Amateur’s Practical Guide to Fretwork, Wood Carving, Marquetry, Buhlwork, Mitreing Picture Frames, Lattice and Verandah Work…, ‘By a Practical Hand’; and the earlier article, ‘Inscriptions: The Presbyterian Chapel, in History of the town of Cirencester, 1858.

[8] See The National Archives Currency Converter; this has not been updated after 2005, however.

[9] Richard Savory, op. cit., p. 5.

[10] Ibid. Ernest apparently had a painting accepted by the Paris Salon of 1927.

National Gallery, London: reframing Mantegna

When an atypical size, shape and type of painting is crying out for a better frame, imagination and recycling can produce a startlingly authentic solution.

NG Mantegna NG902 afterAndrea Mantegna (c.1430/31-1506), The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, (76.5 x 273 cm). National Gallery, NG902

This is a painting of Mantegna’s old age, from the very end of his career: so late that, of the four paintings intended to form a small cycle for the client, Francesco Cornaro of Venice, only this one was completed before the artist’s death. His brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, executed another, in the style and to the design of Mantegna.

Giovanni Bellini An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio after 1506 NG of Art Washington ed sm Giovanni Bellini (c.1430/35-1516), An episode from the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio, after 1506, 29 7/16 x 140 ¼ in (74.8 x 356.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington

Mantegna was intellectually and aesthetically drawn to surviving works of classical sculpture, both in the round and in bas-relief; he himself carved at least one three-dimensional statue, the figure of Sant’ Eufemia in the cathedral of Irsina, and there are three bas-relief panels in the Musée du Louvre (two bronzes and an ivory) attributed either to him or to his circle. However, he also perfected a method of emulating relief sculpture in painting – again, both in ‘bronze‘ and in ‘marble’.

Mantegna Samson & Delilah National Gallery 2 smAndrea Mantegna (c.1430/31-1506), Samson and Delilah, c.1500, (47 x 36.8 cm). National Gallery, NG1145

His series of pale, marmoreal figures set against ravishing backgrounds of faux gemstones are striking, and often paradoxically fraught with emotion: as, for example, in the panel with Delilah cutting the hair of the sleeping Samson, where the complex blend of tenderness, betrayal and vulnerability which animates the grisaille scene is echoed in the stormy sky of trompe l’oeil coloured stone. These works derive, as well as from Roman bas-relief sculptures, from antique cameos, which were eagerly collected in the 15th century, and in which the various strata of polychromatic stone were similarly carved away to present light, opaque figures against a darker coloured background.

Tazza Farnese The Farnese cup, sardonyx agate, 2nd century BC, from Hellenistic Egypt; National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Photo: Ana al’ain. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lorenzo de’ Medici owned a number of magnificent antique cameos such as the Farnese Cup; this is carved of sardonyx, agate and chalcedony, with a triad of gods and a goddess on the inside, and Medusa’s head on the outside; it is finished in exquisite detail, and was valued at ten thousand florins in an inventory of 1492 [1]. Lorenzo also called Italian craftsmen to Florence to produce contemporary examples of cameos; by the time he died, he owned a total of seventy-six items. There was an equally rich collection in the possession of the Gonzagas, dukes of Mantua, the main patrons of Mantegna for around forty years.

Roman sarcophagus C2 AD Palazzo Ducale Mantua sm Roman sarcophagus, 2nd century AD, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

Whilst the compact compositions of Mantegna’s smaller grisaille scenes, such as Samson and Delilah or Judith and Holofernes, are therefore related to the constraints of a cameo, his long, frieze-like faux-marbre paintings are influenced by the scenes carved on Roman sarcophagi. He had already, in the 1480s, begun to work on the great cycle of nine paintings known as The triumphs of Caesar, celebrating Julius Caesar’s victories in war, which utilized the conventions of murals in their organization of numerous figures as processional compositions within a shallow space. These are fully coloured, and form a sort of intermediate stage between the murals of the Camera degli sposi (1465-74), with their landscape settings, and the four grisailles he designed for Cornaro, where friezes of ‘marble’ figures are set against a completely flat ground.

Andrea Mantegna The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome 1505to06 sm

 Mantegna, The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, National Gallery

His study of antique bas-reliefs, such as sarcophagi and architectural friezes, had shown him how to choreograph a column of figures with almost no spatial depth, and to depict complex interactions between those figures. His study of cameos had demonstrated how colour could be introduced, through the imitation of polychromatic stone, to give the austerity of pale marble a sensuous twist. In 1505 he received the commission from Francesco Cornaro for a series of four scenes from Roman history which would refer to the latter’s descent from the Cornelius family. They were designed for one room, the Camerino of Cornaro’s house on the Grand Canal in Venice, and would have been displayed well above eye-level, probably within an architectural framework just below or just above the cornice. However, there is little now to indicate exactly how the framing would work; whether there would have been an intermediate wooden frame, or whether the canvases would have been installed like ceiling paintings, directly into the architectural mouldings of the room. This produces an interesting problem for the museum wanting to display Mantegna’s work in a chronologically appropriate fashion. There is no evidence of Mantegna’s own solution for framing these four designs, and the experts involved must extrapolate from analogous objects.

Giovanni Bellini to Mantegna s design An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio detail Bellini, An episode from the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio, after 1506, NGA Washington, detail

The second painting of the cycle, which was executed by Bellini and is part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection, has a frame constructed from lengths of antique, carved giltwood architectural moulding, collected specifically for the purpose by the Kress Foundation for unframed or unsuitably framed pictures [2].

Biagio d Antonio Argonauts cassone panel c1465 Met Mus NY sm(?) Biagio d’Antonio (fl.1472–1516), Scenes from the story of the Argonauts, c.1465, 24 1/8 x 60 1/8 in (61.3 x 152.7 cm) overall, gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 09.136.2 

The fact that the moulding is carved and gilded, and that Bellini’s painting is, like Mantegna’s Cult of Cybele…, exceptionally long and narrow, emphasize its likeness to the major painted panels on a cassone - for instance, this cassone panel in the Metropolitan Museum, still with its carved and gilded engaged acanthus ornament. It can also be compared, in terms of its dimensions, to a spalliera (the upright panel mounted on top of a cassone), which is often framed in similar style. Although the moulding used for the Bellini has an emphatically deep and dramatic (even Baroque) profile compared with the panel above, and might be considered overwhelming for a less strongly defined composition, this is a relatively satisfactory solution for this particular work. However, Bellini’s painting is starker than Mantegna’s, lacking the refined detail of the figures in the latter, and the opulent patterning of the marble background.

NG Mantegna NG902 before Mantegna, The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, National Gallery; previous frame

The previous frame of the Mantegna – a modern reproduction cassetta with gilded foliate corners, centres and demi-centres – demonstrates the perils of combining an apparently valid design (in terms of period and profile) with such an idiosyncratic painting. Although in cross-section the frame is minimalist and simple, it is too wide for this work; the ground colour does not harmonize with the painting, and the decoration, sited at intervals along the rails, conflicts with the compositional rhythm. However, there are other sources to look to, apart from the cassoni panels which may have inspired the frame of the Bellini.

Mantegnas house fresco detail Mantua ed sm Mantegna, Casa del Mantegna, via Acerbi, Mantua

Mantegna’s own work provides examples of ‘framing’; the frescoed façade of his house in Mantua, for instance, in which the scenes of painted figures and panels of inscriptions are contained in trompe l’oeil frames of very simple architectural ‘mouldings’.

Mantegna Madonna della tenerezza pen ink & tempera on parchment Eremitani Museum Padua loan fr priv coll smMantegna, Madonna della tenerezza, pen, ink & tempera on parchment, Musei Civici agli Eremitani, Padua (on permanent loan from a private collection)

An even more relevant model might be the ruined classical building in the background of the Madonna della tenerezza. Here, Mantegna has offset one of the most beautiful drawings of a Madonna and Child in the history of art by a painted setting: a small weed-grown courtyard, a distant landscape, and the remains of a Roman temple.

Mantegna Madonna della tenerezza detailMantegna, Madonna della tenerezza, detail

A carved panel like one of his own grisaille paintings decorates the building above the entablature; it seems intended as a marble bas-relief (possibly depicting the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs – the conflict of the pagan world, redeemed by the birth of Christ), in a frame of a stone such as jasper. Here again, the moulding is extremely plain and simple – a cassetta, with the suggestion of fillets and small friezes.

It was obviously impossible to look out for a frame of this sort with the right dimensions for the painting, since nothing so eccentrically proportioned could have survived, once separated from its contents. Peter Schade, Head of the Framing Department of the National Gallery, is, however, nothing if not resourceful; he took a parallel route to that of the National Gallery, Washington, when framing their Bellini with an antique architectural moulding – although the result is completely different in effect.

NG cassapance ed sm Walnut cassapanca, acquired by the framing department, National Gallery

He found an antique walnut cassapanca (above), with enough continuous, plain architectural mouldings to provide the material for framing the Mantegna. A cassapanca is a bench, in use from quite early in the Renaissance through the 17th century, and revived in the 19th century.  The seating part is an abnormally long and narrow chest, providing extra storage in a world with few cupboards, and there are often a back, arms and feet. The whole thing may be elaborately carved, parcel-gilt, painted, or inlaid with bone, ivory or marquetry.

NG cassapanca used for Mantegna frame ed smWalnut cassapanca, detail

Few of them survive in perfect condition; this one had a new base moulding at the end, but the chest compartment was otherwise intact, enabling the framing of the panels to be extracted and reconstituted to fit the Mantegna[3].

NG Mantegna after detail 2 smMantegna, The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome, 1505-06, National Gallery; detail of new frame

This solution has the advantage of using antique wood and existing mouldings, recycling a piece of furniture which had passed the point of rejuvenation, providing a type of frame observable in Mantegna’s own works, and also harmonizing perfectly with the colours and tones of the painting. In all respects, this is an admirable and imaginative example of reframing.

NG Mantegna NG902 after

NG Mantegna after detail 3 sm


With many thanks to Peter Schade of the National Gallery for providing images and information used in this article; thanks also to Steve Wilcox of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here

National Gallery reframings: a Venetian pastiglia frame> here

Reframing the Renaissance: Museums and Madonnas> here

[1] In the Archivio di Stato, Florence; see The art collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

[2] Information from Steve Wilcox, Senior Conservator of Frames, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

[3] See also the frame of Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a man, c.1475-76. National Gallery NG1141, in National Gallery, London: a Venetian pastiglia frame.

Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues – an exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, recently hosted the exhibition Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues, from 9 September to 3 November 2014; it is reviewed here by Oksana Lysenko, Senior Academic at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Poster sm

This was the second exhibition of picture frames in Russia (the first, The clothing of pictures: Russian frames from the 18th to the 20th century, took place in 2005 in the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg). The first exhibition displayed the frame itself as a work of art, focusing attention on features such as its ornamentation and finish, the technique of its manufacture, and its particular style. The purpose of the exhibition in the Tretyakov Gallery, however, was to show the rôle of the frame in the perception of the painting, so most of the exhibits were presented together with the pictures they contain.

The exhibition curator, Dr Tatiana Karpova, is a specialist in the history of art, and this aspect is particularly dear to her. Back in the late 1980s, when Dr Karpova was curator of the department of 19th paintings, she realized, as she says, how much the frame means to the work of art as a whole. Later, when she was working on the academic catalogue of the State Tretyakov Gallery, she wanted some of the illustrations to include the frames as well as the paintings, because ‘picture and frame in some cases are one integrated work of art. And if the paintings are reproduced without their frames, some of the information, some important shades of meaning are lost.’ Unfortunately, this idea did not receive any support and was never carried out.

The recent exhibition, Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues, included work from the 18th to the 20th century, as well as some early Russian icons such as the Virgin Hodegetria.

Virgin Hodegetria 2nd half C13 Tempera on panel State Tretyakov Gall Moscow sm

Virgin Hodegetria, second half 13th (?) century, tempera on panel, State Tretyakov Gallery

In mediaeval Russia the only genre of painting was sacred or devotional (in other words, the icon) until the end of the 17th century. The framing of icons consisted of a painted margin (in a different colour from that of the icon itself, and frequently painted with images of the saints or inscriptions, which expand upon the meaning of the icon), a riza (the covering of an icon, usually of metal, and often enamelled, set with precious stones, or decorated with beads) , or the iconostasis (the great carved wooden screen or ‘wall’ which holds a group of icons).

Secular works of art – and, above all, portraits – together with moveable frames, appeared in Russia in the last quarter of the 17th century. Unfortunately, frames by Russian craftsmen of that period have not been preserved at all, while only an extremely small number of frames from the first third of the 18th century have survived. Sadly, there are no examples at all from the early 18th century in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, so the earliest examples of secular art in the exhibition were two framed works from the middle and last third of the18th century. The first was the frame executed for a portrait of the Countess V.A. Sheremeteva by Georg Groot. Unfortunately, in the Soviet period a very low-quality restoration of the frame was carried out (although even the word ‘restoration’ seems inappropriate here), and the gilding was covered with bronze powder in an oil medium. It is therefore impossible today to appreciate fully this work of art – its beautiful carvings hidden beneath layers of coarse renovation. To reveal the original gilding would necessitate a long period of laborious and expensive work; still, I hope that one day we may be able see the frame in its authentic form – even if the 18th century water-gilding is worn (possibly down to the bole or gilder’s clay), since that would only make it more beautiful, and emphasize the beauty of the carving.

Dmitry Levitzky Portrait of Prince A Golitsyn 1772 sm

Dmitry Levitzky, Portrait of Prince Alexander Golitsyn, 1772, frame from last third 18th century, State Tretyakov Gallery

The second 18th century frame in the exhibition was a magnificent example of the NeoClassical style, which became fashionable during the reign of Catherine II. It was apparently created for the portrait of Prince Alexander Golitsyn by Dmitry Levitsky. This frame is a unique work of art, and in a rare state of preservation for a Russian frame of the 18th century. It has a characteristic NeoClassical profile, with a wide plain frieze, outset corners, and carved ornament in the form of elegant garlands of bunched oak leaves – which derive originally from French Louis XIII frames – and a bow of ribbon. It is finished in matt and burnished water-gilding on a red bole (in some places there are also repairs in bronze powder bound in oil).

Among the 19th century frames exhibited were both patrons’ frames and artists’ frames, in a variety of techniques and styles. Frames selected by patrons show us the fashion of the era, and the taste of specific people from different social classes. Artists’ frames should be understood in a wider context. When the creator of a work chooses a frame for it, this is not only, or so much, to follow the trends of fashion or a contemporary style of interior decoration: the frame chosen by an artist for his painting shows us rather how he intended it to be seen by spectators, what aspects of the picture he wanted to emphasize, and what he particularly wanted to focus attention on. An artist’s frame is therefore extremely important for the picture it holds.

K Makovsky In the artist s studio 1881 C sm

Konstantin Makovsky, In the artist’s studio, carved giltwood artist’s frame, second half of the 19th century, State Tretyakov Gallery

Among the 19th century artists’ frames in this exhibition was the splendid setting of Konstantin Makovsky’s In the artist’s studio of 1881. The painting shows Makovsky’s son in an interior decorated with antique furniture and tableware, carpets, weapons, and brocade, and the carved frame both complements and emphasizes this luxurious setting.

Sansovino frame NG London ed sm

 Italian ‘Sansovino’ frame, c. 1590, National Gallery, London

The influence of the Italian ‘Sansovino’ style can clearly be seen in the design of Makovsky’s frame: something like, for instance, this late 16th century example in the collection of the National Gallery, London.

A whole section of the exhibition was dedicated to Vasiliy Vereshchagin and his frames – which is logical, as he paid great attention to the patterns he used for his paintings. Every single frame was either chosen by the artist, or created from his drawings.

V Vereshchagin The Apotheosis of War 1871 ed sm

Vasiliy Vereshchagin, The Apotheosis of War, 1871, artist’s frame with moulded ornaments, State Tretyakov Gallery

V Vereshchagin The Apotheosis of War 1871 detail sm

Vasiliy Vereshchagin, The Apotheosis of War, 1871, detail with the title of the painting

V Vereshchagin Icon of St Nicholas Pinega 1894 ed smVasiliy Vereshchagin, Icon of St. Nicholas from the upper reaches of the river Pinega, 1894, in frame with carved ornament (1890s), State Tretyakov Gallery

Vereshchagin painted series of pictures, each series being dedicated to a specific topic (there is one on the war of 1812, and a series for Turkestan, one for Russia, and one for Japan); and for each series he designed a specific type of frame, with a carefully-considered profile and ornament.

The exhibition, Precious Framing…, was very large, so that the exhibits overflowed the rooms selected for it on two floors of the Engineering Building of the Tretyakov Gallery. Therefore, a number of the frames and paintings remained – although part of the exhibition – hanging in their usual places in the museum’s permanent exhibition, provided with special detailed captions.

Ilya Repin Emperor Alexander III receiving rural district elders 1886 B ed sm

Ilya Repin, Emperor Alexander III receiving rural district elders in the courtyard of the Petrovsky Palace in Moscow, 1886, carved giltwood & polychrome frame, State Tretyakov Gallery

Among the latter works was a painting by Ilya Repin, Emperor Alexander III receiving rural district elders…(1886), in a carved giltwood frame with rich and elaborate ornament, including the small coat of arms of the Russian Empire (at the top centre) and twenty-four coats of arms of the provinces and regions of Russia, as well as zoömorphic and anthropomorphic figures, floral and geometric ornament.

Ilya Repin detail ed sm

Ilya Repin, Emperor Alexander III receiving rural district elders…, 1886, detail with polychrome coat of arms and zoömorphic figures

One of the most striking exhibits was a unique frame for Vasiliy Pukirev’s painting, The unequal marriage (1862). This picture is autobiographical, depicting the artist’s mistress who was forced into a marriage of convenience.

V Pukirev The Unequal Marriage 1862 sm

Vasiliy Pukirev (1832-90), The Unequal Marriage, 1862, carved giltwood frame by craftsman Grebensky (fl.1860-70s), State Tretyakov Gallery

Pukirev painted himself behind the bride (on the extreme right, with arms folded and white gloves), and between the heads of the young bride and the old groom – a rare case! – he also painted a portrait of craftsman Grebensky, the man who executed the frame.

V Pukirev The Unequal Marriage 1862 detail sm

Vasiliy Pukirev, The Unequal Marriage, 1862, detail, with head of Grebensky at left

Grebensky and Pukirev were friends, and according to the memoirs of N. Mudrogel (who worked in the Gallery under Pavel Tretyakov), ‘…when Pukirev painted this picture, Grebensky decided to make a frame for it’. He carved a garland of bare withered stems intertwined with fresh blooming flowers, so that the theme of unequal union is continued in the decoration of the frame.

P Konchalovsky The green glass ed sm

Petr Konchalovsky, The green glass,  1933, in carved gilt frame, second half of the 19th century, State Tretyakov Gallery

The 20th century is particularly a time of artists’ frames – the most interesting settings being those designed or chosen by the artists themselves for their works. In the exhibition these frames were displayed in two halls, which covered work from the early 20th to the early 21st century. One of the earliest was, for example, Petr Konchalovsky’s still life, The green glass (1933), which was probably painted especially to fit its carved and gilded frame (second half of the 19th century). Picture and frame marry surprisingly harmoniously: the flamboyant pierced floral ornament of the latter echoing the brushwork and impasto of the painting, whilst the play of light on the gilded surface of the frame mirrors the reflections of light on the metal surface of the painted flagon. The bright yellow ochre of this flagon corresponds very closely to the gilding of the frame; and these rich golds emphasize the green glass at the centre of the canvas.

Unfortunately, there was only a single example of the work of Russian avant-garde artists in the exhibition: Ivan Klyun’s The running landscape (1913), in its frame made from simple strips of wood. This type of setting is characteristic of works by the Russian avant-garde.


Nikolai Suetin, Portrait of a woman, early 1950s, in the artist’s frame, c.1930s(?), Private collection

However, this gap was filled in other ways – illustrations of some of them were published in the exhibition catalogue to accompany my article, ‘The 20th century: the era of artists’ frames’: for example, this frame for the portrait of a woman (early 1950s) by Nikolai Suetin, a disciple and follower of Kazimir Malevich. Suetin designed and made the frame himself.

This type of frame derives originally from Malevich’s Architecton;  its design is based on a combination of vertical and horizontal planes of different widths, in accordance with the principles of proportionality and dynamic equilibrium. Suetin made this particular frame before the picture, perhaps in the 1930s, and the portrait (which is unfinished) was painted to fit it. In order to harmonize painting and frame he toned the latter, in colours identical to and in tune with those of the of portrait.

K Malevich Three female figures early 1930s Artist frame sm

Kazimir Malevich, Three female figures, early 1930s, a mock-up of the painting in the artist’s frame (which is 19th century & signed by Malevich); painting & frame both held separately in State Russian Museum

Kazimir Malevich’s own frames are particularly interesting, especially those from 1928-32. Whilst studying his frames I found two original frames chosen by the artist himself, in the collection of the State Russian Museum. One of these, for the painting, Three female figures (early 1930s), even has the artist’s signature on the reverse. From 1928 and into the 1930s, he specifically chose old – generally 19th century – gilded frames with compo ornament for his paintings. For Malevich the frame was a vital part of the picture, influencing how it was perceived by spectators. Malevich did not use either linear or aerial perspective in his work, unlike artists of the previous centuries; he experimented. In pictures from his Second peasant cycle, Malevich creates perspective through a combination of carefully considered bands of colour (as in Three female figures). And the antique gilt frame, with its hollow profile, emphasizes this complex perspectival recession created by the artist.

K Malevich Three female figures early 1930s Museum frame sm

Kazimir Malevich, Three female figures, early 1930s, hanging today in a museum frame, State Russian Museum

When Malevich’s paintings from 1928-32 are exhibited today in modern baguette or shadow frames (as they are, unfortunately, in the State Russian Museum, which possesses the largest collection of works by Malevich), it distorts the artist’s intentions.

Malevich exh 1932 B sm

Hall of Malevich at the exhibition “The Artists of the RSFSR over fifteen years”, 1932, with Three female figures in its antique frame, bottom right of back wall

The State Tretyakov Gallery must have some of Malevich’s frames in its collection, since several of his late works came to the museum in his lifetime, together with their frames. During the Soviet period pictures and frames became separated, and 19th century paintings may have been inserted into Malevich’s frames. I hope that, over time, his pictures from 1928 to 1932 – both in the State Russian Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery – will be reunited with the artist’s frames or their analogues (which it would be possible to select on the basis of old photos, like the one above), and then Malevich’s intentions will be fulfilled.

M Vrubel Demon defeated 1902 sm

Michael Vrubel, Demon defeated, 1902, in contemporary frame with gypsum ornament, State Tretyakov Gallery

Whilst the exhibition, Precious frames…, was in preparation, many of the frames included underwent restoration. That of the frame of Michael Vrubel’s Demon defeated (1902) was especially interesting. This particular artist’s frame is decorated with velvet, and with gypsum ornament in the form of a garland of laurel leaves, intertwined with ribbons and finished with silver leaf. Over time, the velvet had faded, so the conservators removed it and found a small piece which preserved the original colour. This was used to match a contemporary velvet, with which the frame was covered. As a result, picture and frame now once more form a single whole. The colour of the velvet combines harmoniously with the colours in the painting, whilst the cool highlights on the silvered ornament of the top edge of the frame have something in common with Vrubel’s characteristic bright and succulent brushstrokes on the canvas.

M Vrubel Demon defeated 1902 detail sm

Michael Vrubel, Demon defeated, 1902, detail

In conclusion it should be noted that, from 20-21 November 2014, the Tretyakov Gallery held the first scientific conference in Russia dedicated to picture frames, The frame as a piece of art; and that this was held in the context of the exhibition Precious frames… Most of the participants in the conference were experts in the visual arts, and – by their own admission – the conference was the reason that they discussed the idea of the frame. We may say, without exaggeration, that both the conference and the exhibition provided significant contributions to research on the history of picture frames in Russia. With regard to the papers delivered at the conference, the Tretyakov Gallery is planning to publish them as a collection of articles in Russian; the Tretyakov Gallery has also published the catalogue, The painting and its frame: Dialogues, in Russian.

View of exh 1 A sm


Oksana Lysenko is a senior member of the academic staff of the State Russian Museum, St Petersberg, where she has worked since 1995. She organized the exhibition, The clothing of pictures: Russian frames from the 18th to the 20th century (2005, State Russian Museum), and produced the accompanying catalogue.

Russian frames: an interview with Oksana Lysenko > here

With grateful thanks to Oksana for this review, and for her patience in the editing process; and to the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, for all the images used in this article.

State Tretyakov Gallery.Moscow Frame exh 2 sm

Ivan Makarov 1822to97 Portrait of a woman 1860 B

Ivan Makarov (1822-97), Portrait of a woman, 1860; frame 2nd half 19th century, carved walnut on a pine back, State Tretyakov Gallery

Reframing the Renaissance: Museums and Madonnas

How do museums deal with unsuitably framed and unframed paintings? Two solutions from the V & A and the National Gallery, London.

V & A 1 Completed red ground sm

Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.1494/95), Virgin and Child, tempera on panel, c. 1480, in replica frame. V & A, Museum no. 492-1882

Over the centuries many paintings have become divorced from their original frames – more especially mediaeval and Renaissance altarpieces. In the 19th century in particular these were bought by collectors and dealers, broken up (if polytychs) into the individual panel paintings of which they were constructed, and exported, naked and unframed. Some of them were given custom-made Victorian interpretations  of the frames they might have had originally; some of them were framed in whatever came to hand; but in the 20th and 21st centuries, these solutions appear less and less satisfactory from a viewpoint which is interested in context and historical authenticity.

When the V & A acquired this Virgin and Child by Crivelli in 1882, it had no frame, and has most recently been displayed in an aedicular frame made up of antique and modern elements, which had come into the Museum in the 1930s. With the renovation of the Mediaeval and Renaissance Galleries in the V & A, there was an impetus to display the painting in a more suitable setting than this, since ‘the proportions were very heavy and did not complement the painting well’ [1].

Crivelli Madonna della Rondine N0724 sm

Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.1494), Madonna della rondine, after 1490, National Gallery, NG724

Works of art in London relevant as references for reframing Crivelli’s paintings include, most importantly, the National Gallery’s spectacular Madonna della Rondine in its original aedicular setting. This is a large altarpiece, the main panel of which – the sacra conversazione – is 59 ¼ ins (150.5 cms) high, whereas the V & A’s Virgin and Child is a small devotional image, only just over 19 ins (48.5 cm) high. Both, however, are images of the Madonna clad in Crivelli’s characteristically rich and detailed brocades, set in a shallow space, with symbolic fruits and flowers inserted in a slightly surreal way into the pictorial setting; images in which the highly ornamental nature of the composition would be echoed, as in the case of the Madonna della rondine, by the ornament all’ antica of the aedicular frame. Another relevant work in the National Gallery is Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan, in a frame which, while neither original to the picture nor entire, is contemporary[2], and also (as Crivelli and Bellini were) from Venice.  Both the small-scale structure and decoration of this frame are indicative of the style in which the V & A’s Virgin and Child might originally have been framed.

The V & A had no suitable frame in their collection of the right size for their Madonna; however they did have in store a slightly too large, rather battered aedicule of the right period and style, in which every frieze and pilaster surface was intricately patterned with low-relief decoration, like the frame on the National Gallery’s Bellini, and in which the original polychromy was still visible, in a style reminiscent of the Madonna della rondine.

V & A 1 Blue on original frame sm

15th century aedicular frame in the collection of the V & A: detail of dentils and foliate frieze on the base

The Furniture Conservation studio decided to make a scaled-down replica of this frame. Whilst its style and decoration were admirably suited to the Crivelli Madonna, reproducing it would allow the structure to be given the right proportions for the painting – and reducing the frame itself would have been almost impossible, as well as undesirable, given that this was as much an original work of the Renaissance as the painting. The replica would be made almost as it would have been in the workshops of, for example, Jacopo da Faenza, the contemporary craftsman who carved the large triptych frame for Bellini’s altarpiece in the church of the Frari, Venice. The preliminary drawings, however, were produced from digital images of the model, scaled down proportionately by 10%.

V & A 2 Construction 1 sm

Building the carcase and applying the carvings

The basic construction of the frame was completely traditional, although an Asian hardwood called jelutong was used rather than native Italian woods such as poplar, pine, walnut or chestnut. Jelutong is not an endangered species, and it has a fine grain and low density, suitable for carving fine details. The overall structure was assembled using traditional wooden dowels, rather than nails, and fishskin glue, and then the hand-carved elements were applied – the capitals, dentils, and the beads/ astragal-&-bead on the entablature and base (the beads at the sight edge were moulded).

V & A 3 Woodwork complete & capitals sm

Woodwork complete (showing the capitals inset), with the moulded masks mounted on the pilaster plinths

All the low-relief decorative detail was also moulded; in the Renaissance this could have been in pastiglia, made from ‘plaster of Volterra’ (our plaster of Paris, gypsum or chalk) and animal glue (see section on pastiglia here: scroll down). Other alternatives were also available: pasta di riso, or a moulding material based on ground rice, and carta pesta (papier mâché) – although, given the comparative price of paper, this is less likely. Another option is the decoration of the Bellini frame mentioned above; this is executed in a more liquid gesso, dripped, applied by brush, or piped (like cake icing) onto the wooden surface.

V & A 4 Mould and cast  sm

The frame with moulded ornament applied to the sight edge & inner frieze; inside, the yellow mould for the pilaster ornament, with the cast taken from it, above

The V & A Furniture Conservation team used moulded compo (or composition) for their Crivelli frame; this is a later variant on pastiglia, common in European framemaking from the late 18th century, and includes linseed oil and resin in its ingredients. Moulds for the ornament, which these days are made from dental impression material rather than carved wood or clay, were taken from the original aedicular frame being used as the model; the three masks on the pilaster plinths and predella panel of the base just fitted the scaled-down structure of the Crivelli frame, but – since the new frame was only 90% the size of the model – the ornamental panels at top and base and on the pilasters needed to be adjusted slightly. This was done by cutting out material at the junctions of decorative elements, and joining them with free-hand modelling.

V & A 5 Gessoed & ungessoed areas sm

Gessoing the carved wooden elements; the moulded pilaster panels ungessoed

The moulds picked up every detail of the ornamental panels on the model; this included the fine punchwork on the background, which would originally have been executed by hand after the frame had been gilded. This meant that when the carved wooden parts of the frame were covered with size and then with a layer of liquid gesso, to smooth the surface and prepare it for gilding, the moulded panels were left bare, to avoid clogging the punchwork and other details. The gessoed areas were then rubbed down with very fine-grade sandpaper.

V & A 6 Details of bole & colour test sm

Details with yellow bole; red bole; sheet of colour tests for bole inset

The next stage was preparing the surface to be finished with gilding. Gold leaf is adhered to a surface painted with bole, or gilder’s clay, diluted with animal glue; when dry this is burnished to a smooth glossy finish. Bole is more commonly known in its red form, which gives warmth to the leaf and gradually emerges through worn gilding over time; however there are other colours, such as the blue-grey bole used on – for example – early 19th century British frames, when the Napoleonic wars prevented the import of red bole. The two shades used in this case were yellow, followed by red; this combination meant that there would be a very slight variation of tone between the warmer and cooler areas of the ornament, and that the cooler yellow bole would underlie the parts to be painted blue.

V & A 7 Polishing & sizing bole sm

V & A 8 gilding sm


The frame was gilded all over with leaf gold in its purest form – that is, unalloyed gold is 24 carat, and the gold leaf used on the replica Crivelli frame was 23 ¾ carat – so that the finish was as close as possible to that used by Renaissance craftsmen.

V & A 9 Application of blue sm

Applying blue paint

Blue paint was then matched to the polychromy on the 15th century model, and applied to details of the dentils, the capitals and the ground of the three masks. This shade would also harmonize with the ultramarine in the sky of the Crivelli painting.

V & A 11 Distressing & toning sm

The gilded frame, distressed across the predella panel at the base, bright elsewhere, with a comparative toned/ untoned area inset

This was not the final stage of the finish, however: gilding is almost intolerably bright when applied in a unbroken veil, and needs to be softened for modern interiors with their uniform, brilliant lighting – so different from the pools of candlelight which would have illuminated a private altar at the end of the 15th century. The gilding on the Crivelli frame was first distressed with bristle brushes, to simulate the wear and tear of time, and then toned with a translucent wash of dark pigment, reproducing the patina of age.

V & A 12 Microclimate access & batteries sm

Completed frame, showing access to the monitoring system (top) & the batteries behind the gilt beads at the sight edge (below)

All these stages (except for the distressing) would have been recognized by the creators of the original frame – the model; they would not, however, have recognized the electronic secret inside the body of the frame. The V & A, unlike the National Gallery, does not have any control over its internal atmosphere and the climate in which its collection exists. So the replica Crivelli frame was constructed with a monitoring system for its own microclimate, which would be created as soon as the painting was sealed into the frame; this will continuously check the humidity and the temperature inside the Madonna’s small world.

V & A 1 Completed red ground sm

Carlo Crivelli, Virgin and Child, c. 1480, in completed replica frame

This replica frame for the Crivelli is one solution to the problem of reframing paintings which have lost their original settings; it is also a testament to the care and craftsmanship of the V & A’s Furniture Conservation department. Reproducing a frame in this way, to traditional methods (as far as possible), is a labour- and time- intensive process; any flaw will also become more visible with the passage of time (in other words, it is easier to date reconstructions as years go by and they appear more visibly products of their own era). However, this provides a (literally) tailor-made solution in an appropriate style, which is individually adapted to the painting it contains, and presents it in the best possible way if no original frame is available. The Virgin and Child glows out from its intricately- patterned gilded setting, the areas of polychromy giving it balance and unity, and the multiple runs of shallow ornament echoing the Madonna’s painted brocades.

Another solution for an unhappily-framed painting is to wait (perhaps for many years) for the perfect piece to emerge, like a fairy-tale prince, onto the market; yet a third is to look out for a prince who may be in disguise…


Luca Signorelli (c.1440/50-1523), The adoration of the shepherds, c. 1496, 84 10/16 x 67 ins (215 x 170.2 cm), National Gallery. NG113

The National Gallery purchased this large altarpiece by Signorelli in 1882. It comes from Città di Castello, where Signorelli was very active – specifically from the church of San Francesco, a church which was remodelled in the Baroque style during the first quarter of the 18th century. It was probably at that point that The adoration… was acquired by a local family, who later sold it to Stefano Bardini, the Florentine collector and dealer. Bardini dealt in works of art from the age of 16, and seems to have bought the Signorelli in his early twenties, selling it to the National Gallery a few years later. Bardini collected frames, but the Signorelli had almost certainly lost its altarpiece setting when it left the church of San Francesco; it has hung in the National Gallery until recently in a very unsuitable Mannerist-style fluted moulding frame which deprived it of all authority and presence.

It is not easy to find a late 15th century altarpiece frame with an opening seven feet high and five feet across, and if such a thing existed in good condition, its price would almost certainly be prohibitive. However, Peter Schade, head of the National Gallery Framing Department, has a bloodhound’s nose for a good frame, and tracked down an aedicular altarpiece frame of the right period and style – but one which had undergone a rather unusual conversion.

NG 2 Bed 1

Altarpiece converted to bedhead, with pilaster plinths as bedside tables

NG 3 Bed base

Predella panel as the support for a computer desk

This is perhaps not the best use of a genuine Italian Renaissance altarpiece frame: as part of its conversion into a bedhead, the plinths supporting the pilasters were removed and transformed into rather more secular supports for two bedside tables (above, either side of bed), whilst the ornamental predella panel between them was used as the fascia of a computer desk at the foot of the bed.

NG Signorelli detail of ornament

Detail of restored and altered frame on Signorelli, The Adoration…

The frame needed not only to be reassembled from the set of bedroom furniture it had become; it had to be extended vertically to fit the Signorelli. This was done by inserting a plain segment of pilaster above the existing capital, supporting a further block with simple mouldings to carry the entablature. A similar plain block was inserted at the bottom on either side, between the foot of each pilaster and the top of the original plinth. This added more than a foot to the height of the frame, and without distracting the eye, since the two plain blocks at top and bottom balance each other well. The overall structure was in a good state of preservation and the ornament had survived remarkably intact, considering how it had been treated.

NG 6 predella panel sm

Detail of a swag of symbolic fruit, cherub’s head and vases on the predella or base panel

The base, which had been so rudely separated from the main structure, is, like the entablature, beautifully ornamented. On the predella panel there are four-winged cherubs with swags of symbolic fruit, echoing the cherubs set between cornucopiae in the frieze of the entablature. The fruit and the horns of plenty now suggest the gifts brought by the shepherds, and the potential gifts brought by the worshipper, as well as symbolizing various aspects of Christ. The cherubs expand on the single angel seen in the painting, and express the adoration of the celestial as well as of the temporal world.

NG 5 left pilaster plinth sm

Detail of left pilaster plinth at the base of the frame

The pilaster plinths at either end of the predella retain the original donor shields, applied over a panel of faux marble, decorated with delicately scrolling flowered sprays. The surface of the whole frame was cleaned, and the finish of the new elements brought into harmony with the patina of these original parts.

NG 7 Signorelli finished ed sm

Signorelli, The adoration of the shepherds, c. 1496, in its aedicular frame

The painting gains physically from the new vertical emphasis of the structure, and from the greater width of the individual rails; it gains symbolically in the significance given by the architectural form of the frame. Now, once more, the spectator seems to be seeing the adoration of the Christ Child as though through the doorway of a church or temple, which has opened onto a scene both intimate and celestial. This fact adds the possibility that the viewer might actually be able to participate, along with the shepherds, by crossing through the doorway; the altarpiece, set in an aedicular frame, brings alive the story it depicts, and seeks to involve the worshipper in the reality of the painted scene.

NG 7 Signorelli before and after sm

With grateful thanks to Zoë Allen (Senior Furniture Conservator: Frames), Tom Barrow (Frames Conservator), Christine Powell (Senior Furniture Conservator: Gilding) and Tim Miller (Furniture Conservator) of the V & A Furniture Conservation studio; and to Peter Schade and Hazel Aitken of the National Gallery

National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here

National Gallery reframings: a Venetian pastiglia frame> here

V & A: The iconography of a 15th century frame > here


[1] See Zoë Allen, ‘Conservation Case Studies: Building a Frame for The Virgin and Child by Carlo Crivelli’.

[2] The entablature of the frame on the Bellini is not original; and such a portrait would probably not have been housed in an aedicular frame. See Nicholas Penny, A closer look: Frames, 2010, National Gallery London, p.40



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,217 other followers

%d bloggers like this: