Frames both protect and visually enhance a variety of objects including prints, drawings, photographs, documents, paintings and textiles. Some conservators choose to specialise in frame conservation as many frames are valued as objects in their own right, and are seen as more than physical support and protection for the work within.
Frame conservation is considered part of the broader field of gilded objects, wooden objects conservation, and furniture conservation. A conservation framer also performs ‘conservation or archival’ grade framing, mounting and hinging of art works. A major aspect for frame conservators involves the production of reproduction frames, incorporating woodworking and gilding.
Causes of deterioration
Wood is the most common material for frames, but they can be constructed from a wide variety of materials, including gesso, glass, plastics and different kinds of metal.
Changes in humidity can cause major problems for frames made of all varieties of materials – warping and splitting of a frame can endanger the work of art within in addition to deteriorating the frame itself. Ornate frames suffer damage such as loss of parts commonly from mishandling.
Materials used to manufacture the frame may also deteriorate over time or due to changes in temperature and humidity. Adhesive in frames may deteriorate, causing joins of a frame to split open. If nails have been used in the production of the frame, rust or corrosion can occur.
Delamination of the surface of a painted or gilded frame, as well as accumulation of dust on particularly ornate frames can discolour the surface of a frame, detract from the aesthetic of a frame, as well as encourage pest activity (pests thrive on organic materials found in dust particles).
Dry cleaning a frame is the most common and significant step in frame conservation. It should be done regularly to prevent dust build up using a brush vacuum, smoke sponges, erasers or brushes.
Small chips and cracks in a frame or delamination of paint or gilding on a frame’s surface is often treated using infilling and in-painting. In-filling areas of loss on a gesso frame can be undertaken using a wide range of fill materials that are compatible with the original frame. In-painting of these areas is undertaken by colour-matching and replicating the medium originally used (for instance, paint, water gilding, or oil gilding).
Large areas of loss can be restored by creating molds from another part of the frame that resembles the missing portion, or sculpting free-hand. New decoration pieces then need to be colored to match and attached where appropriate.
Reframing (replacing the artwork inside the conserved frame) is an important part of the frame conservation process. Often, older framing methods can be quite damaging to an art work, for instance, metal parts corroding, adhesive tape damaging the surface of a frame and acidic backing board or mounting materials. Eliminating some of these hazards can be undertaken by removing metal components of a frame, removing tape and replacing damaging materials with conservation-grade, archival alternatives.
Video: Rosie from ArtLab in Adelaide, South Australia assesses a large frame belonging to a painting from the Art Gallery of South Australia.
AICCM has a Special Interest Group for those interested in the conservation of frames and conservation framers and a separate group for gilded objects. Join these groups, contribute to its activities, or speak to a specialist conservator.
Need a conservator? Find one here.
- Frames conservation in Australia and GOCSIG: Reflections on the Past and Thoughts for the Future (AICCM) [PDF – 190KB]
- The conservation of frames (Tate)
- The conservation of three gilded frames for the new paintings galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum)