Giving Art an Edge

By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- Stephan C. Wilcox is the contented caretaker of countless curlicues, as well as innumerable ribbons, reeds, beads, bands, shells, chevrons, medallions, vines, and leaves. His is a dominion of brilliant, gilded edges -- of elaborate Louis XV picture frames, of plain frames attached to 13th-century Byzantine religious images, of a subtle frame hand-painted by Whistler, of lively Italian frames on French Impressionist paintings, of Neoclassical frames surrounding portraits of Washington and Jefferson. There are frames aflutter with putti, architectural frames with columns and lintels and pediments, circular and semicircular frames, frames inside of frames, frames inside of boxes, big frames, little frames, old frames, new frames -- you name it, and if it goes around a painting, Mr. Wilcox can almost certainly take care of it.

As the National Galley of Art's senior frame conservator, Mr. Wilcox has an astonishing variety of charges. Most are antiques, although some are reproductions made to look like other frames in the collection. Along with one other frame conservator and several technicians, he fixes frames that have been scarred or have missing pieces -- "We have about a hundred-year backlog" of repairs, he jokes -- and reframes works for special exhibitions or if their usual frames are too fragile to send on the road. He also helps choose the frames in which paintings will be displayed, aiming for borders that are historically appropriate, more or less, and that complement the paintings' colors and shapes without overwhelming them.

Not overwhelming the art is one of his more serious dilemmas, actually. Many old frames are sumptuous constructions, designed to match the architecture of a particular palace or mansion, Mr. Wilcox says. Their burnished angles and curves reflected candlelight onto paintings for the benefit of dinner guests in the days before electric light. "A Louis XV-style frame would have been bright gold -- it would have just screamed at you," Mr. Wilcox says. That level of obtrusiveness wouldn't be appropriate in a museum, however, so the gallery's frames are not restored to anything like their original finish. "The paintings all need to look new, but the frames have to look tired," he says with a grin.

A frame safeguards a painting's edges when it's being moved, fends off errant sleeves when it's hanging on a wall, and warns lovers of detail to keep at least a little distance between their noses and the paint. "The No. 1 job of a frame is protecting the painting," he says.

The National Gallery has very little idea of what kinds of frames most of its early paintings originally had. Nineteenth-century paintings are somewhat better documented -- photographs exist of the exhibitions in which some now-famous works were first displayed. But while the gallery generally wants to hang each painting in a frame that matches its region and period of origin, Mr. Wilcox says the worst thing curators can do is decide to put all of a particular artist's paintings in one style of frame based on some scrap of historical evidence. "Artists didn't paint the same painting over and over," he says. "Why would they use the same frame?"

And most historical evidence does come in scraps, he says, in part because so few scholars have taken an interest in frames, although that's beginning to change. "Until a few years ago, most of what we knew came from dealers. The information we're getting now is more scholarly."

Few museums and even fewer scholars have taken much interest in the conservation of old frames, he says, although frame conservation is taught as part of broader conservation programs at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the University of Delaware. "Frame conservation is such a young field compared with other fields of conservation," says Mr. Wilcox. "We're at the stage that furniture conservation was at 25 years ago, when you automatically stripped every piece." He himself became interested in framing more or less by accident, after studying to be a sculptor. He came to the National Gallery 15 years ago from the Cincinnati Museum of Art.

While he's been at the National Gallery, he has watched frame prices quadruple. "Probably the heyday of high-quality frames was right after World War II," he says, because dealers had all kinds of frames to sell. Now people who collect frames as sculptural objects in their own right have caused the market to soar. The gallery has paid as much as $60,000 for a large frame of exceptional quality -- nothing like the price of even a mediocre Matisse, of course, but far more than the same frame would have fetched 10 or 20 years ago.

One constraint, of course, is the painting's size. Mr. Wilcox refuses to cut a frame down to fit a smaller painting. He will make reversible changes -- say, decreasing the size of a frame's opening by adding another two inches of gilded beads or darts, as appropriate -- but he's a stickler about treating old frames like any other museum artifact.

A frame starts with a substrate of wood -- most likely poplar or pine in southern Europe, oak in the north. In older frames, the wood was roughly carved and then covered with a layer of gesso, which is a mixture of glue and plaster of Paris. Detailed ornaments and surface textures were carved or punched into the gesso, which in turn was covered with bole, a mixture of glue and fine clay that has a red cast. Gold leaf was added by dampening the bole, which served as an adhesive for the fine sheets of metal. "At that point," says Mr. Wilcox, "you have a frame that looks like solid gold, made to show your wealth or your devotion. It's a pretty neat alchemy."

French 18th-century frames are the most opulent, he says, standing in front of a particularly elaborate example that contains a painting by Gainsborough, "Miss Catherine Tatton." It is possibly, he says, "the most over-the-top frame we have." Still, "a good carver could do this in a week -- even though it's all hand-carved, the process is very mechanical." Paris was the European center of frame-making, with provincial craftsmen imitating the Parisian carvers. Italian makers established their own vocabulary, with bolder carving, less detail, and regular, repeating patterns. In northern European countries like Holland, meanwhile, frames were far plainer and less likely to be sheathed in gold.

In the 19th century, manufacturing processes drove artisans out of the framing business. Instead of being hand-carved, ornament was made in molds, out of either plaster or a material known as "compo" -- short for "composition" -- that includes chalk, rosin, and glue. Unfortunately, compo shrinks as it ages, producing telltale patterns of cracks. Plaster has its own drawbacks: "Big chunks fall off." Manufactured frames are typically more fragile than their carved counterparts, he says, "but easier to fix." Wood, once broken, is much more difficult to reattach.

When a frame comes to the conservation shop in the gallery's basement, "the first thing we do is look for anything that's going to fall off," says Mr. Wilcox. Loose ornaments are secured with rabbit-skin glue or sturgeon glue -- the same glues that would have been used originally. "Then we use a very soft brush and just dust it. More often than not, that's enough." The conservators may fill in small chips or restore missing ornaments, but "the goal is to keep as much original as possible." When problems arise, Mr. Wilcox says, they are frequently the consequences of earlier repairs and refurbishments -- especially those that used bronze-colored radiator paint for touch-ups. It is hard to remove, and sometimes takes the remaining gold leaf off with it.

Mr. Wilcox is one of the few sources of information about the National Gallery's frames, and even a brief tour is fascinating. The frame Whistler painted -- it's on "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl" -- has the artist's signature dragonfly on the right, but was originally on a different picture, he says. The frame on Monet's well-known "Japanese Footbridge" is actually a silvery portrait frame hung sideways. Mr. Wilcox points out that the foliage springs from a spot on the right side -- in the middle of what would have been the top of the frame -- and runs sideways instead of down, as it was meant to. A cleaning had changed the painting's tone, he says, so its previous gold frame was no longer appropriate. The portrait frame was otherwise a perfect match.

His own favorite is hidden away in an underground frame-storage room with hundreds of others. It's a big, imaginatively ornamented frame with carved, three-dimensional putti, figures in robes that were once painted, and dogs that look as if they could bark. "I'm pretty sure it's Italian, but it could be Austrian," Mr. Wilcox says, standing back to admire the whole effect. "It's very likely 16th century." It is more over-the-top by an order or two of magnitude than the frame on "Miss Catherine Tatton," and almost certainly too overwhelming ever to use on a painting. But in an exhibition about frames, if the gallery ever mounted one, it would be a star.

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published July 12, 2002.