Unframing the Frame: Painting Conservation Student Reflection on FRAME

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
9 Jun 2019
Author: 
Genevieve Tobin

In April, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Australia hosted FRAME: Concept, History and Conservation, Symposium 2, marking the second symposium organised by the AICCM Gilded Objects Conservation (GOCSIG) and Conservation Framing Special Interest Groups on this topic. The symposium welcomed delegates from the USA, Australia including Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Queensland and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), New Zealand, and representatives from the Tate Gallery and Victorian and Albert Museum (V&A), London, in addition to conservators from institutions within France and Germany. Sadly, due to flight cancellations we were unable to hear directly from our Warsaw and Krakow presenters; however, their papers were delivered by current University of Melbourne conservation student and AGNSW Assistant Frames Conservator Grace Barrand and AGNSW Head of Frames Conservation, Dr Malgorzata Sawicki.

The three-day symposium drew together international research in the field of frames conservation delivering a variety of presentations and perspectives, case studies, and contemplations on the importance of the picture frame. On the second evening of the conference, attendees were treated to a picturesque ferry ride and walk to a three-course dining experience at Athol Hall, a beautifully restored,  heritage-listed house situated on a hill overlooking Sydney Harbour.  

The AGNSW has been actively involved in frame conservation activities since the opening of the Frames Conservation Section of the Conservation Department over 30 years ago and the establishment of the AICCM Gilded Objects Conservation Special Interest Group in the 1990s. This commitment to frames has been focused on research into early 20th-century Australian frame makers such as the SA Parker framing company, exploring loss compensation methods for gold gilded surfaces, metallic paints used historically to overpaint frames, and the chemical degradation issues associated with interactions between oil-rich foundation layers and gold leaf imitation materials.

Recent research has focused on applications for Wolbers’ gel emulsions for cleaning water-sensitive gold gilded surfaces. Grace gave a lightning talk on the use of gel cleaning to remove bronze paint on the original papier-mache frame of Sydney Long’s Hawkesbury Landscape (c. 1929) that is to form part of her minor thesis research, and Dr Stephanie Auffret from the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) spoke on the international experts meeting in March 2018 at the Getty Institute and the current research project to trial and investigate targeted cleaning systems for these water-sensitive surfaces.

Key topics of discussion included the history and function of the picture frame in relation to Western art, including the development and origins of the auricular frame style (an ornamentation characterised by elaborate curvilinear moulding designs that emerged in the 17th-century European and later Dutch decorative arts), the need for continuing research into frame-makers to better attribute craftsmanship, the need to conserve the history and materials of modern frames and the finishing techniques of 21st-century Australian frames, the importance of art historical context in presentation of works in frames sensitive to their respective works and recognition of the various treatment challenges of conserving and restoring historic gold gilded surfaces with particular reference to current research on cleaning materials and practices. The dangers of economic trends that largely shape gallery and museum agendas and the need for raising awareness of preserving decorative surfaces among various stakeholders was also highlighted.

This year the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) opened its permanent exhibition Paintings from the Collection, a beautifully rich display of more than 300 paintings including examples of works from Australian colonial painters and early convict painters in addition to paintings from the Pacific and New Zealand not displayed previously.

The exhibition provided many challenges as discussed in the conference proceedings. Many paintings required aesthetic decisions in a very short space of time and the hundreds of paintings destined for display had either damage, or unsuitable frames. The project necessitated the reproduction of many historically accurate reproductions as well as restorations to clean and remove extensive overpaint and to repair losses in existing mouldings. Barbara Dabrowa, AGNSW Senior Frame Conservator, who was on secondment at the SLNSW, gave a fantastic visual overview of this process and later gave attendees a floor talk of the exhibition, pointing out examples of reproductions referencing original frames in the collection. Barbara recalled her daunting task of removing four non-original overpaint layers from a frame housing the painting Aboriginal hunting kangaroos (c. 1840), which, after testing, was determined to have a coating of stubborn yellow varnish over a bronze paint finish that encased a layer of animal glue and another layer of bronze paint over the original gold leaf. It was intriguing to see that the exhibition featured examples of frames reproduced that extrapolated upon some designs and details from originals, a creative solution to maintaining diversity in frame styles but keeping the collection thematically cohesive.

A topic of particular concern was the importance of the need for specialised training in frame conservation in Australia. One year ago, the NGV expanded on its attention to frame preservation by establishing its Centre for Frames Research (CFR) and NGV Senior Conservator Holly McGowan-Jackson spoke on public engagement as well as interest in a digital frame and frame-makers research repository. The need for research tools and conservation outreach is of ongoing interest within the profession, no doubt in part due to this need for support for programs, events and training initiatives. Malgorzata passionately called for the establishment of a national practical skills training network in light of the absence of such formal training in Australia. The platform aims to better understand historic wooden gilded surfaces, craftsmanship and frame-making skills, training in targeted cleaning systems for more vulnerable decorative surfaces, and the need to raise awareness of the value of these original surfaces within collecting and gallery institutions. It is worth noting that this call out comes at a time when previous avenues for formal training have folded due to lack of funding, such as the apprenticeships offered by the Picture Framing Guild of Australia (PFGA).

It was very pleasing to see so many visual slides documenting treatment steps undertaken to restore many frames from the SLNSW collection. It was shocking to observe the extent to which overpaint obscures the brilliance and detail of carved relief and original gilded surfaces. Malgorzata presented case studies examining the efficacy of borax gel (PVOH-borax gel) and Pemulen TR-2 emulsions for removing overpaint on gold gilded frames. Gellan gums were determined to be more useful for flatter surfaces and agar was found to be widely versatile for removing some surface grime; however, it was noted these results were variable dependent on the surface and application, and always required mechanical swabbing to be effective. Xanthan gum was discovered to have the least controllable working properties and faster-acting solvent systems were preferable to prevent uncontrollable swelling in cases of thicker layers of material.

It was also interesting to observe the differences in international approaches to the use of original versus non-original intervention materials. Stephanie Courtier from the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France discussed the possibility of using indium-containing gold leaf to ‘in gild’ areas of loss on ornate frames, differing from common conservation practice of applying traditional gold leaf. This notion of incorporating a ‘chemical marker’ is designed to be readily detectable through elemental analysis so as to distinguish between restored and original structures. 

The challenges of choosing appropriate frames for pictures was a recurring topic and several case studies emphasised the importance of selecting framing presentations that are sensitive to the painting format. This was notably apparent when considering the ‘artist intent’ and ‘artist made frames’ and the problem of decision making of sympathetic frames in situations where there is little to no existing original reference. Matisse’s philosophy on framing his paintings and the notion of the frame as an ‘expansion’ of his painting aesthetic was presented by Helen Gramotnev, PhD candidate from Brisbane, and Helen Casey, Senior Conservator, Exhibitions and Loans, SLNSW, Sydney, shared her research into the extraordinary Australian portrait painter Mary Edwell-Burke (1894–1988) who was unique in her approach to hand carving elaborate floral mouldings that functioned as part of her work.

Lauren Ross from the Baltimore Museum of Art shared her rewarding experience in uncovering and reuniting an artist-made original frame on a Thomas Hart Benton painting that was disguised beneath a linen liner during the course of its exhibition history. The green of the original frame was central to enhancing the brilliance of the abstract painting and raised the challenge for advocating for the conservation of modern frames, which are often overlooked despite their historical, and sometimes aesthetic, significance.

AGNSW Paper Conservator Analiese Treacy spoke of the evolving popularity of watercolour painting and its competition with oils during the Victorian era, and of the more ornate framing aesthetics of ‘finished’ watercolours as opposed to the simpler styles reserved for watercolour ‘sketches’. Such presentation concerns were also illustrated by Tate Frames Conservation Technician Adrian Moore’s discussion on the dilemma of appropriately reframing John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.This case study was made more difficult by the lack of contemporaneous examples of Constable framesfrom which to base a reproduction, further emphasising the importance of original frames as a historical reference.

The methods used to measure and identify the sight edge (the point at which the edges of a painted image meet the edge of the frame sight) and determine the correct proportions for building a new frame were presented by V&A Furniture Conservator Yukiko Yoshii Barrow. The conservation issues of ‘engaged’ frames showcased the importance of customising period frames to accommodate movements of wood within current conservation standards whilst still retaining the integrity of the historical aesthetic. Dr Jennifer Booth (representative of high-performance acrylic and glass glazing company Tru Vue) gave a technical overview of the glazing manufacturing processes carried out at the impressively vast Tru Vue factory in Minneapolis and spoke in detail on the factors to consider when choosing glazing options for artworks. The various performance characteristics of acrylic versus glass such as accessibility, fragility, weight, and importance of reflections, anti-static, UV, non-glare and shatter resistance must be carefully evaluated.

In summary I thoroughly enjoyed all presentations but particularly responded to case studies detailing restoration treatments especially given the lack of practical instruction in frame conservation in Australian conservation degree programs. The conference proved to be enlightening and provided insight into the research and current thinking in this field, drawing attention to the implications for paintings conservation. Despite the fact that frames are most often relegated to object conservation departments, they are often symbiotic to paintings and draw upon various conservation disciplines. I believe this was strongly reflected in the symposium turn out of objects, furniture, paper and paintings (mid-career, emerging and student) conservators. In addition to piquing my interest in frame conservation, the symposium clarified my existing interests in European paintings and monuments by demonstrating the strong material relationships of gilded frames with Western manuscript illumination, polychrome sculpture, furniture restoration, gilded objects, painted architectural heritage facades, retables and panel paintings.

I would like to heartily thank all conference conveners for hosting such a wonderful symposium and I hope that this topic may be the subject of further discussion, training initiatives and research platforms.