Fine Antique Frames Q & A

Q. What is a fine antique frame?
A. The quality of antique frames can vary considerably with variations in materials and craftsmanship.
Fine antique frames can be from any period in history. They would have a well balanced design
that was skillfully executed. All elements of the frame from the overall scale, the shape of the moulding,
the ornament (if any) and the surfaces, whether gold leaf or painted, would be done artistically or in
a sensitive manner.

Q. Where can I find fine antique frames?
A. Atelier Richard Boerth has a wide selection of fine antique frames suitable for art or mirrors. We
have frames from the 18th to mid 20th century in many styles and sizes. Our expertise can inform
and guide you in your selection.

Q. How are these frames made?
A. Frames made from the Renaissance to the late 1700’s were most often shaped or carved from wood which could then be left unfinished or be painted or gilded. These are desirable because of the time and expertise needed to produce them. Often incorporating forms from antiquity they have a balance in their shape and in any decorative motifs.
After that time frames were increasingly made of wood with cast ornament applied to it.
These were less costly and required less mastery to produce. Many beautifully designed and well
made frames can be found from this era but also many were produced that were ungainly and poorly executed.

Q. Are 20th century frames of any value?
A. At the end of the 19th century there was a turn away from the excesses of ornament often found on
Victorian frames. Many frames reduced or eliminated embellishments and there was a return to simpler forms, hand carving and respect for the craftsmanship of the past. Many of these frames were signed by their makers and are highly sought after.

Q. Are folk art or artist made frames desirable?
A. These can be both charming and highly sought after. The appeal of any frame will depend on many
factors including creativity and esthetically pleasing characteristics. Artist made frames, particularly
those made for their own works, will usually be worth considering saving.

Q. When is it appropriate to use an antique frame?
A. Paintings or other artwork often look the best in a frame actually made close to the same period.
Modern frames made as reproduction frames can often fail due to details that are missing or poorly
executed such as the overall scale, the shape of the moulding or the applied ornament, if any. Most
importantly, the finish on a a modern frame may lack a refined sense of what an antique surface
should look like.
An antique frame will have the proper appearance or spirit due to the character achieved over the years including wear and patina.
Q. What is patina?
A. Patina generally refers to the natural accumulation of dust and other deposits of time on an the surface of an object. A frame will also show any wear from cleaning or handling through the years.
Together, if not excessive, they will enhance the visual character of the surface whether viewed up
close of from afar.

Q. What other characteristics would an antique frame have?
A. There is a noticeable “presence” that any frame or object attains through the passage of time.
This can be quite remarkable or more subtle. There is the sense of history and past lives and
places. With the lack of any clear identifiers, one can wonder where the frame was made and
whose hands shaped it. Where was it hung and what was the art it surrounded?

Q. Who made these frames?
A. Often these frames were made by anonymous craftspeople. Sometimes a label may be found on
the back identifying a company or maker. Some frames were signed or stamped by the artisan.
In the early 20th century, many notable artist / framemakers began carving their names on the
backs of their frames and the practice spread. If any of these clues are lacking there is other
evidence that a person knowledgeable about antique frames can uncover.

Q. How can one tell if an antique frame is carved wood or cast applied ornament?
A. A carved frame may look more fluid or slightly less precise than one with cast ornament. All similar
parts of cast ornament will have come out of the same mold and there will be a uniformity and
crispness to the appearance. A carved wood frame may have some areas that have worn through,
particularly at high points, that may show exposed wood underneath. A frame with applied ornament will often have fine cracks perpendicular to the length of the frame where the
ornament has shrunk slightly. Missing pieces of ornament are are also a good indicator.

Q. What is the applied ornament made of?
A. There were many different materials used that could be cast and applied. Two of the most common
were a composition material referred to as compo, for short, and plaster. There would be advantages to using one over the other and sometimes they can both be found on the same frame.
Compo was made from whiting, hide glue, rosin and linseed oil mixed together while all are warm
into a stiff dough like putty. The advantage it has over plaster is that it is pliable before it cures and
can be manipulated and set onto irregular and curved surfaces.

Q. Are there antique frames that aren’t ornate?
A. Antique frames are available from the unadorned to the opulent. Each age produced frames that ranged from plainer profiles to those with a profusion of ornament. At the end of the 1800’s frames
generally became more simplified but no less intriguing. Continuing into the early to mid 20th C.
the use of ornament declined further and fine frames had more emphasis on restrained design and
simplified hand carving.

Q. Can antique frames be used in contemporary interiors?
A. Antique frames are often used in modern settings with impressive visual results. Whether as the
most fitting type of frame for period art or as a frame for a mirror, they can be used to accent an
area or be a dramatic focal point. There is a stimulating interplay between the historic and the
contemporary that is used successfully in some of the best interior design.

Q What are the advantages of using an antique frame as a mirror frame?
A. Antique frames make excellent mirror frames. These frames have character and a complexity of
surfaces that cannot be matched by modern mass produced frames that are often made of cast plastic with imitation gold leaf. Antique frames are hand made and unique with subtle variations
in form, finishes and patina.

Q. What if a antique frame is not the right size, either too small or too large?
A. It is not unusual to find the perfect antique frame for a painting that is not the right size. Through
the centuries frames have been reused on different works of art and altered to fit. The practice
of sizing frames is ongoing and often necessary due to the relative scarcity of appropriate antique frames. Depending on the style of the frame and the degree of intricacy, sizing can either be fairly straight forward or a complex process. It is a time consuming process that demands expert wood
working and restoration skills to be successful.

Gold Leaf Gilding & Other Gilding Variants PT II

Oil gilding is a process that is less complicated and less time consuming. The wood surface is prepared and made smooth with gesso or other coatings, smoothed and then well sealed. A very thin layer of a special oil varnish size or other adhesive size is brushed on top of the sealed surface and in a specified amount of time this will dry to a sight tackiness. The leaf is then laid over the whole sized surface and tamped onto the size to produce a uniform surface covered in leaf. The oil gilding process can be used for all types of gold, silver and metal leaf. This method is nearly always used to apply the heavier leaf varieties such as brass, copper and aluminum because of the stronger adhesive qualities needed to adhere them to the surface. Although these thicker types of leaf can be water gilded and burnished this is rarely done. The result is not as bright as when using precious leaf.

When some areas of an object are gilded and others areas are left without gilding it is known as partial gilding.

Some other techniques that can also be referred to as gilding do not use gold or metal leaf. One is known as Roman gilding or burnish bronze gilding which uses finely ground brass or bronze powders which are available in many different colors. One way to apply the powders is to mix them with a glue binder and brush the mixture on top of the prepared bole surface. This can be burnished with an agate tipped burnisher to a somewhat muted sheen. Another variant of this is known as flash gilding which uses either a mordant size or animal glue size onto which the brass powder is sprinkled and held by the adhesive.

Finally, gold paint applied can be applied to a surface but this should not really be considered gilding at all but is sometimes mistaken for it by the untrained eye . Gold paint is made from brass powder mixed into a medium that is brushed or sprayed on. The surface will have a coarser appearance than a true leafed surface and will usually tarnish and discolor as it ages and oxidizes.

The allure and beauty of gold are ages old and an understanding of the techniques and materials used in the gilding arts can only further the appreciation of these ancient processes.

Gold Leaf Gilding & Other Gilding Variants PT I

Gilding is a term used to describe a variety of techniques used to to apply a thin layer of gold, either as leaf or in other forms, to the surface of various materials. A few of these materials that are often gilded include wood, stone, metal, glass and parchment. Gilding also refers to the application of other metals in the form of leaf or powder. Silver, platinum, palladium, brass, aluminum and copper are the most common. There are numerous methods of adhering the leaf to it’s substrate which include using various adhesives, combining the gold with chemicals and applying to the surface in a cold process or using heat to fuse the gold or other leaf to the surface. Electroplating and mercury or fire gilding are are other ways of producing a gilded surface but we will confine ourselves here to those methods most commonly used on a wood base such as for picture frames or art objects and architectural elements.

Herodotus, the 5th Century Greek historian writes of the ancient Egyptians gilding wood, metals and glass. Other cultures from antiquity also gilded funerary objects, statues. furniture and details in interior spaces. Any metal that is malleable and can be beaten into thin sheets can be used for gilding. Gold leaf is the most ductile in this regard and can be reduced to thickness that is semi-transparent when held up to the light. The ancient’s gold leaf was heavier than that produced today which is beaten to approximately 1/250,000th of an inch thick. Because it is so thin, it conforms perfectly to the surface it is laid upon, which if it is properly prepared, can give an object the impression of being made from solid gold.

The process of gilding on wood is essentially unchanged from ancient times but came into it’s ascendancy in the western world during the Renaissance. The same fundamental materials and methods used to apply the leaf would be the same whether on picture frames, wood statues or architectural embellishments such as seen in opulent interiors such as cathedrals and palaces.

Although many different procedures for gilding have been used over the centuries, there are essentially two traditional methods are used to produce a gilded wood surface. These are known as water gilding and oil or mordant gilding. These will be discussed in greater detail in another article.

Water gilding is most often done on a wood base properly prepared with several layers of gesso. Traditional gesso is a mixture of whiting (chalk) and an animal glue. At the consistency of heavy cream, enough coats are brushed on to fill the wood grain. The gesso is allowed to dry and then smoothed or shaped.

Next, on top of the gesso a layer of bole will be applied. Bole refers to special refined earth clays that come in colors such as red, yellow and gray. The bole is mixed with a glue such as rabbit skin glue and three or four coats are brushed on top of the gesso and allowed to dry.

To leaf this prepared surface, the bole is wet by brush with water and the leaf laid on the surface. The adhesive properties of the rabbit skin glue in the bole are re-activated with the water and the leaf adheres to the surface of the bole hence the term water gilding. Sometimes a second layer of leaf is laid over the first. This is called double gilding and produces an even finer more unbroken surface. The gold leaf can can then be burnished to a highly reflective sheen with an agate tipped burnishing tool or left unburnished with a matte finish for contrast.

Antique Mirrored Glass Part II

To be suitable for mirrors usually the best quality of glass produced was used. To become a mirror it needs to have a reflective backing. The 16th century glass makers on the island of Murano are generally credited with the process of slivering the back of mirrors with an amalgam of tin and mercury. The majority of mirrors were produced in this manner until the mid 1800s. In this process, paper thin sheets of tin were placed on large flat tables and then covered with mercury. The glass was placed on top, the tin and mercury reacted together and bonded to the glass. The glass was turned over, the surface smoothed and the excess mercury was drained off. This produced a near perfect reflection with any limitations being in the glass itself. This was a hazardous production and today one must use caution and protection when handling unframed pieces of mercury mirror.

Improvements in the European glass making process continued and in the mid 1800s a new process of silvering allowed a thin reflective film using an aqueous solution of silver to be deposited on the glass. This did not completely replace the mercury silvered mirror process until the early 20th century. In America most mirror glass was imported from Europe until the mid 1800s.

Often until fairly recently, antique mirror glass was not valued for it’s aesthetic qualities. The silvering often deteriorates becoming darkened or cloudy over time through oxidation. This tarnishing can be over the whole surface or localized as blotches or streaks. Sometimes abrasions or scratches on the the unprotected back of the mirror will lead to further degeneration. All too often these antique mirrors were replaced with new mirrors. This is particularly unfortunate when the new mirror is set into an antique frame.

Unless the mirror silvering is completely destroyed, a mirror even with substantial discoloration can be seen as having desirable qualities and appeal. The character of an old mirror harmonizes with the aged surface of an antique frame while a new mirror can seem too bright and gaudy which can detract from the charm of the frame. If possible, the best recourse is to find an antique mirror glass to fit into an antique frame but these are often very difficult to find. Another option is to find reproduction antique mirror which is readily available. The quality of these mirrors can vary considerably so it is helpful to study the appearance of authentic antique mirrors to select the most appropriate. This is not to suggest that a new mirror is entirely wrong for an antique frame but to offer some considerations and options.

To help identify an antique mirrored glass one can look at the glass itself to see if it has any imperfections such as waviness or small bubbles but this is not always a sure sign as occasionally one will encounter modern blown glass that has been silvered. Oxidation of the silvering is not necessarily an indication of age due to the reproduction mirrors on the market but the true antique piece will often be tarnished more unevenly with a more random and natural looking variation. The oxidation can be more pronounced on the bottom due to the years of cleaning with too much moisture collecting at the bottom of the mirror being kept damp through proximity with the frame. Back scratches or surface scratches even if they are very fine from cleaning can indicate an older mirror. Mercury silvered mirrors age with a distinctive sparkling effect that almost looks like crystals. This can be seen overall or in localized areas, again likely at the bottom of the mirror. Once the appearance of this condition is understood it is relatively easy to identify and will be a positive identification of an antique mirror glass but not of it’s exact vintage. The degree of the darkening or oxidation of an antique mirror may give some indication of age since the process is cumulative and the darker the image the older the mirror may be. Studying true examples of antique mirror glass will lead to a better understanding of the various ways they age and lead to greater appreciation.