The Frame Blog

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

An introduction to Greek Orthodox shrines

Thanos Andronikos, graduate in Arts Management and owner/manager of Heartbeat Gallery, Sheffield, describes the construction and development of the small ornamental shrines designed to hold a single icon.

ΟΔΟΙΠΟΡΙΚΟ ΑΓΙΟΥ ΟΡΟΥΣDetails of two of the shrines in Iera Skete Prophete Elia, Mount Athos, 1903. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, shrines (or proskynetari – προσκυνητάρι – from the verb proskyno, meaning ‘to kneel in worship’), are small free-standing or wall-mounted constructions, in which icons are placed to be worshipped by the faithful. It is not known exactly when the first shrines appeared, but they are undoubtedly related to the evolution of the iconostasis, the large and solid screen of icons which is such an important liturgical feature of the Orthodox church. In some cases the shrine or shrines may extend the span of an iconostasis to the north and south wall of the church, or they may sometimes be used to connect the three parts of the iconostasis, when these are separated by small columns.

1A collection of shrines, Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one important example of a church containing a large group of shrines, seen above in a side chapel beside the magnificent main iconostasis, carved in 1764 [1].

 The form and purpose of the shrine


 Grey marble shrine dedicated to Neomartyros Theodorou (the Martyr Theodore), Church of Hagee Pateres, Ano Halikas, Lesvos; inscribed: ΤΗ ΦΙΛΟΤΙΜΩ ΔΑΠΑΝΗ ΤΗΣ ΣΥΝΤΕΧΝΙΑΣ ΤΩΝ ΣΑΠΟΥΝΤΖΙΔΩΝ ΚΑΙ ΣΥΝΔΡΟΜΙΤΩΝ/1863 ΜΑΡΤΙΟΥ 15 ΑΓΙΑΣΟΥ, ‘Paid for by the guild of soap-makers and contributors/ March1863, Agiasou’

4 Shrine dedicated to Neomartyros Theodorou (above); detail, with inscription

 Shrines are generally commissioned from the carvers by private donors, or – as in the example above – by a particular body or group; in this case the ‘Guild of Soap-Makers’. They are placed at various points inside the church – either along the walls, or free-standing where there is space. They are usually morphologically related to the iconostasis of the host church: they may be dedicated to the patron saint of that church, or to the holy event the church is named after, with particularly popular subjects being the Virgin Mary (Theotokos-Panagia) or scenes from the Life of Christ; they may also be linked to the donor’s name saint or to the saint in charge of some specific area of influence. They could be described as free-standing altarpieces, usually with an icon set upright in an elaborate frame, and sometimes (or instead) with an icon set immediately beneath in a canted position, which is intended to be kissed and venerated by the worshipper. The base of the structure, below the level of the icons, echoes the lowest level of the iconostasis, and contains a panel (the thorakion) which may be carved or painted with decorative motifs, with a religious scene, or with a symbolic or emblematic device.


Byzantine thorakion, The tree of life between two lions, late 11th- early 12th century, marble. Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

 The thorakion was originally a block of stone used in the parapet of a classical temple to create a low protective wall, and similarly describes the stone, and later wooden, panels in the lowest tier of an iconostasis. The thorakion was also often ‘framed’, as above, in a decorative border of foliate and floral ornament. Its use on the base of a shrine meant that the structure as a whole reflected a single bay from an iconostasis, from the level of the entablature to the ground, as though the grand liturgical sweep of the icon screen had been synthesized into an intimate private chapel, for the use of a single worshipper.

 The production of the Greek Orthodox shrine


Carved giltwood & polychrome wall shrine with icon of the Holy Trinity, 1741, Iera Moni Taxiarhi, Nenita, Chios (note the Eucharistic grapevine at the side).

The earliest examples of these small shrines date from the 18th century, when they are most often carved in wood, and are frequently very elaborate, as in the example above. As with the making of an iconostasis, the timber used to build a shrine is resinous: it was produced from straight cypress logs which were cut in January on the days of the waning moon. The first stages in processing the wood were quite basic: removing the bark with an adz, drying the logs indoors, followed by sawing them into rough planks. The wood was then impregnated with olive oil or linseed oil and planed [2].


Carved giltwood and polychrome shrine, Μονή Κοιμήσεως Βουτσάς (Monastery of the Dormition, 1680), Voutsas, Ioannina, Epirus, Greece. Photo: Τριαντάφυλλος Σιούλης

The design for the frame and other decorative parts of the shrine were transferred to the wood in exactly the same way that images had been transferred to panels for the artist to paint, ever since the earliest Byzantine icons. The patterns used are known as the woodcarver’s ‘anthivola’ (Ανθίβολα), which by the 19th century had come to be known as στάμπες, or – literally – ‘stamps’ [3]. They are the same size as the piece of wood to be carved, and the lines of the design are perforated with pins, creating small holes, millimetres apart. The patterns derive from the anthivola used by Byzantine artists and craftsmen, which diffused through Greece via Crete and those Greek islands under the control of Venice.

28 A 19th century anthivolo, designed by the woodcarver Ioannis Halatsis, c.1860. Photo: Emmanouel Ioannis Farsaris

The carver laid the perforated pattern on the planed surface of the wood. He would then enclose finely powdered coal or charcoal in a piece of loosely-woven cotton cheesecloth, called ‘touloupani’ (τουλουπάνι), and rub this cloth bag over his anthivolo. The coal dust was forced through the pinholes, and the design was imprinted on the wood.

The growing demand for icons, iconostases, shrines and thrones, and later on the dissemination of paper as a design material, gradually spread the use of the anthivola throughout Greece in almost all important centres of post-Byzantine art.

29 The Dormition and Assumption of Hagios Inoannis o Theologos, (St. John the Theologian), anthivola, Sinai, 15th-16th century, 22.4 x 20.2 cm. Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

 The 15th-16th century Dormition and Assumption of Hagios Inoannis o Theologos is one of the earliest works in the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s collection of anthivola; it shows the type of pattern used for a painting, rather than a piece of decorative carving. It was probably produced by a Cretan painter, and may have been intended for purposes of demonstration or teaching. The reverse has been covered with later written notes and sketches.

30 Icon depicting the Dormition and Assumption of Hagios Inoannis o Theologos, early 17th c. 21x31cm. Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

Anthivola were valuable assets, passed from artist to artist in commercial transactions, by exchange or through inheritance, creating a corresponding traffic in iconographic conventions and woodcarving practices between one artistic workshop and another. This partly explains the reason Byzantine icons and murals are so similar; this was the intention, to reproduce as exactly as possible a venerated image. In the same way, the ornamental motifs used to frame iconostases and shrines reproduce the same designs from region to region, and era to era. The popularity of naturalistic decoration in all styles – Baroque, NeoClassical and revival Byzantine is clear; extravagant foliage, often filled with birds and animals, appears ubiquitously. Vines are a particular favourite, as they are both decorative and symbolic.

3Carved & polished wooden shrine, Church of Agios Athanasios, Mytilene, Lesvos; inscribed ΕΠΟΙΗΘΗ ΕΙΣ ΤΑ 1884 ΔΙΑ ΧΕΙΡΟΣ ΙΩΣΗΦ ΠΕΤΡΟΥ ΑΠΟ ΧΩΡΙΟΝ ΚΑΡΑΚΙΟΙ, or ‘Built in 1884 by the hand of Iosef Petrou from Karakeae village’

The same craftsmen who made the shrines were also responsible for iconostases, thrones for the Patriarchs, pulpits, crosses, chairs and statues. In the peak years of production – especially in Crete – there were workshops organized under a master carver (‘protomastoras‘), with a group of assistants, each in charge of a particular area of the process, depending on their experience. The guild system oversaw the hierarchy of the workshop, just as in Western Europe.

Icon and worshipper

Because many shrines are not mounted in fixed positions on the wall, but are free-standing and small enough to be portable, the icons they hold may also be used in open air litanies or processions (Λιτανεία), being carried on the shoulders of worshippers. This usually forms part of the ceremony carried out on the name day of the patron saint [4].

9 ed Icon of Axion Estin carried in the litany of Ieros Naos Protatou, Mount Athos, on the second day of Easter. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

In the litany of Ieros Naos Protatou on Mount Athos, above, the icon being carried is that of the “Άξιον έστιν“ or Axion Estin. This is translated as ‘It is truly meet’, and is another title of the Theotokos (or Mother of God) holding Christ. It is one of the holiest icons of Orthodoxy, and is kept in the church of Protaton in Karyes, Mount Athos.

Axion Estin

Icon Axion Estin, without its silver cover, 980 AD

The original icon is made from tempera or encaustic wax on wood, like most portable Byzantine icons; it dates from the tenth century, and was painted in Constantinople, copying a portrait of the Madonna and Child supposed to have been painted by St Luke himself. This is a direct expression of the ‘vera icon’ or true image which could be passed down by reproducing exactly the original painted portrait. The story of St Veronica, and the image of Christ which was transferred to her veil after she wiped His face, is an allegory of this exact recreation of a holy icon.

Axion Estin in silver cover

Icon Axion Estin, within its cover

The silver and gold cover of the icon (the επένδυση – ‘ependesi’ or what, on a Russian icon, would be the ‘riza’), was made in 1836 on Mount Athos, and incorporates its own integral ‘frame’ or border, with a tree of Jesse springing at the bottom and winding its way, in the guise of a Eucharistic vine, around the medallion busts at the sides to the angels, Virgin and risen Christ at the top. The cover reveals only the faces of the Madonna and Child, and has helped to preserve the condition of the painting over the last two hundred years; although it has been much restored.

10Carved giltwood shrine of Axion Estin, late 19th century, Protaton Church, Mount Athos. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

The icon is thus framed twice – once by its precious covering, and again by the carved and gilded wooden shrine in which it is mounted. Whilst the ‘frame’ of the cover is emblematic, and expands upon the meaning of the icon itself, the shrine is purely decorative, presenting the image of Mother and Child like a precious jewel in a golden ornamental setting. Where altarpieces in Catholic and Protestant churches are usually removed slightly from the presence of the congregation by their setting and their size, the Orthodox shrine brings the holy image it contains close to the individual worshipper, who can pray before it in an intimate relationship, touch it, and kiss it as a sign of veneration. The frame of the shrine and the armour-like covering of the ependesi are not, therefore, intended (as it may appear) to close off the icon, but actually to bring it nearer to those who come to pray.

6 Carved giltwood shrine, 1871, Monastery of Agioi Anargiroi, Chios, with blue-painted details

The polychrome shrine, above, in the church of Agioi Anargiroi, is carved in revival Baroque style with NeoClassical medallions and arabesques on the panel beneath the icon and the lower pilaster panels; the icon has also been framed in a conventional NeoClassical pattern. The thorakion, the panel beneath the icon, is decorated with the scene of a martyr undergoing death by stoning.


 Carved giltwood shrine in Agioi Anargiroi (above); detail

The free-standing columns to each side support – rather than an entablature, as in an altarpiece – two polychrome and gilded angels, and the Baroque pierced cartouche at the crest is topped with the crown of Greece. As in this example, many shrines hold icons from older churches which have been destroyed or demolished [5]; sometimes these might be icons which were originally part of an iconostasis, and have been salvaged from the larger structure.

11Free-standing white & grey marble shrine with dome by Demetrios Zervas, 1910, Church of Evaggelistria, Paleohore Plomari, Lesvos

 Types of shrine: wall-mounted

Depending upon their position inside the church, shrines are classified into two general kinds: in the first are wall or pillar shrines, where the rear panel is not visible and therefore is not decorated. This type of shrine usually holds the icon in an upright position, though this is not always true. The second category is the free-standing shrine, where the icon is usually placed in an angled or horizontal position.

13 B

 Faux grey marble shrine of St Michael the Archangel, 18th & 19th century, Church of Taxiarhis, Asomatos, Lesvos. Photo via Panoramio

In the first group of wall and pillar shrines three different types can be identified. Shrines of the first type (above) seem to echo – as described previously – a single bay of the iconostasis, as if one of the despotic icons, together with its thorakion, columns, and crest, had become detached from the main structure. These shrines tend to have very little depth from front to back; they are frequently decorated in Baroque or NeoClassical style. In the example above, the shrine of St Michael the Archangel is probably a reconstruction of older pieces; behind the Despotic throne next to the shrine is the inscription: Ὁ Μέγας Ἀρχιερεύς, 1846 νοεμβρίου α΄ (The Great High Priest, 1846 November a’).

14 Shrine of St Michael the Archangel, 1795 & later (above); detail

The capitals are characteristic of Chios, and the crest of Naxos. The crest was probably added in 1795 when the icon was moved from the left to the right side of the church.

k3 last image Carved giltwood and polychrome shrine of St Nikitas, mid-19th century, Church of Hagios Demetrios, Armolia, Chios, with angels on the crest

The rather later shrine of St Nikitas, above, dating from the mid-19th century, is another example of this first category of shallow wall shrine with a complex, aedicular form of frame, based on a bay from an iconostasis.

The second type of wall-mounted shrine looks rather like a chair in its structure, as it is built with a large base or desk, allowing for the angled placement of the icon for purposes of veneration. Canting the icon back like this encourages the worshipper to kiss the icon whilst making the sign of the Cross. The impression of a chair is reinforced by the solid back and pillared sides, usually supporting an arched apex. This type is rare; it derives from marble shrines on the island of Tinos.

Shrine of St Andrew Cathedral of PatrasShrine of St Andrew, 20th century, Cathedral of St Andrew, Patras

Wall shrines of the third type are shaped almost like a small church, with four columns, an entablature, and a pedimented gable or small dome (above). They may also have a canopy supported by cutaway sides, like a Despotic throne [6].

15 Shrine by Ioannis Xatzidiakos, dedicated to Zoodohos Pege, 1912, Church of Zoodohos Pege (Mary of the Spring), Mesagros, Lesvos.

The early 20th century shrine above, which similarly imitates a small temple in austere classical style, holds an icon of Zoodohos Pege, inscribed ‘Διὰ Συνδρομῆς καὶ ἐξόδων τοῦ κυρ. Χατζῆ Δούκα Μαλιάκα, χεὶρ Ἀντωνίου 1801 (commissioned by Mr Xatze Douka Maliaka, by the hand of Antoniou, 1801).


Shrine by Ioannis Xatzidiakos (above); detail

It exemplifies the respect for icons of whatever age, and the continual recreation of appropriate ways of framing and presenting them as objects of timeless veneration.


Despotic throne, Church of Hagios Georgios, Volissos, Chios, 1842, carved giltwood with white paint in Baroque style.

throne (2) Despotic throne, Church of Hagios Georgios (above); side view.

With the type of shrine shaped as a Despotic throne, the icon displayed is always of Christ, since he is the original Despot (Δεσπότης); in most cases it is mounted vertically in this type of shrine. The structure itself is generally 19th century or later, and carved of marble from Tinos.

A sub-branch of wall-mounted shrines completes this category; these are framed shrines, either of wood or marble, which have no base. They are very similar to the smaller, domestic type of altarpiece familiar in Western Renaissance art, made to stand upon a chamber altar, prie-dieu or on brackets on a wall. Many of these shrines, especially those of carved wood, are transformed into magnificent compositions with double or triple columns and intricately decorated entablatures, pediments and crests.

18 Carved giltwood and polychrome wall-mounted shrine to Hagios Fanourios, date unknown, Church of Hagios Georgios, Sekouses, Chios

The example (above) of a wall-mounted shrine with no base is carved in Baroque style, and features naturalistic motifs of flowers and birds around the columns. The crest is supported by two prominent angels. It probably dates from the 19th century.

19 Carved giltwood and polychrome wall-mounted shrine, The presentation in the temple, end of the 19th century, Church of Hagia Triada (the Holy Trinity), Elata, Chios.

Another instance of a wall-mounted shrine with no base is that of The presentation in the temple, framed in provincial Baroque style, with, again, a plethora of flowers and birds, carved and picked out in turquoise, gold and red. This shrine possesses a small thorakion at the bottom, in spite of its construction, which holds a representation of the Holy Ghost at the centre.

Types of shrine: free-standing

20 Carved wooden white & parcel-gilt free-standing shrine, Church of Taxiarhis, Anavatos, Chios.

There are four distinct kinds of free-standing shrine. The first kind is shaped like a lectern, with a higher back and a sill, which support the icon canted at an angle. These are ideal for the display of icons intended for personal worship and veneration. Since the whole structure is free-standing, the exposed back is decorated equally with the front (in this case, above, the front is carved with the Expulsion from Eden; the icon shows The Miracle at Chonae by St Michael the Archangel). The most interesting shrines of this type are those sculpted from marble by Tinian artists.

The second type of free-standing shrine is a version of the Despotic throne with a canopy or dome. The back in this case is open, or carved with pierced patterns; the icon is placed on a lectern in a slanting position. Many examples of this kind of shrine are carved in wood, in Baroque style, but again the more remarkable instances from the Aegean region are marble shrines of Tinian creation.


Free-standing carved giltwood & polychrome wooden shrine in Baroque style with dome, end of 19th century, Church of Neos Taxiarhis, Mesta, Chios.

The wooden example, above, is mounted with four angels at the corners of the dome, the front two of which carry candleholders, echoing the two on either side of the icon. This is reminiscent of the angelic lightbearers on the frame Bellini had designed five hundred years earlier for his triptych in the Church of the Frari, Venice.

21 Free-standing carved giltwood & polychrome wooden shrine in Baroque style with dome, end of 19th century, Church of Hieros Naos Zoodohou Peges, Kene, Chios.

Even more prominent angels are poised around the silver coated icon in its mini-cathedral, placed by the pulpit in the Church of Hieros Naos Zoodohou Peges, Kene, on Chios (above). They are a reminder that Orthodox churches, which tend to have fewer and smaller windows than, for instance, French and British churches, need every possible aid to illumination, including a prevalence of white paint and gilding, as well as candles on or around each individual object of reverence. Candleholders were often a necessary, as well as a symbolic and ornamental, part of the design of a shrine.

22 Free-standing carved wooden shrine, 1884, Church of Hagios Athanasios, Mytilene, Lesvos.

The third type of freestanding shrine is capped by a domed canopy, standing on a drum supported on four gables, which are themselves supported by four pillars. This is an older design, first carried out in carved wood, and adopted in the early 20th century on the island of Tinos, where it was revived in marble, in classical style. Most marble creations in this category are thus either Tinian projects or copies of them. Examples carved in wood are earlier in date, and are usually Baroque in style; they also appear more like a large piece of ornate furniture and less like an architectural construction, as marble shrines tend to do.

?????????? ?G??? ????SDifferent types of free-standing shrines, early 20th century, Skete Hagiou Andrea (the Monastery of St Andrew), Mount Athos. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

The iconostases and shrines in the Monastery of St Andrew, Mount Athos, are made in the Russian style. The monastery was occupied by seven hundred Russian monks until the 1917 Revolution; between 1918 and 1941 the Orthodox Church suffered persecution and closure on a massive scale, and it was impossible for more monks to travel to Mount Athos. The last surviving monk died in 1971, and the monastery is now run by the Greek Orthodox Church. The canopies of the shrines, like the arches and finials of the iconostasis, are very much Russian rather than Greek in derivation, with cusped ogee arches and scalloped pendants. The shrines are of the free-standing lectern form, but the icons they support are generally larger than is customary for this type of shrine in the Greek Church.

24 Free-standing pillar shrine, 1999, Church of Hagios Georgios, Vrontados, Chios.

The final type of free-standing shrine is constructed like a small table-lectern with a central supporting pillar; it is relatively rare and almost always made of marble. The late 20th century example (above) holds an icon of St George, and is decorated in Byzantine style, with crisp, shallow relief decoration. This revival of Byzantine motifs dates from the 1930s, and follows the Baroque fashion (18th century and first half of the 19th), and a NeoClassical revival (second half of the 19th century, and first quarter of the 20th).

?????????? ?G??? ????S Magnificent carved giltwood iconostasis and shrines, 1903, Iera Skete Prophete Elia, Mount Athos. According to legend it is made out of two tons of gold. (Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης


Article and images based on Αλεξάνδρα  Γουλάκη – Βουτυρά, Γιώργος Καραδέδος,Χίος, Λέσβος και η εκκλησιαστική γλυπτική στο Αιγαίο, Μέθεξις, 2011, 502 σελ, ISBN 978-960-6796-20-3

(Alexandra Goulaki-Voutyra & Giorgos Karadedos, Chios, Lesvos and Ecclesiastical Sculpture in the Aegean 16th – 20th Century, Thessaloniki 2011, Methexis Publications)

The author would like to thank Yannis Karadedos and Methexis Publications, for permission to adapt text & information and to republish images; also Andronis Andronikos, Olga Andronikos, Larisa Gorina and Valeria Sapegina for all their help and support; and Lynn Roberts for editing. Especial thanks are due to the Holy Church of Panayia Alexiotisa for letting me use any image I wished from their amazing blog.

An Introduction to Greek Orthodox Iconostases > here


[1] See Τσίρου – Μαρκαντωνάτου Βασιλική Φιλόλογος-Θεολόγος-Ἱστορικός Τέχνης ΜΑ, ΠΕΡΙΟΔΙΚΟ ‘Ἐρῶ’ , Δ΄ ΤΕΥΧΟΣ, ΟΚΤ.-ΔΕΚ. 2010 (Tsirou – Markantonatou Royal Scholar – Theologian – art historian MA, Magazine ‘Question’, Oct-Dec.2010).

The Basilica comes under the jurisdiction of three churches (Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian); however, during the 1850s Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, and – in answer to an attempt by the French to wrest back control – the Sultan of Turkey issued a 15-page firman (1852), declaring that, by the rules of cohabitation, all icons and the keys to the basilica belonged to the Orthodox Church. This also meant that woodcarvings dating from the mid-19th century (the iconostases, the shrines, and any frames) are Greek Orthodox in origin  (see Nick Bakounakis, Μπακουνάκης Νίκος, To Vima, 22 December 1996).

[2] Εμμανουήλ Ιωάν. Φαρσάρη: α) Οι ξυλογλύπτες (νιταδώροι) Μέσα Λασιθίου Οροπεδίου Λασιθίου (αυτοέκδοση, 2001).

[3] Ibid. And see Byzantine and Christian Museum, ‘Από το Ανθίβολο στην Εικόνα’ .

[4] The Orthodox church celebrates a saint on his or her name day, as does every worshipper who has that name.

[5] See ‘Προσκυνηταρια’, Τριαντάφυλλος Σιούλης, 2006, Οδηγός Περιφέρειας Ηπείρου.

‘The shrine’, Triantaphyllos Siulēs , 2006 , Guide to the region of Epirus

[6] The Despotic throne stands in front of the iconostasis, and is occupied by the Patriarch when he visits the church. It is made of wood or marble, and echoes the thrones of the Emperor and Patriarch of early Byzantine churches. After the fall of Constantinople, when the title of Emperor ceased, the two thrones became one (Γιουλακη Βουτυρά Καραδερος, 2011, p. 70).

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.

Georg Groot Countess V A Sheremeteva 1746 State Tretyakov Gallery ed sm

Georg Groot, Portrait of Countess V.A. Sheremeteva, 1746, frame mid-18th century, State Tretyakov Gallery

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


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