Spring 2013

In the Studio: Gilded Frames

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A New Case Study
on the updated website!

Recent Treatments:

a 19c paper mache' pavillion

a 20c desk

detail of an 18c Italian mirror

a late 20c table

an 18c gueridon

Principal & Senior Conservator
Yuri Yanchyshyn


In the Studio:
Gilded Frames

Many times when viewing paintings, drawing and prints, it is impossible not to notice how much their frames add to the esthetic experience. This happened to me recently, while viewing the alluring exhibition "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, the recent studio treatment of a number of gilded frames also brought to light their varied techniques, optical effects and textured meanings.

An Overview

The beating of gold into sheets or leaves, and then applying them to various substrates to achieve the appearance of solid gold can be traced back to antiquity. For example, the Egyptian tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara, about 2300 B.C., contains a visual depiction of goldsmiths beating gold into thin leaves with stone mallets. This technique of beating gold by hand continued unchanged throughout the centuries, however the practice of applying decorative borders to painted images began much later — on mosaics and wall paintings, in early Christian and medieval churches. Evolving out of manuscript covers and cassoni, picture frames began to acquire a distinct function: to enhance the colors and appearance of the imaginary world of paintings, as well as to separate them from the the physicality of their surroundings. By the time of 18th and 19th century Europe and America, picture frames had reached a noted high point in their development, in some instances being considered equal in importance to their paintings.

Gilders of the day would have been highly skilled craftsmen, with masterful abilities to manipulate surfaces. Many are anonymous to us; however, a recent gilded object in the studio was signed "Cole Exeter, Carver & Gilder, 1826". Some of their varied techniques are highlighted by the two frames above. The profile of the 18c French frame on the left, framing a very beautiful landscape painting from a private collection, had been carved by hand out of oak. It has a layer of gesso, finely smoothed, with certain sections "recut" by a peintre-doreur to bring out the detail of the carving. This is followed by layers of colored clay and gold leaf, adhered with a natural adhesive. In contrast, the 19c American frame profile on the right, framing a portrait of an American founding father, was built up of various softwood strips onto which were adhered resinous decorative elements which had been cast from molds, called composition. Certain gilded sections were adhered with a slow drying adhesive called oil size. It was the Scottish architect John Adam who popularized the casting and application of various decorative elements, initially to architectural woodwork and plasterwork, in the 18c.

On both frames, subtle nuances to the gilded forms have been accentuated by burnishing the gold to a mirror like effect, and by the use of stains or varnishes. The play of burnished against matte sections creates a rhythmic movement, leading the eye into the painting.

The decorative moldings found on picture frames originally derived from classical architecture. For example, one of the oldest decorative elements, the egg and dart pattern, is originally from the Erechtheion of the Acropolis. Over the centuries, these classical forms and patterns were then augmented with countless others, in various combinations, forming a veritable dictionary of ornament. On the French frame on the left, the bundle of reeds with ribbon ties terminate in a swelling corner cartouche, incorporating scrolling foliage and curving elements. The pierced carving of this corner element accentuates the concave and convex feeling of this complex form. In contrast, the American frame on the right incorporates multiple shapes of great regularity and repetition, such as the overlapping laurel leaf, acanthus, string of pearls and twisting star pattern, as seen from the outer edge. Each one of these decorative elements, of either frame, carries with it specific meanings to the informed viewer, such as the the scrolling foliage evoking a love of the natural world and the laurel leaf representing renewal, resurrection, glory and honor.

Conservation Issues

A typical challenge that confronts the conservator of gilded surfaces is the delamination or "flaking" of the gilding. This results from the shrinking of the underlying wood members due to excessive dryness. The 18c French frame which was brought into the studio for treatment was an example of this condition. We then consolidated the flaking gilding with a compatible adhesive and stabilized it. Small losses were then in-gilt using a conservation approach. In contrast, the 19c American frame we treated required the replacement of missing composition elements. Some of missing places were considerable measuring a few inches while others were minuscule involving a single pearl, leaf or star tip. We painstakingly recreated the missing elements, then trimmed, aligned and adhered them in place.

A Conservator's Ethic

Decades ago, I had a near magical experience that transformed my perspective on gilded frames. While in London on a travel grant, I was working at one of the famous frame-maker's studios. One evening I stayed later than usual, and happened to glance over to a colleague's bench near the window. The play of the waning light over the carved shapes of the gilded frame on the bench was absolutely fascinating — and gave a very different effect than the even lighting of a gallery. Suddenly I truly understood the allure of gilded frames. Ever since, they have become a favored specialty in my studio — and I welcome each opportunity to work on one.


Moderator: In Novermber of 2012, Yuri Yanchyshyn organized a  panel discussion for the Appraisers Association of America National Conference on the topic of "Banned Materials." This panel discussed endangered species materials as found in art objects, and the laws governing their possession and sale. Such an event is part of our outreach activities, and to invite us to speak to your group - email info@periodfurnitureconservation.com

Furniture Conservator Yuri Yanchyshyn has worked with wooden objects for over 30 years, from a cabinet-maker's shop to the laboratories of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Private collectors, museums, architects and designers have all entrusted precious items from the 14th through the 20th centuries to Yuri's care, and institutions such as Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center invite him to lecture. Yuri holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the California Institute of the Arts and received advanced training from the Amsterdam Academy for Restoration and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.


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Yuri Yanchyshyn