The Frame Blog

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

Frames and the Internet

1 Cover pic 3

The National Gallery, London, held a Frame Study Day on 15th May 2015 as an auxiliary to its exhibition of Sansovino frames. This is a paper given that afternoon, in a Powerpoint presentation; it’s published here as of potential interest to anyone who understands the power of the internet to connect not only people, but diverse institutions within specific fields of research.

Frames and the internet

The internet became publicly available in August 1991. Two years later there were still only 623 websites in the world, but by the end of 1994, more than 10,000. One of the earliest museum sites seems to have been – sadly – the Museum of Bad Art, also in 1994,

‘dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms and in all its glory.’

2 Museum of Bad Art

The Museum of Bad Art, with 1994 (or earlier) exhibit

Many of the ‘exhibits’ were photographed in their frames (including the first painting in the collection), so it could be said that the picture frame, in an appropriately primitive and embryonic form, has been online from the earliest possible period.

More conventional museums were fairly quick to acquire their own websites: the Louvre and Metropolitan Museum of Art went online in 1995, and the V & A and British Museum in 1996. By 1995, in a work by David Bearman called Information Strategies and Structures For Electronic Museums, the ultimate aim of every museum was already seen to be that of ‘making its entire collection available online, all the time’.

3 Mus des BeauxArts Reims The page for the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Reims

This did not of course happen. For many museums today – for instance, those in provincial France or Italy, where a large number of institutions have a single page on the website of their local town – it’s still far from happening; and even for those museums which have tried to make as much of their collections as possible available in virtual form, the antique picture frames which form an important part of those collections have generally been either disregarded or treated very cursorily.

4 Rijksmuseum Ferdinand Bol Self Portrait c1669 Rijksmuseum smFerdinand Bol, Self-portrait, c.1669, Rijksmuseum

Where frames could be found online relatively early was in those places where there was already a body of information, and – crucially – a bank of images. This is a point which should be emphasized, since paintings have historically been removed from their frames to be photographed by their holding institutions, or have been photographed framed by – for instance – auction houses, only to have the frames cut out in the sale catalogues. However, the Rijksmusem had held the pioneering exhibition Prijst de lijst (or ‘In Praise of the frame’) in 1984, and therefore already possessed all the catalogue images of framed works for its own entries. This enabled it to include a core group of 17th century paintings in their frames on its website, with short captions. The image you see above was downloaded from this website several years ago, before all the frame entries mysteriously disappeared.

5 Florentine frame c1480to1500 sm

Aedicule with painted lunette of The Trinity, Florentine, c.1480-1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Likewise, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had held an exhibition of Italian Renaissance frames in 1990, accompanied by an eponymously-titled catalogue similar to Prijst de lijst. It included a knowledgeable introductory essay, which combined information on the construction of Renaissance frames with sources in architecture and the applied arts, the input of artists and the flux and flow of styles.

6 Florentine frame c1480to1500 No 11 in Italian Ren Frames Met Mus NY CAT no 11

Cover & page from Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca, & Laurence B. Kanter, Italian Renaissance Frames, exh. cat., 1990 (now available online)

Each exhibit had its own catalogue entry and profile drawing, and – as with the Rijksmuseum frames – an image and a caption-like resumé, the last two of which were quite rapidly incorporated into the website of the Metropolitan Museum.

7 Met Mus NY frame search collage

A search for ‘picture frames‘ (May 2015) on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was soon possible to do a search on the Met’s website with the term ‘frame’ or ‘picture frames’, and find both framed paintings and empty frames. The Museum had a ready-made pool of both occupied and empty frames in the Robert Lehman collection, and of empty frames in the Samuel Kress collection, all of which would have been photographed in the same way as other objects it possessed.  This is an important factor in what it is possible to put online, since even now institutions are resistant to rephotographing their collections to include the frames as well as the paintings. It is a slight flaw in the otherwise excellent project of the Public Catalogue Foundation, that, in recording every single painting in institutions throughout the UK, the opportunity wasn’t taken of recording the frames at the same time.

It should be pointed out that it is not always necessary to have the work in question removed into a photography studio, the frame taken off, both items shot, and then the two photos recombined in Photoshop, as photographers might like to urge. Curators with cameras or even mobile phones can do a thoroughly efficient job of recording a framed painting hanging on a gallery wall, and the result – as well as being much cheaper and faster – will often look more natural than the combed and powder-puffed results of a studio sitting.

8 Exhs & books collage

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that a sort of tipping point in the academic study of frame history was reached in the UK. In 1996 three complementary exhibitions had opened in London: The Art of the Picture Frame at the National Portrait Gallery,  Frameworks at Paul Mitchell Ltd, and A Hang of English Frames at Arnold Wiggins and Sons. All of these were noticed in reviews in the broadsheets – such as The Independent – as were the books or pamphlets which accompanied them. The next year, in 1997, Nicholas Penny published his Pocket Guide to Frames, based on the collection in the National Gallery. Interest in the history of picture frames, even apart from what they contained, seemed to be sparking a sustained need for a mine of knowledge on the subject – rather than isolated nuggets.

9 NPG Art of the Picture Frame 1st page

National Portrait Gallery website> Research > The Art of the Picture Frame

And now there was another outlet for the research behind both books and exhibitions: use of the internet had by this time become so well-established that it could support some of the content which was otherwise only available to those who could visit the exhibition or afford the book. In 1998 a separate section of the NPG website, The Art of the Picture Frame, was launched by Jacob Simon, curator of the exhibition and author of the catalogue. It began with updates on the exhibition, but swiftly grew to include a library of articles. These dealt with frames in various collections; the frames used by particular artists or made by known craftsmen; types of frame; reviews; and a bibliography of frame-related articles and books. The website contains relatively few images of frames, but is currently one of the greatest online resources for information on the subject. It provides a pioneering example of how the internet might be used for relatively esoteric subjects (where publishing them on paper might be too expensive, and showing them might be too localized).

10 NPG Frames on the internet 1

By 2004 it also contained a basic list of other websites to do with frames, both museum-related and commercial. This seemed to look forward to a network of links which would connect a sort of global manifestation of images, research and articles on the history of frames. With the Tate, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Louvre and the Rijksmusem all appearing, however tentatively, to show some interest in publicizing their frames, and with a substantial number of good frames in the Met already searchable, it did seem as though that 1995 aim for ‘museums to make their entire collections available online, all the time’ might actually happen, and that picture frames would definitely be included.

11 Rijksmuseum search collage

17th century framed paintings accessible on the Rijksmuseum website in 2004: Bol’s Self-portrait, Mierevelt’s Jacob Cats, & Van der Velde I’s Battle of Livorno

At that point it was still possible to find on the Rijksmuseum website some of its most striking and beautiful Auricular and Lutma frames, just as they had appeared in the Prijst de lijst catalogue.  It was possible, too, to search for them both in Dutch and in English: this was an optimistic and promising tool which enabled anyone looking for those pictures online to see them as whole objects of art, complete with their own original settings. It allowed the spectator to experience them rather more as though they were hanging on the walls of the gallery, not cut from their frames and stuck without context or scale in the pages of a book.

12 NPG Frames on the internet

Similarly, the website of the Musée du Louvre could be searched, as you see, for ‘cadres’, bringing up more than 600 thumbnail paintings in their frames, which could be enlarged in a pop-up window, as in the right-hand altarpiece of the Madonna and Child.

13 Rijksmuseum Search for lijst then lijst under materialen

Searching the Rijksmuseum website (for ‘lijst’) in 2015

Unfortunately, eleven years after that embryonic list of websites was compiled for the NPG Frames on the internet, the light has somewhat dimmed in this bright new dawn: several of the commercial websites listed have removed some or all of the articles they carried, whilst the museums have taken away many of the images of their frames. You can no longer search for the Rijksmuseum’s core collection of paintings in their original 17th century settings, and you can’t search in English. If you sort for ‘lijst’ – frame – you may find two dozen of their collection of empty frames (or you may also find 12 thousand objects with tangential connections to frames). You can, however, no longer see Ferdinand Bol’s Self-portrait as the artist designed it to be seen. Neither can you sort the Louvre website and still find 600 plus frames; and if fortuitously you discover them there for an individual artist, there is no facility for enlarging or zooming in. Sites such as Birmingham Art Gallery also seem to have cut back on searching their collection, and on seeing frames other than in gallery shots.

In the case of the museums, this seems partly to be fallout from the current curatorial idea that it’s important to make art appear easy and ‘fun’ in order to attract anyone under thirty-five into a museum, and that gallery websites should be zingy and interactive.

14 Rijksmuseum search Early Neth 1

The Rijksmuseum, with its Rijksstudio which lets you download bits of its works of art to brighten up your Fiat Panda, has made this application immediate and straightforward to use, whilst the online catalogue of early Netherlandish paintings, containing 163 works of which 30 have original frames, is tucked away in an obscure part of the website which appeared completely undiscoverable until Hubert Baija explained the route to it (go to ‘Collection‘ > ‘Research & library‘ >’Publications’ > ‘Online catalogue‘).

15 Rijksmuseum search Early Neth

Who would know, from the jauntily hip home page of this museum, that it has catalogued two thousand of its frames, and that this body of knowledge is waiting to be uploaded whenever the IT department can get round to it? – or that, as The New York Times reported on 13th May 2015, it intends to digitize all one million objects in its collection by 2020? In fact, the Rijksmuseum sponsored a conference on digitizing museum collections in April 2015, so it is to be hoped that the scholarly aspect of this work gets as much of a look in on its website as the opportunity to download art and play with it.

16 NPG search Directory

National Portrait Gallery > Research > The Art of the Picture Frame > British Picture Framemakers, 1600-1950

A slightly different body of knowledge has had a happier and much more rapid landing. In 2007 Jacob Simon launched the Directory of British Picture Framemakers on the NPG website – this provides 350 years’ coverage of the main craftsmen who can be tracked through the work they did for artists, collectors and institutions; it is a major production, containing a staggering amount of meticulously verified detail from a wide number of sources. It collects together for the first time carvers, gilders and purveyors of compo ornament. It rescues them from the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, where what they made was lost in a sea of sofas, and it gives a hugely informative picture of the art market across the centuries, seen through the men who bought and sold and commissioned within it. It is also continually being updated, refined and added to. If it only included illustrations, and could be cross-indexed for artists and clients, it would be the nirvana of frame research (you will have to make your own way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the drawings by Gideon Saint in the image above; – at least, for now…).

17 NT Knole search

National Trust Collections – Knole: Sir Peter Lely, Barbara Villiers, c.1662

Other institutions have also exhibited hopeful signs of making their picture frames searchable and available to scholars. The National Trust Collections website, for example, has a category in its ‘search’ facility for ‘Frames’ (you need to pair this with ‘Art – oil paintings’ to avoid being drowned in a welter of chair frames, bed frames and door frames). The images it produces aren’t great in terms of lighting, focus and frequent wonkiness, and there’s no information on the frames themselves; however, they are there – lots of them – which is extremely helpful. These are frames which may sometimes be original, and which otherwise are the choice of the patrons who acquired them, or of the children who inherited and wished to put their mark on that particular collection. Either way, many of them are of as much historic importance as the furniture in the houses where they hang, and the opportunity to see them online is invaluable.

18 Yale CBA search

Yale Center for British Art (Collections) > Search > Frames > Find [for all frames]

Likewise, the Yale Center for British Art finished cataloguing its frame collection a couple of years ago. It owns some stunning and beautifully crafted frames, on a par with the quality of its paintings. Now they have been photographed in downloadable high resolution images, with additional details; they’ve been dated, and have had their profiles and ornament described. Unfortunately a glitch in programming means that you can’t click between the painting page and the frame page, and of course there may also be other infelicities here and there; but everything is improvable, and this project stands as a solid statement of the importance of antique – sometimes original – frames to the paintings they enclose.

19 Royal Academy website

Royal Academy interior & website; Turner, Dolbadern Castle, 1800, Diploma work in its original frame

The Royal Academy is also in the process of cataloguing part of its collection of frames. Many of these contain the paintings given by artists when they were admitted as academicians: these are the Diploma Works, which have generally remained in the frames in which they arrived, thus presenting an unrivalled collection of British paintings in their original settings from the 1760s onwards. Unlike the paintings in National Trust houses, where the artist would have had less input on the style of setting for his work, compared with the collector or even the relevant architect, the Diploma Works in the Royal Academy were all framed by the artists who painted them. This gives us valuable view of taste as it was promulgated by those creating the art: a view which will obviously be slightly different from that of the architects producing the background for that art, or from the patrons who acquired it.

20 All museums & logos sm

Future steps in this cataloguing process would ideally link the two institutions where British frames have been catalogued – the Yale Center for British Art and the Royal Academy; and – if the NPG can put online the images of its frames used for The Art of the Picture Frame exhibition, and information from the catalogue – then all three databases could be interconnected through their respective websites. It would be ideal if Tate Britain could join in this process, and if it could then reach out across the country to important collections of British art in provincial museums. Cross-indexing the NPG Directory of British Framemakers for artists and patrons (on the NPG site, rather than through browsers) might then link the craftsmen who made the frames to examples, attributed examples or possible examples of their work in museums and galleries, and perhaps even in National Trust Houses.  In 2004, Roy Hawkey of King’s College London reported that,

‘Virtual visitors to museum websites already out-number physical (on-site) visitors, and many of these are engaged in dedicated learning’.

This is such an exciting opportunity; and – since the US and the UK will soon already have mutually accessible virtual collections of frames, through the Yale Center and the Royal Academy – there’s no reason why this should not eventually become an international project: a global hub of information on picture frames, linking museums in every country, and drawing in collections in historic houses, and even in churches.

21 Balla Hugo

The Frame Blog was founded in this spirit – as an online magazine with, it was hoped, an international scope. If you are reading this, you may have some idea of what has been covered here so far, and if not, you can see from the archived pieces already published. Subjects have included Baroque French frames, British and Russian frames of all periods, Italian Renaissance and Mannerist frames, a Venetian altarpiece in Croatia, Netherlandish frames, American frames, Greek Orthodox shrines and iconostases, book reviews, reviews of exhibitions and auction sales. Curators and conservators from institutions of many different kinds, and in many different countries, have helped to give it substance, not only by contributing articles, but by generously providing large, clear images of paintings in their frames, which have hitherto been hard to obtain.

The reaction to The Frame Blog has been very positive, revealing the interest there is in this subject worldwide, and how little information has been available up to now, save in a widely diffused and scattered form. Compared with the mountains of research on paintings which have been rearing up ever since the 19th century, similar output on frames has been almost invisibly low. And yet this is an object which acts as a fulcrum between the spectator and the artwork, throwing literal and metaphorical light upon it… it binds the picture to the architectural interior in which it hangs; mediates between paintings from different eras and locations; and often stands as a major work of sculpture in its own right.

The frame is a complex and diverse object, and the internet is peculiarly suited to harbouring framing studies – partly because it can show better and clearer images than a book can, and from several different angles, and partly because of the wonderful flexibility of hyperlinks – which mean that you can build in references to other websites on architecture, the decorative arts, other frames, etc. Now we just have to persuade all those museums on the planet which carry collections of framed art of the importance of these interconnections.

22 Palazzo Doria Pamphilji








Restoring a Grinling Gibbons frame

Jevon Thistlewood, paintings conservator at the Ashmolean Museum, describes the process of restoring an extraordinarily delicate and attributive frame by Grinling Gibbons to its original 17th century appearance.


John Riley, Elias Ashmole, 1683, carved & gilded frame by Grinling Gibbons (WA1898.36), prior to recent restoration, in the former Founders Gallery, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 On 2 February 1683, Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) wrote in his diary, ‘My picture (after sent to Oxford) came home.’ [1] He was referring to a portrait since attributed to John Riley [2]. A new building was nearing completion in Broad Street, Oxford, which would house Ashmole’s Museum on the top floor, with a School of Natural History below and a laboratory for chemical experimentation in the basement [3]. The Museum opened to the general public on 6 June 1683 [4], and after visiting it on 17 July 1683, Sir Thomas Molyneux wrote to his brother:

‘The Museum Ashmoleanum is the highest; the walls of which are all hung round with John Tradescant’s rarities, and several others of Mr Ashmole’s own gathering; his picture hangs up at one end of the room, with a curious carved frame about it, of Gibbins his work.’ [5]

This is a very early account of the portrait, and – whilst Molyneux does not elaborate on it – he does draw attention to the frame and its creator. There was clearly interest in and a certain cachet to the work of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). In the preceding year Gibbons had commissioned Ashmole to cast his horoscope [6], and it is sometimes suggested that the frame was provided as payment for this. Whether or not this is true, it does at least document a working relationship between the two men.


John Smith after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Grinling Gibbons (WA1863.1193), © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 Robert Plot, the first Keeper of the Museum’s collection, was also the Professor of Chemistry, through these rôles forming a connection between museum, teaching and laboratory. In preparation for a catalogue, he wrote the following entry for the portrait and frame in 1685:

‘Pictura venustissima ornatissimi viri Dni Eliae Ashmole hujus Musæi instructoris munificentissimi, Limbo e Tiliâ arte prorsus Thaumaturgicâ cælato, adornata.’

(A very beautiful picture of that greatly distinguished man, Master Elias Ashmole, the most munificent founder of this Museum, adorned with a lime-wood frame, carved with an art truly miraculous) [7].

In contrast to his other frame entries Plot does not mention gilding, and his praise suggests that this frame is worthy of exhibition status in its own right. In a museum of man-made and natural wonders from around the world, Gibbons’s work was given a prime position on Ashmole’s portrait. I would suggest this deal suited both men well. The extent of the known world is also reflected in some of the plants represented on the frame.

To be thorough, I should also mention Celia Fiennes’s visit between 1689 and 1702 (although there is some question as to the accuracy of her description). She noted that,

‘…there is the picture of a Gentleman yt was a Great benefactor to it being a travailer; the fframe of his picture is all wood carved very finely with all sorts of figures, leaves, birds, beast and flowers’ [8].

Whilst the birds and beasts were misremembered, her description does indicate that this frame was of particular note, and that such carving was expected to be seen ungilded, in the wood.

Given Ashmole’s royalist loyalties, it is perhaps unsurprising that both Riley and Gibbons had worked for the King. Riley had painted several portraits of Charles II [9], whilst Gibbons had worked at Windsor Castle, completing the Cosimo panel by 1682.


John Riley, Elias Ashmole; detail of the lace cravat © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Riley’s portrait appears to have a coincidental comparison to Gibbons’s carving, for instance in his execution of Ashmole’s stiff lace cravat. Whilst very much of the fashion, it appears to be particularly columnar, in comparison with similar falls of lace in other works by Riley. Is it possible that Riley had Gibbons’s work in mind – perhaps specifically the cravat he carved from wood, and which was owned by Horace Walpole? [10]

Amongst Gibbons’s other works, the Ashmole frame appears to show a development in style related to overmantels [11]: the vertical arrangements in particular are densely packed, and yet there is separation between the groups of objects. Key to maintaining continuity between these groups is the tumbling drapery on either side. These motifs re-appear in his work of a decade or so later, to different effect and without the added complication of a decorative border to contend with. The frame has a general, rather than a strict symmetry, perhaps revealing more input from the master carver rather than his assistants. It is constructed from four lengths of limewood in which forms have been carved to a depth of up to 55 millimetres. This is perhaps most impressive in the ‘acanthus whorls’ [12] at the top of the frame. In several places an additional layer of limewood has been added, where elements are required to project up to 65 millimetres further forward. Undercutting and surface refinement has been restricted to those areas which can be seen. Not only did this reduce the amount of work required, it also provides much needed support to what appear otherwise to be delicate floating forms.

In 2011, painting and frame were removed from display in the Ashmolean for urgent conservation work. Of most concern with regard to the frame was the integral strength of the top member, which had long ceased to support its own weight and was close to serious failure. This was principally due to the many historic repairs which had been carried out using animal glue, strapping or plaster around metal rods which were failing. Access to remedy these was hampered by a second feature of the frame, namely the much-debated, thick, lumpy gold coating, which had often been described as gold paint.

Image_04 A flaked loss from the frame turned upside-down to view the surface which has detached from the wood [13] © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This seemed an opportune moment to examine the finish of the frame, and fortuitously there were extensive losses and flaking along top edges which easily provided samples. These were taken from various areas of the frame and examined in cross-section. They revealed that the frame had been oil-gilded over white paint, which had been thickly applied to the greasy, sooty surface of the limewood. There was no evidence of earlier layers beneath the soot, nor of toning over the gold.


A representative sample from the frame shown in cross-section © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Looking at the layers identified in the sample, the first was a sooty layer deposited on the surface of the limewood. The Museum in Broad Street had been dependent on coal fires for warmth until the end of 1885, when a hot water heating system was installed. Some improvements had been made by moving to closed systems of heating, but essentially coal burning was still the main source of warmth. Under William Huddesford’s keepership [14], ‘some [objects] at least fell victim very quickly to the sulphurous atmosphere in the early Museum, promoted by the open coal fires’ [15].



A view of the ground floor of the Museum, c.1870, showing the framed portrait high above a fireplace © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

At some point after 1833 the display of the collection was reorganised and expanded over two floors, and in a photograph of around forty years later we can see the portrait and frame hanging high above a large fireplace on the ground floor. This was one of the few paintings that was prominently displayed, as around the mid nineteenth century it was considered that ‘…the paintings, so foreign to the purpose of the museum, if they must be retained, should be more condensed’ [16].


A detail of the frame during conservation showing the limewood ingrained with soot in places © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Over this sooty surface, the frame had been thickly painted with a lead-based white paint [17]. The limewood had been attacked by insects at some point, and there were holes which were either filled with paint, or, to a lesser extent, open, which suggests that the paint was applied after an insect attack, but that some insects had managed to escape. This chimes in with comments made regarding the white paint on Gibbons’s carved reredos in the Chapel of Trinity College, Oxford (c.1694):

‘To paint or varnish good carving is indeed barbarous… At the same time, whatever may have been the treatment here, the carvings appear to have made since a good recovery. The reredos indeed may have been saved from woodworm.’ [18]

 On the same subject Tipping noted that,

‘…what is not dark and shiny is white, for a coat of paint of that colour hides all the delicacy of touch of the magnificent limewood carvings about the altar…[19]

In fact, Tipping has many more examples of Gibbons’s work which had subsequently been over-painted, stained or varnished. There are therefore connections being made between paint being used to prevent insect damage, and the same paint concealing fine detail [20]. In 1855 we know that the Museum had a problem with worm-eaten specimens, because the underkeeper George Augustus Rowell was boiling them in a ‘solution of thin size and tobacco water’ and when dry, brushing them with ‘size and corrosive sublimate’ [21]. It is also worth noting that timber wainscoting around the walls of the lower floor was removed, along with the oak partitioning, in the 1833 reorganisation [22].

Image_10 & 11

Two cross-sections showing lead salt development © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Samples in cross-section show that the white paint had developed lead soaps [23] which had resulted in small protrusions, producing a gritty surface.


An exhibition label attached to the reverse of the painting © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In 1866 the portrait was included in The First Special Exhibition of National Portraits ending with the reign of King James the Second on loan to the South Kensington Museum [24]. This is the first time that the work had been seen in the context of a picture gallery, and thus is the most likely occasion for the requirement of a gold finish on the picture’s frame.


A detail of the frame showing the gritty surface © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The oil size and gold leaf were applied directly to the white paint and have taken up the surface characteristics of the gritty, painted layer.

During the late 19th century there appears to have been a re-evaluation of the frame’s attribution to Grinling Gibbons. This is illustrated by Charles Francis Bell’s 1898 description [25] of it as being ‘carved in high relief in the manner of Grinling Gibbons and gilded’ [26]. Notably, this is the first recorded mention of the frame’s being gilded and it is clearly more restrained in enthusiasm than the earlier ‘splendid specimen of the carving of the famous Gibbons’ which appears in Philip Bury Duncan’s catalogue of 1836 [27]. It is my belief that the over-painting and gilding of the frame were connected to, if not responsible for, the subsequent re-appraisal of quality.


Tim Newbery working on the frame

In 2013, with support from The Idlewild Trust, The Leche Trust and the van Houten Fund, Timothy Newbery was commissioned to lead the restoration of the frame.


A cleaning test carried out to investigate the removal of layers of oil gilding and white paint © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This included urgent repairs to broken and missing sections, in conjunction with the removal of the white paint and oil-gilding.


A detail of the frame during restoration © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Isolated sections of insect damage were successfully consolidated without saturating the surrounding limewood. The restored frame is self-supporting once more. It has a darkened appearance from many years of natural seasoning, and yet it still provides a lighter contrast to the dark brown background of the portrait. In short, the painting and the frame appear to work well together following restoration.

The shield at the crest of the frame, together with the figures of Mercury [28] and the twins of Gemini [29], warrant a special mention. The combined unit was carved from a separate piece of wood and incorporated to sit neatly above a string of lily-of-the-valley flowers and amongst acanthus stems. The arms displayed are those of Ashmole [30] quartered with those of his father-in-law, Sir William Dugdale [31]. The shield is the only area where sampling uncovered an earlier scheme of decoration. It is unsurprising, given that Ashmole was a former Windsor Herald, that he had the arms accurately painted with the appropriate colours. However, when the frame had been over-painted and gilded, a mistake had been made in repainting the Dugdale arms which would have been unthinkable to Ashmole himself [32]. A background intended to be silver was now gold. Sadly, it was neither possible or safe to reveal the original decoration, and in any case the silver appeared to be mostly blackened.


The heraldic shield after restoration © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

However, to give some sense of the original colours, a reversible silver finish was applied to the background on the right-hand side. Curiously, it was possible to reveal one small element of early gilding. The motto ‘Ex Uno Omnia’ beneath the arms had escaped the white paint and oil-gilding, and instead had been overpainted black, presumably to increase legibility. With appropriate testing, it was possible successfully to remove the black overpaint.


Wooden wedge inserted behind the heraldic shield on the crest of the frame © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

At some point the top of the shield had been forced forward by inserting a wooden wedge from behind. This seems to have been done to make the shield tilt forward and become more legible when seen at a greater height than originally intended. This could also explain the black overpaint added to the motto; and, as we can see in the c. 1870 photograph, the frame and portrait were displayed as high as possible, close to the ceiling. This tilting of the shield had meant that nearby sections of the acanthus were broken and moved to create the necessary space. The numerous breaks were then re-joined out of alignment, considerably undermining their intended function in the support and distribution of the central weight in the top member.


Repairs to acanthus sections © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

These acanthus sections were taken apart, repaired and reconstructed, and to allow correct alignment and function, the shield was moved back to its original position.


Detail of the carving showing a Turk’s Cap lily flower below that of a camellia © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

As details emerged during restoration, the various species of plant included in this work were identified by flower, leaf, fruit and pod. The total number is particularly high, with as many as fifty species from the 17th century appearing [33] – amongst his many interests, Ashmole included botany. Although the majority of the plants identified were established in England, there are a few from further afield such as cedrela from the Caribbean and Central and South America, camellias from East Asia, and freesias from Southern Africa. These plants highlight both the international trade in plants and the extent of the known world; and links can therefore be made with the Tradescants, who were both royal gardeners and great plant-hunters during the 17th century.


Detail of the carving showing the isolated Virginia spiderwort flower © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Ashmole was particularly indebted to John Tradescant the Younger for much of his founding collection for the museum. An isolated flower of the Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) on the left of the lower edge of the frame must surely be a direct reference.


Detail of the carving showing the flower of the tulip tree turned away from the viewer © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Nearby there is the flower of John Tradescant the Elder’s tulip tree turning away from the viewer.


The temporary gallery display Ex Uno Omnia on view during 2014 in the Ark to Ashmolean Gallery © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In 2014 the frame was central to a temporary gallery display organised and supported by the University Engagement Programme. Ex Uno Omnia: ‘Everything Out of One’ was a collaborative project with six postgraduate students from Oxford University who were invited to study the frame from a variety of perspectives in parallel with its restoration[34].


John Rile (attrib.), Elias Ashmole, with carved frame by Grinling Gibbons (WA1898.36), after restoration, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The frame and portrait of Elias Ashmole were reunited towards the end of 2014 and are currently on display in the Ark to Ashmolean Gallery.


John Riley (attrib.), Charles II, frame attrib. to studio of Grinling Gibbons (WA1898.39), © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The astute reader will be aware that a few years after the Museum opened, it acquired two portraits, since attributed to Riley, of Charles II and James II. Each was adorned with an oval frame attributed to Grinling Gibbons, but much smaller than the frame for Ashmole’s portrait. In 1685 Plot describes them as:

‘Effigies Serenissimi Principis Caroli 2di Regis Angl etc. Limbo e Tilia elegantissime cælato ac deaurato, adornata

Effigies Serenissimi Principis Jacobi 2di Regis Angl etc. simili Limbo adornata.’

(Portrait of the most serene prince, Charles II, king of England etc., adorned with a lime-wood frame, most elegantly carved and gilded

Portrait of the most serene prince, James II, king of England etc., adorned with a similar frame [35])


John Riley (attrib.), James II, frame attrib. to studio of Grinling Gibbons (WA1898.40), © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Together with evidence from sampling these descriptions show that the oval frames were originally gilded. At some stage later they were regilded over a thick application of lead white paint in a manner almost identical to that described earlier in this article. Of most urgent concern is the dramatic surface cracking which can be found in places on both frames. Understanding more about the original intentions regarding the creation and display of these frames may lead to new understanding of their present condition and future care.


A while ago now, I was invited to write this article about a recent frame project. I would like to make it clear that the views I express are my own unless otherwise indicated. Along the way the project benefitted greatly from the knowledge, thoughts and expertise of many. It is not possible to name every person, but I have tried to provide references where possible. The project is particularly indebted to the work of Peter Cannon-Brookes in his article ‘Elias Ashmole, Grinling Gibbons and Three Picture Frames’. Please note that the images included in this article are all reproduced with the copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Jevon Thistlewood


Jevon Thistlewood received an MA in the Conservation of Fine Art from Northumbria University in 2000, specialising in Easel Paintings. Previous qualifications include a BSc in Chemistry and a MA in Sculpture Studies from the University of Leeds. In 2007 he joined the Ashmolean as a Paintings Conservator, the first person to hold such a post at the museum which opened in 1683.


[1] R.T. Gunter, The Diary and Will of Elias Ashmole, edited and extended from the original manuscripts, Oxford, 1927, p.124.

[2] In 1898 C. F. Bell (then Assistant Keeper) assigned this change in the attribution with an account of the reasoning in his Description of Portraits in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford in the Ashmolean Museum Archive, File AMS 22.

[3] J.A. Bennett, S.A. Johnston, & A.V. Simcock, Solomon’s House in Oxford: New Finds from the First Museum, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, 2000, p. 14.

[4] R.F. Ovenell,The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894, Clarendon Press Oxford,1986, p.22.

[5] Sir Thomas Molyneux, Fellow of the King ad Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland; Professor of the Practice of Physic to the University of Dublin in 1717; State Physician, and Physician General to the Army, &c.

[6] e.g in D. Green, ‘Grinling Gibbons: His Work as a Carver and Statuary 1648-1721’, Country Life, 1964, pp. 22-23.

[7] Thanks to Bryan Ward-Perkins (University of Oxford) for this translation from 17th century Latin.

[8] Celia Fiennes, Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, Field and Tuer, The Leadenhall Press, London,1888.

[9] Regarding one of these, the King is said to have remarked, ‘Is this like me? Oddsfish, then I’m an ugly fellow’. This particular portrait has a very similar arrangement and posture to that of Ashmole.

[10] Grinling Gibbons’s carved cravat is dated ‘post 1682’ in Esterly, ibid.; it is now in the collection of the V & A.

[11] The development of Grinling Gibbons’ overmantels is described by David Esterly, Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving, exh. cat., V & A, 1998.

[12] A term taken from Esterly, ibid., p. 185: ‘This vortex impulse in Gibbon’s work takes its most extreme form in his acanthus whorls, those cyclonic forms which seem to flow into their own centre.’ We find a similar use in H.A. Tipping, ‘Grinling Gibbons and the Woodwork of his Age (1648-1720)’, Country Life, 1914, p.195: ‘…convex carving of whorled scrolling’.

[13] The surface where a loss of adhesion has occurred can sometimes provide useful information as to the cause of the failure.

[14] Between 1755 and 1772.

[15] Arthur MacGregor, ‘The Ashmolean as a museum of natural history, 1683-1860. Journal of the History of Collections 13, no.2, (2001), p. 136.

[16] R.F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894, Clarendon Press Oxford,1986, p.194 & 201.

[17] With thanks to Cranfield University for handheld XRF analysis.

[18] D. Green, op.cit., p. 84.

[19] H.A. Tipping, op.cit., p.146.

[20] To reiterate the point, there is a parishioner’s complaint in 1895 regarding the Gibbons’ font cover in All Hallows church which reads, ‘I never walk by the font without wondering how long the coating of white paint will be allowed to veil the glories of the richly-carved cover … And it is passing strange that it should ever have been desecrated with paint’. See F. Oughton, Grinling Gibbons and the English woodcarving tradition, Stobart, London, 1979, p.118.

[21] R.F. Ovenell, op.cit., p.222.

[22] One of the teaching rooms on the ground floor prior to 1833 can be seen in a lithograph of the Special lecture given by William Buckland in the Old Ashmolean Museum, 15th February, 1823  Post 1833, the ground floor was opened up with columns as shown in an engraving of 1836.  See also R.F. Ovenell, ibid., p.202.

[23] Lead fatty acid salts are often observed in cross-sections containing lead-based pigments. I will leave the explanation to others. The result is the development of translucent circular masses in the paint layer which migrate to towards the surface, creating small protrusions. The voids can have associated orange lead salt formation. Small circular craters on the surface may also be an indication that protrusions have been abrasively cleaned away. Further information here.

[24] Catalogue entry number 991.

[25] Bell worked at the Museum between 1896 and 1932 as an Assistant Keeper, then as the first Keeper of the Fine Art Department in 1909.

[26] C.F. Bell, op.cit.

[27] Keeper of the Museum between 1829 and 1854.

[28] Ashmole identified with the figure of Mercury or Hermes, referring to himself by the astrological symbol for Mercury; he also believed that he was born under the planet Mercury. The element has a strong association with alchemy, another of Ashmole’s interests, whilst the god moved between the spiritual and material worlds. The carved figure of Mercury on the crest of the frame has a slot in its right hand which was presumably designed to hold a caduceus, now lost.

[29] Ashmole was born 23 May 1617 and therefore considered a Gemini (with the ruling planet of Mercury).

[30] Quarterly sable and or, a fleur de lis in the first quarter. This was granted to Ashmole after the Restoration to replace his previous arms.

[31] Argent, a millrind cross gules with a roundel gules in the dexter canton.

[32] Peter Cannon-Brookes, ‘Elias Ashmole, Grinling Gibbons and Three Picture Frames’, Museum Management and Curatorship, vol. 18, no 2, June 1999, pp183–189.

[33] Thanks to Stephen Harris and Katherine French (University of Oxford) for all their work in identifying the species of plants around this frame

[34] Content included ‘The Gibbons frame – a window to the man Elias Ashmole’, by Rahul Kulka; ‘The art of stripping’ by Anita Paz; ‘Botany in 17th century Oxford’ by Katherine French; ‘Self-fashioning’ by Lauren Kaufman; ‘Where art and nature meet’ by Dina Akhmadeeva; and ‘A fruitful frame’ by Bethany Pleydell (all University of Oxford). Further information here.

[35] Thanks to Bryan Ward-Perkins for this second translation.

Recreating an Auricular frame

The Dutch sculptor and woodcarver, Maarten Robert, who also works in the restoration of antique carvings and woodwork, describes how he carried out a commission from the Rijksmuseum to recreate an historic frame for the Portrait of a man by Ferdinand Bol, based on an existing original model. The model is discussed at the end of Maarten’s article.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Ferdinand Bol (1616-80), Portrait of a man, 1663, 124 x 100 cm, Rijksmuseum.

Research into the form and function of the 17th century picture frame in the Netherlands was fundamentally altered by the work of P.J.J. van Thiel and C.J. de Bruyn Kops; their effort – and the effect it had in institutions around the world – should never be forgotten. Van Thiel, a former curator of 17th century paintings in the Rijksmuseum, was passionate on the subject of historic frames: a passion which resulted in a major exhibition in 1984, Prijst de Lijst, with its accompanying eponymous catalogue [1].

Both exhibition and catalogue may have influenced other museums and galleries to examine the frames in their collections, and their relationship with the paintings they housed. At that point, the Rijksmuseum was one of those institutions which judged it important to find more suitable frames for works in their collection which were noticeably misframed. This was not a problem when the question was one of obtaining an antique frame in a generic style; however, when a one-off or individual carved period frame was called for, there were various objections to making a replica.

One of the main problems was an overriding feeling that the product even of a master carver could appear disturbingly anachronistic and of its own time, or would at best date quite rapidly. Moreover, there is an enduring opinion that a copy of a sculpted frame is inauthentic, and does not therefore belong in a traditional museum. Thus, when Pieter van Thiel decided to look for a master sculptor to reproduce a suitable historic setting for Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a man, it was a courageous and idiosyncratic decision. It was, however, supported by all the research by both Van Thiel and De Bruyn Kops which had produced Prijst de Lijst.

Opnamedatum: 2013-08-22 SK-L-1175 Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in its previous 17th century Italian frame

Until that moment, Bol’s portrait had been displayed in a 17th century Italian frame; however, the evidence accumulated in the exhibition and catalogue had rendered that both inappropriate and undesirable. Van Thiel decided to reframe it, and since no original frame was available he opted to have a replica made. He looked for a master carver: someone who could execute the work in such a convincing manner that it would please even the most critical eye. No wonder I felt so honoured when I was entrusted with this commission.

 Creating the replica frame

3 & 11 Baen J de  Portret van Johan de Witt met lijst ed sm

Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Johan de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum 

The frame design had already been decided upon. The model chosen was one of two superb carved frames from the late 1660s, made for Jan de Baen’s portraits of Johan and Cornelis de Witt in the Dordrechts Museum (see below for a discussion of these frames, and those on De Baen’s portraits of Johan & Cornelis’s parents). They have shallow profiles decorated with modest Auricular ornament, overlaid with alternating branches of olive leaves and bay leaves which form wreaths at the top, around shields with the family’s coats of arms.

It was decided to retain the shield in the design for the replica frame, but to leave the field empty, as it is not known who is represented in Bol’s painting – an empty coat of arms being quite acceptable today. By keeping the shield in the crest, the compositional elements of the frame could be maintained. As with similar picture frames in the Rijksmuseum, limewood was to be used for making the copy, so that the frame could either be gilded or stained and polished. The decision to gild the frame or not was to be postponed until the carving was completed.

Although the portrait by De Baen is slightly bigger than that by Bol, both paintings have the same proportions: the De Baen measures 131.6 x 106.8 cm, and the Bol, 124 x 100 cm. The outside measurements of the new frame would be 155 x 132 x 7.6 cm.

4 Drawing of frame Maarten Robert, drawing of bottom rail of De Baen frame, with mascaron, displayed on a chimneypiece

Armed with a great many photographs of all the significant details of the model frame, I made a detailed full-scale drawing from it. Only at this stage could one begin to empathize with and understand the complexity of the composition, and appreciate how beautifully it had been carved by some 17th century master craftsman. A good drawing is not only used as a functional working tool, but also helps in studying the object.

5 Drawing of frame detail

Maarten Robert, drawing of bottom rail of De Baen frame, detail (turned perpendicularly, for clarity)

It was soon apparent that each carved leaf had its own individual shape and expression. This was something I had to focus on. It is one of the fascinating qualities of 17th century wood carving, giving it its own unique character compared with wood carving of a later period. Another idiosyncrasy of the frame was the relative smoothness of the Auricular ornaments – particularly of the acanthus leaf motif in the top corners, and the scrolls in the middle of the frame. And there was a certain mysterious clumsiness in the head of the sea monster, with its drowsy gaze, in the centre of the bottom rail – so characteristic of the Auricular style. It was a challenge to execute all these features with the same élan as the original. An Auricular frame is, in effect, composed of four different pieces of sculpture, which come together to compose the frame.

6 Mitred halving joint

 Mitch Peacock explains the mitred half-lap on his channel, WOmadeOD : click on image

After the drawing was approved, I started work on the construction of the frame carcase. Most Auricular frames are joined by what is known as a ‘mitred halved joint’, or a ‘mitred half-lap’. This has different lap joints at the front and back of the respective rails: or, in other words, there is a diagonal mitre at the back, and a perpendicular butt joint at the front. The video, above, shows very clearly how this is made. The double nature of the joint means that shrinkage of the wood is minimized, avoiding damage to the carving on the front, and also the spectator is hardly aware of how the frame is constructed.

7 Maarten Robert carving

Maarten Robert: carving the frame in an upright position

In order to begin the process of carving, the drawing was transferred onto the lengths of wood. At first the four rails were kept separate, and they were arranged flat on the bench for me to work on; however, at a certain point I joined them together in the form of the frame they would become, so that I could continue carving with the wood in an upright position. I still believe this is the best way to work on a frame of this size, in order to have a good overview of the whole object. It was also of great importance to have the right light falling from above, in an approximation of how the finished object would appear in the museum. Toward the end of the project it is important to keep the carving lively; – it has to be crisp and look natural, and must never be overworked. Altogether it took ten to twelve weeks to finish carving the whole frame.

Finishing the frame


Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in new replica frame before finish was applied

After Pieter van Thiel had visited my studio to see the progress of the frame, it was decided to have a trial fitting in the Gallery of Honour at the Museum, in order to see how the Bol portrait worked in its new frame. Seeing it hung with the other paintings on display in the Gallery gave a sense of how the new frame would relate to its surroundings, and what had to be done in order to harmonize it with this setting. This was an enormously thrilling moment for everyone involved; I remember how excited we all were on seeing it in place. It was at this point that the decision was taken not to gild the frame, but instead to finish it with a warm brown polish and a patina as if of age.

Opnamedatum: 2011-03-24 SK-L-6235

Details from the two side rails of the finished frame

Colouring a piece of carving as complex as this frame is a very delicate business, I must say, especially when it has to harmonize with the painting. I referred to other frames in the Rijksmuseum as models, and launched into the final stage of the work. This was done first by applying a layer of orange-yellow stain to the wood, diluted with white spirit. I then built up the colour with successive layers of brown stain, some modified with black, until exactly the right tint and tone were achieved. The frame was then finished with a coat of hard bees’ wax, and rubbed softly to give a gentle lustre.


The painting in its new frame in the Rijksmuseum

When the portrait had been fitted with its new frame it was displayed in the Gallery of Honour in the Rijksmuseum, of which I was very proud indeed. Even today, when I have worked on so many other beautiful projects, I feel that this one was one of the best and most interesting of all, and gave me great pleasure.

Pieter van Thiel sadly died in 2012; we owe his scholarship a great deal, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay him a posthumous tribute. He was a man of great knowledge with a fine eye for detail, who has left us a magnificent body of art historical research on 16th and 17th painters.

The portrait and its new frame were exhibited for about ten years, but then it disappeared from the Gallery. It went on tour on many occasions, together with other highlights from the Rijksmuseum [2]; and it caused much interest when it was displayed in the Schiphol branch of the Rijksmuseum. Unfortunately, like many other pieces of art, it has now been moved into store; it would be a wish come true for me to see it once more in the Gallery of Honour.

Making this Auricular frame so many years ago has had an inspiring influence on my work as a sculptor in wood. One result was a project consisting of a dozen carved frames, four of them based on the Auricular style, for which I invited well-known Dutch artists to paint a work inspired by one particular frame.

10  Matthijs Röling

Matthijs Röling, Garden, in walnut Auricular-style frame by Maarten Robert, 54 x 48 cm overall

This has resulted in some beautiful and interesting combinations of frames and paintings, which were exhibited in different galleries and expositions [3]. This project can still be seen on my website; it is called: ‘In het licht van de lijst’, or ‘In the brightness of the frame’.


I would like to thank Lynn Roberts for inviting me to write this article for The Frame Blog, and Hubert Baija, senior conservator of frames at the Rijksmuseum, for his comments and support.

Maarten Robert

Maarten Robert  is a sculptor and woodcarver, mainly in the fields of restoration, and a faculty member of The School for Restoration, part of the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN). He was educated at the Studio for Restoration of Ornaments and Architectural Sculpture ‘Uilenburg’ in Amsterdam. The commission to carve a frame for the portrait by Ferdinand Bol, recounted above, inspired him to make a number of frames based on the 17th century Dutch style known as Kwab Stijl or ‘Lutma’ frames; after subsequent work in Florence, he completed a number of sculpted frames inspired by the Italian Renaissance which well-known artists were invited to fill with their paintings; the second exhibition pairing such frames and canvases took place at the Nijsinghhuis in Eelde, Holland (2005). He has also lectured on his work.


The frames on the De Witt family portraits: a note by The Frame Blog

3 & 11 Baen J de  Portret van Johan de Witt met lijst ed sm Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Johan de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum 

The model for the replica frame on Bol’s Portrait of a man was one of four in the Dordrechts Museum, made for a group of family portraits by Jan de Baen. They fall into two pairs – a father and mother, Jacob de Witt and his wife, Anna van de Corput, painted c.1665, and their sons, Johan and Cornelis de Witt, painted after 1667, possibly in 1669. The frames have been through almost as much as the family, with the result that the two which frame the parents have been replaced by plaster copies, probably some time after the four were auctioned together in 1859 [4]. The two sons still retain their original carved frames (although even with these, parts have been reconstructed in plaster), and the one on the portrait of Johan de Witt (above) was chosen as the model for reframing the Bol.

11A Sea monster mascaron

Sea monster mascaron on the bottom rail of one of the frames

The two original frames and their copies have shallow, flattish profiles decorated around the edges with modest Auricular suggestions of shells and segmental forms, and voluted mascarons of sea monsters at the base. The Auricular style, with its marine motifs and cartilaginous ear-like ornament, was a Mannerist genre which used organic rather than classical references. The marine forms were especially popular in the sea-going Netherlands, and can be found in many 17th carved Dutch frames. In these particular examples, they are overlaid with alternating branches of olive leaves and bay leaves, carved in deep relief, and forming wreaths at the top around the family’s coats of arms. The top corners are decorated with acanthus leaves.

12 Jacob de Witt before restoration sm Jan de Baen, Jacob de Witt, 1665, Dordrechts Museum; framed in a replica of the original frame & before restoration removed the overpainted black ground

Olive leaves (for peace) and bays (for achievement) represent the diplomatic and political lives of father and sons: although these later ended tragically – most notably for the siblings, Johan and Cornelis [5]. Jacob de Witt, the father, was a lawyer, ambassador, burgomaster and Republican politician. Johan was also a lawyer, but became a civil servant with influence and power amounting to that of a Prime Minister; he engineered peace with Britain on terms prejudicial to the House of Orange, built up the Dutch navy, and then oversaw an even more successful peace treaty after the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Cornelis de Witt was another lawyer and burgomaster who took part in two sea battles against the English and French. These are men who, in other circumstances, affiliations, countries or eras, might have chosen to have innumerable martial and naval trophies carved on the frames of their portraits; they chose more peaceful and symbolic garlands of bay leaves and olives, however – peculiarly poignantly, in view of their respective ends.

13 Jan de Baen Jacob de Witt Ferdinand Bol Portrait of a man

Jan de Baen, Jacob de Witt after restoration; Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in replica frame

Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a man is very close in date to De Baen’s De Witt portraits, and in many ways close to them in presentation and composition. Bol’s sitter is posed in a similar attitude to De Baen’s Jacob de Witt, seated almost frontally, leaning on a support at the left, against a stormy sky; and yet how different both these subjects are from each other! Jacob de Witt is ascetic and lawyerly, static, withdrawn in gesture, the only richness of colour in the painting the carpet on which he leans and the lurid sunset in the background. The portrait of Johan de Witt, which provided the model for the frame of the Bol portrait, is perhaps even more austere than that of his father, lacking both colourful silk carpet and sunset; the animation here resides in his face, the mouth slightly open, as if about to speak, and the hand poised in rhetorical gesture. In contrast, Bol’s unknown man – variously identified as the artist and architect Jacob van Campen (1596-1657), the Flemish sculptor Artus Quellinus (1609-68), who probably taught Grinling Gibbons, and Louys Trip (1605-84), arms dealer and builder with his brother of the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam  – is relaxed, bohemian and expansive, surrounded by the work of his hands and opulently clothed in coloured velvet and silk. The branches of bay leaves are equally suitable for his achievements, since the bay is Apollo’s attribute, and Apollo is patron of the arts; if the sitter were indeed Artus Quellinus, this garland of carved limewood leaves would by coincidence be particularly appropriate – given the work of both Quellinus and his putative pupil, Gibbons.

Just as Bol’s portrait is flamboyant and colourful, where De Baen’s pictures of both Jacob and his son Johan are sober and monochrome, so the replica frame of the former is, as it were, the reverse of the latter: dark polished wood, instead of gleaming gold leaf. Paintings and frames have become, fortuitously, positive and negative images of each other, and it would be fascinating to see them exhibited side-by-side. Considering this juxtaposition, it is now also ironic that it is the modest and austere lawyers who are identified by colourful coats of arms, and the dandified sitter who sits beneath an empty shield.

14 Cornelis de Witt before restoration ed sm Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Cornelis de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum, before restoration removed the overpainted black ground of the frame

Compared with the images of his father, his mother and his brother, the portrait of Cornelis de Witt is another reverse. The picture of a man of action, set against a distant warship on a sunset sea, Cornelis wears the most extraordinary ceremonial uniform, weighed down by gold and silver braid, cinched with a tasselled sash, and finished by a rich lace cravat. He holds a baton of office, has a chased sword on his hip, and is set against a swooping red velvet curtain. He seems to exemplify the power of war, where his brother demonstrates the power of words. The scene shown in the background of the painting is the Raid on the Medway of 1667, in which the Dutch fleet, commanded by Michiel de Ruyter and supervised by Cornelis de Witt, attacked part of the British fleet which was at anchor in the River Medway. Two important British ships were captured, whilst others were lost or burnt. The Dutch victory led to the Treaty of Breda in July 1667, ending the second Anglo-Dutch War; the olive branches of peace around Cornelis’s frame are thus as appropriate as for his father and brother.

15 Anna v d Corput before restoration sm Jan de Baen, Anna van den Corputlow (d. 1645), 1665, after Gerard van Honthorst, 1639; shown before restoration, Dordrecht Museum

The four De Witt family paintings and their frames were restored in 2005 for an exhibition in the Dordrechts Museum, The De Witt brothers: Power and helplessness in the Golden Age.


Detail of one of the two original frames showing woodworm damage and the overpainted black ground. Photo: Dordrechts Museum

Their parlous condition is illustrated by the worm damage, above; presumably this was already advanced when the parents’ frames were replaced in the 19th century, and those of the sons repaired with spot reconstructions. In the course of the restoration the black ground which had been applied to the frames at some point was removed, returning them to their original golden finish [6]. The result was to render the frames far less emphatic and obtrusive, relative to the paintings; they became once more golden garlands of softly varying surface and light, focusing the attention but not stealing it.

17 Renée Velsink & Sander Paarlberg 2004

Sander Paarlberg of the Dordrechts Musem discusses the frame restoration with the restorer Renée Velsink in 2004. Photo: Dordrechts Museum

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Restoration of one of the male coats of arms. Photo: Dordrechts Museum


Restoring one of the plaster frames. Photo: Dordrechts Museum

20 Johan de Witt detail after restoration

 Jan de Baen, Johan de Witt, detail of frame after restoration. Photo: Dordrechts Museum


With grateful thanks to the Dordrechts Museum for information and photos.

[1] Prijst de lijst: De hollandse schilderlijst in de zeventiende eeuw [Praise/Prize the frame: The Dutch picture frame in the seventeenth century], exh. cat. by P.J.J. van Thiel and C.J. de Bruyn Kops, 1984, Rijksmusem, Amsterdam; translated into English as Framing in the Golden Age, 1995 (117 illus. and diagrams).

[2] Picture and frame were part of the following travelling exhibitions: 2005, The Golden Age- Highlights from the Rijksmuseum, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; 2005-2006, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe; 2007-2008, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; 2009, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; 2009-2010, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, France.Kobe; 2007-2008, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; 2009, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; 2009-2010, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, France.

[3] 2005: In the brightness of the frame: Frames by Maarten Robert, Gallery Vieleers, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Museum de Buitenplaats, Eelde, Netherlands; Gallery De Galerie, Haarlem, Netherlands; Gallery Spierenburg & Ramon, Antwerp, Belgium.

[4] Prijst de lijst: De hollandse schilderlijst in de zeventiende eeuw, exh. cat. by P.J.J. van Thiel & Bruyn Kops, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1984, no 63.

[5] Johan and Cornelis de Witt were lynched in The Hague in 1672 by a mob supporting William III of Orange. Their coat of arms shows, with rather grisly clairvoyance, two hounds hunting a hare on a green field. Jacob de Witt, the brothers’ father, had moved to The Hague in his late 60s, but after the murder of his sons (when he was 83) he moved back to his birthplace, Dordrecht, where he died two years later. His wife had died decades earlier, in 1645, and Jan de Baen copied her portrait from one of 1639 by Gerard van Honthorst, updating her costume to that of the mid-1660s.

[6] Information from Sander Paarlberg, Curator of Old Master Paintings, Dordrechts Museum. The frame restoration was carried out by Renée Velsink in Gouda.

Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames – an exhibition at the National Gallery, London

An exhibition at the National Gallery examines one of the most decorative and flamboyant of frame designs; it runs from 1 April to 13 September 2015, and is reviewed here by Michael Savage, otherwise known as Grumpy Art Historian.

 1 Cat sm

A partially gilded carved walnut Sansovino frame, probably dating from the 1550s; frame: 140 × 147 cm.; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner

With their scrolls and swags of fruit, cherubim and grotesque masks, dark walnut and shimmering gilt, ‘Sansovino’ frames are a riot of decoration and a marked contrast to the sobriety of the tabernacle frames often used on contemporary altarpieces. They originated in sixteenth century Venice (although probably not with Sansovino) and became popular throughout Europe.

Picture frames have a subordinate function, both providing a setting for the picture and playing a part in the overall ‘look’ of an interior. That makes it easy to think of them in only a supporting role and to lose sight of their independent artistry. Frames were expensive and a good deal of thought went into design and execution. The best frames are finely carved and well conceived. But others are more summary, and more arbitrarily decorative. This exhibition made me appreciate some quite stark differences in quality that aren’t immediately apparent when looking only at the immediate overall effect.

2 Cat 10 sm

A carved and partially gilded Sansovino frame, 1560-80; frame: 75 × 100 cm.; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner

The excellent catalogue proposes a later date for the more restrained frames, and suggests that the most wildly decorated were earliest. That suggests that the earlier frames borrowed broadly from sculpture and furniture, throwing together images playfully and exuberantly. The later frames seem to have been conceived with a narrower purpose in mind, more strictly subordinate to the pictures and with form more closely tied to specific purpose. Given the paucity of evidence, the proposed dating must be speculative and I suspect styles overlapped and persisted, but it’s a helpful way of thinking about groupings.


Titian, Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, c.1528, o/c, 84 x 73.5 cm, NG3949. © The National Gallery, London

Seeing frames without pictures makes you focus on the artistry of the frames themselves, reflecting on quality and style. I always come back to their function, thinking about how they work with pictures and how they function in interiors. Two of the frames do have pictures in them, both recently reattributed to Titian with different degrees of confidence. The more likely, the Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, was recently reframed in this especially elaborate Sansovino frame. It looks splendid, the exuberance of the frame setting off the dour but swankily dressed Girolamo. It’s not a combination I would have thought of. Some of the more exuberant frames are hard to imagine paired with pictures, but this portrait shows how well they can work. A couple of pictures provided the right balance; more would have diffused attention away from the frames, whereas none at all would have divorced form and function too strictly.

Walnut cassone A 2nd half C16 Met Mus NY ed sm

Walnut cassone with Sansovino ornament, 2nd half 16th century, 22 1/2 x 67 1/2 x 21 1/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (holding image)

I love the fact that there’s a chest on loan from the National Gallery’s own building services department. It illustrates how details on ‘Sansovino’ frames were echoed in contemporary furniture, but the credit line conjures up wonderful images of NG offices looking like Renaissance palazzi; I imagined burly workmen interrupting a curator in his intarsio growlery to cart off a cassone for the frames show. It gives a different context for the frames. They are usually seen only in relation to pictures, but as works of art they often relate more closely to furniture. And that relationship was even closer in 16th century Venice, where cassoni themselves often had painted decoration framed with Sansovinoesque elements.

The exhibition is beautifully staged in a single room, frames hung against dark blue walls with substantive and useful wall text explaining the context. A much-quoted and disparately attributed bon mot says ‘I’m writing you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short letter’. As with letters, so with exhibitions. The small ones require extra effort to distil the best, and they’re often more rewarding for that. Many of my favourite shows at the National Gallery have been in this little room on the left of the main entrance. ‘The best’ in this case doesn’t mean the finest examples, but rather that they have gathered a selection representative in terms of quality as well as design.

In the exh ed

It’s been interesting to watch visitors. Some poke their heads in and then leave to seek the paintings. One couple came in to look at the two paintings, then left ignoring the frames. But the people who do visit seem to linger. First time or infrequent visitors understandably want to see the NG’s paintings, but people do want to learn more about the frames. I’ve seen people studying the wall text and catalogue more closely here than in any other exhibition I can recall. It’s commendable that the National Gallery puts on such interesting and unusual shows as well as popular blockbusters. It’s touted as the first in a series of shows highlighting frames, and it has whetted my appetite for the next in the series.

Detail of the Christ Child with Simeon from Cat. 13

Cat. 13: detail of a gilded poplar frame, probably 1560-1580, with the figure of Simeon holding the Christ Child on the crest; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner


Michael Savage is ‘Passionate about the arts, particularly old master drawings and paintings. Keenly interested in history, philosophy, economics and most things in the humanities and social sciences.’ As Grumpy Art Historian he keeps a very beady eye on the more inane doings of the art world, which prompt him into the sort of curmudgeonly criticism that we all whole-heartedly agree with.


Listen to Peter Schade, Head of Frames at the National Gallery, and Harriet O’Neil, co-curator of the exhibition, talking about Sansovino frames with Anne McElvoy on Radio Three (27 minutes and 42 seconds into the programme).

See also the review by Peter Crack in Apollo, 14 April, 2015  

In the exh 2

A note on the catalogue by The Frame Blog

Cat cover

The Sansovino Frame, by Nicholas Penny, Peter Schade & Harriet O’Neill, exh. cat., National Gallery Company Ltd, 2015, £9.95

The accompanying catalogue, The Sansovino Frame, is slim – as you would expect for an exhibition of this size – but it’s beautifully produced, and far more substantial in terms of information and depth of scholarship than can be said of weightier, superficially more ‘important’ catalogues. It’s nicely bound, with a double turnback card cover which adds volume and substance, and it has a good picture-to-text ratio, with a section at the back of illustrated entries for all the exhibited frames, so that you can walk round them with the catalogue in your hands: a definite and unusual benefit in these days of monster tomes.

The main essay begins with a helpful definition of what exactly is meant by a ‘Sansovino’ frame – its structure, whether architectural, with pediment and base, or symmetrical on both axes, like a linear frame; its ornament (this exhibition has a very high angel count, not to mention greedy birds and some magnificent goats); its finish (gilded, or parcel-gilt and painted, or parcel-gilt and polished walnut); and its stylistic connections (Venetian, Tuscan or Roman Mannerism). We begin to see how various this type of frame may be, an aspect which is demonstrated by the different sizes, designs and complexity of the actual exhibits.

San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (Venice) Organ

Organ loft, S. Nicolò dei Mendicoli, Venice, with inset canvases by Carletto Caliari, c.1581. Photo: Didier Descouens

The relationship of frame and furniture is also dealt with, as Michael mentions in his review, above, not only in terms of the cassone, one example of which is on exhibition, but in terms of the diverse objects which were also decorated in ‘Sansovino’ style. For example, wooden organ lofts, noted as close in structure to cassoni, and like cassoni often decorated with paintings in framed compartments; also wooden ceilings with scrolled ornamental cartouches containing paintings, which date from the mid-16th century.

The complicated genesis of this frame style is unpicked; in spite of its name it has always been clear that the latter has come about rather by association than because Jacopo Sansovino himself had any active part in its design. Like the Spanish architect, Juan de Herrera, whose name has also been annexed to a Mannerist style of frame mostly at odds with the severe classicism which characterizes his work, Sansovino’s architectural and sculptural work is very unlike the scrolling Mannerist exuberance of the ‘Sansovino’ frame (notably in an altarpiece setting actually attributed to him, in S. Salvador, Venice).

Alessandro Vittoria Ceiling of the Scala d Oro Palazzo Ducale Venice Photo Saliko sm

Ceiling of the Scala d’Oro, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Photo: Saliko

The nearest he is admitted to complicity with the style is relative to the garlanded and voluted stucco ceilings by his pupil, Alessandro Vittoria, for the ceilings of Sansovino’s Scala d’Oro in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, which ‘…he must have approved’.

Palazzo Thiene Vicenza 5 ed

Video on the Palazzo Thiene, and its extraordinary stucco decoration; click on the image

Vittoria was a young and talented stuccoist, who in 1552, at the age of twenty-seven, was working on the ceilings of the Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza, in which much of the vocabulary of Sansovinesque ornament springs to life in a plethora of curling clasps, flutes, swags of fruit, amorini, and parcel gilding. By 1558 he had started on the stuccowork of the Scala d’Oro, and one strand of the parentage of these frames was in place.

Jean Mignon after Luca Penni Lamentation etching British Museum ed sm

Jean Mignon after Luca Penni, Lamentation, 1540-55, etching. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The authors are careful, however, to admit the influence of jewellery and engraved designs, noting, for instance, printed representations of the paintings and surrounding stuccowork in the Château de Fontainebleau, such as those by Luca Penni, etched by Jean Mignon. Other ingredients may include heraldic shields, and cartouches – for example, one drawn in c. 1551 by Veronese.

Bellini The Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo 1482 San Pietro Martire Murano sm

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo, 1482, in a frame dated 1634, S. Pietro Martire, Murano, Venice.

The dissemination of the style is charted, as well as competing patterns of frame in Venice, and its survival there as late as the splendid example (above) on a Bellini. Exactly contemporaneously with this, ‘Sansovino’ frames had migrated as far as Britain, turning up in a typically flattened form on, for instance, the portrait of Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry, by Cornelius Johnson (1639, National Portrait Gallery).  Having reached London, elements of the ornament became naturalized: the authors see them reviving in the decoration of the more elaborate ‘William Kent’ frame, and popping up again in 19th century revivals of the form.

Altogether, then, the catalogue delivers an all-round view of this very three-dimensional style, whilst managing to remain remarkably succinct. Like the exhibition, it is a bravura beginning to what is publicized as the first in an occasional series on picture frames. Do go to the exhibition – and, if you can’t get to it, do buy this very useful book.

Small goat

Detail: a partially gilded carved walnut Sansovino frame, probably dating from the 1550s; frame: 140 × 147 cm.; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner

National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here

National Gallery reframings: a Venetian pastiglia frame> here

Reframing the Renaissance: Museums and Madonnas> here

National Gallery: reframing Mantegna> here

National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade> here


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