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On Antique & Replica Frames

By Paul Mitchell - 25. March 2024
Paul Mitchell on the complexities of choosing the right frame.

Part conversation, part handbook, our In The Studio series visits conservators, framers and other craftsmen in our field to explore what it takes to look after an Old Master picture. For the third installment of this series, we sat down with Paul Mitchell at his West End, London studio to explore framing options.

Paul is a connoisseur of European historic frames—a niche he carved out over the last 50 years. He was introduced to the subject by his art dealer father, who keenly matched period frames on pictures. As he started working independently, he noticed the growing oblivion of frames in modern-day art history, prompting him to build up an extensive visual archive that became a reference book in the field. In this conversation, Paul gets us thinking about the episteme of frames as well as practical tips on choosing between antique and replicas.

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In The Studio with Paul Mitchell
How rare is it to see a painting in its original frame?

During auction season, there might be three or four out of every 200 paintings. Even then, you’re likely looking at frames that are contemporaries, not necessarily original.

Is that percentage higher in museums?

With museums, there are far more pictures with contemporary frames than elsewhere. When I started to visit American museums and galleries in 1983 to compile and catalogue great volumes of reference images, it became clear to me that there were many pictures in terrible frames. They might survive decades in the museum because the curators are too frightened touch it. They often don’t know what it is, unless they bring in specialist advice.

They would need to justify the cost of building a new frame. This brings me to my next question: What is the price difference between an antique versus a replica frame?

On average, the reproduction is between a quarter and half of the price of an antique. But in many cases it would be more, because of the amount of labor involved in examining the object you’re copying, and the carving, gilding and aging of the replica. We had been commissioned to create a set of four frames for The Four Seasons by Nicolas Lancret in these extraordinary indented ovals. The original pair was in the Louvre, and it was an enormous challenge to persuade the museum to let us go in when it was closed, take the picture off the wall and mount it on an easel so we can measure and photograph it. It took us a couple of years to replicate them—there are very few people in the world today who could even begin to do this job.

How can you tell whether a frame is an antique or replica? Or whether it’s been cut down or enlarged?

If you spend a lot of time looking at frames, you’ll learn more as your eyes compile a database. It’s very important to see the bad frames too, otherwise you’ll have no comparison. You could say the same about Old Master paintings overall—if somebody put a fake Raphael in a show, the experts wouldn’t have a problem spotting it.

When it comes to European painting, the formats of canvases and panels have been standardized to some extent. If you look on the back, it will be clear whether somebody has shortened or lengthened it, even though you’ll still have to know what you’re looking for. Most of the time when you encounter, say, an Italian 17th-century painting that’s found its way into Britain, it will have a British frame on it that was added 200 years later and had to be cut down to fit.

When you find the perfect antique frame for a painting, how do you make it fit?

If it’s fairly close in size (with the picture), the frame can be altered in the least noticeable places. I’ll open up the frame and put in blocks of wood, carve them, and put it all back together again, with a perhaps a new back attached—it’s a sort of surgery. But the hope is that you can find a period frame that doesn’t need to be altered.

What percentage of your business, in terms of volume, comes from antique frames?

It would be probably 80% antique and 20% replicas, depending on the subject matter.

We just framed this big altarpiece by Francisco de Zubarán at the Metropolitan Museum. Well, there aren’t many altarpiece frames with arched tops of 12 feet high. So we had to come up with the design ourselves and make it.

So was that a replica?


I’ve often witnessed this with museum visitors. After changing a frame, they’ll come around and say, “What happened to the Rubens?” They will quiz curators on whether they’ve had it cleaned. They’re absolutely gobsmacked because it’s such a positive improvement, but once the penny begins to drop that we’ve reframed it, they’ll often wonder why they’ve been looking at it in such a crummy frame for so long!

That’s why artists like Franz von Stuck would have his own frames made!

Precisely! The earliest frames on pictures were part of the panel, conceived all as one object. A triptych, for instance, is a folding of the frame that is created to hold it all together. Its made of the same wood as the panels and constructed specially for the job.

As soon as easel paintings appeared, the frame could be chosen separately and easily detached. And pictures are mobile, so each time they go to different collections, they get changed, and the original thing get lost. But the 19th-20th century artists would in no way wish any Tom, Dick and Harry to frame the picture for them. To them, the frame is as important as the picture; they understand the integral connection and they relieve the owner of the task of figuring out how to frame it because they’ve done it for him. And the frame may well be part of the painting itself.

You mentioned being truthful to the time when a painting was painted. Would you frame a Picasso with something that appears older or would you stay true to the early 20th century?

I have always regarded the so-called Modern Masters as the most fantastic challenge. Picasso, like anybody of his time, would have soon realized there’s plenty of fabulous period frames sitting around from 16th and 17th century Spain and Italy. They were simply black and gold, and you could easily put a Modern Master into them, because it was as modern in the 16th or 17th century as it was in the 20th.

There’s also, for instance, the collecting of Italian pictures in 18th century England, or in Dresden where they would collect Dutch paintings and all have the same frame ….

18th century is something different. There were different frames for subject matter and genre. It all had its own hierarchy. And independently with portraiture, there’s a huge hierarchy in how the sitter and the accoutrements on the frame should match.

Interior of the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister, Dresden © Iain Masterton / Alamy
I’m also interested to hear your view on gilding. When you make a frame, do you make it as shiny and perfect as possible, or do you try to age it a bit?

During the process of making it, we use brand new carved wood, white gesso, followed by bole, gilding, and the application of gold leaf a quarter millionth of an inch thick, which is as bright as it is ever going to be. That has to be toned and finished to match a 16th-century patina. New gold has to be toned to produce the right effect.

Is it true that some framers hit the frames with a bicycle chain to tone down the gold?

The trouble here is you don’t want to get on your bike when you’ve lost the chain, do you? All sorts of ways are employed, though I think some do use bits of chain to distress the surface. I’ve seen people do this work for years, and I can tell which firm made which frame, even sixty years later.

Based on the distressing pattern?

Based on the way they’ve done the distressing. And usually, they’ve overdone it. No frame could have suffered that sort of damage in a domestic situation, it would be long term abuse! Gold has always been used in many situations, but we’re no longer used to the original conception of it. We’re always looking at things in electric lighting, not, as it would have been, in daylight or candle lighting. Once you do, you realize all the burnishing, the surface and texture of the frame is suddenly transformed into a glowing affair.

With panel paintings, the wood responds to different humidity levels and temperatures. I imagine that would be the case for wooden frames as well. What happens when the frame and the picture don’t respond at the same rate?

If the framed picture has been moved into different humidities than where it’s been most of its life, this can happen. The panel is one thing, the frame construction and its carcass is another, and they can be working at odds to each other. That happens all the time – you can’t stop that effect.

Often when you lend frames, the panel becomes so curved we have to make an interior casing inside the frame and line it in black foam rubber. The picture just sits on it, which you can see when you’re looking at the front and the bottom: the curvature and the edges of the panel are simply up against the flat surface of black all the way around. In other words, the panel is only secured at the top, bottom and center, so that it can expand and contract if it needs to.

Sometimes we get a thin strip of wood to put between the frame and the picture.

Yes. You may remember in New York, a client of yours …

Titian, yes.

It fitted with a slip, but it needed something in between, so we made a wooden inlay. It’s not consistent with the period of the frame, but it’s a way of making a temporary adjustment.

In so many cases, like with the Impressionists, people like to put an old frame on them, and the junction between the new picture and the old frame would usually be a canvas slip. In time, this gets a nicotine color and becomes very grubby looking and altogether unsatisfactory. Three years ago, we found a French frame of the Impressionist period with an in-built inlay that was gesso’d, not painted. It’s intended to be the bit between the picture and the gold frame, and it worked fabulously. And it’s the only one I’ve seen in the thousands of frames I’ve seen in auctions in France. That’s the slip doing the demarcation between the painting and the frame deliberately – not just to make it fit.

And is there a difference between framing a picture on canvas versus a panel?

Paintings on panel can be very big, heavy objects. The frame has to be sturdy enough to hold something that big and heavy, permanently. But it’s usually the other way around, where the frame was made long before the picture, especially if you’re talking about the Renaissance. You would have a chapel inside a church, and it would be part of the articulation of the building. The big Caravaggio paintings in churches in Rome, for example, are set in marble or stone frames.

Do you deal with marble frames as well?

No, but the process to marbleize—marbling as a finish—is absolutely fascinating. In Spain, they often treat the frieze between the inside and outside as an area to extemporize and do something modern. You’ll see 16th century Spanish frames with a broad frieze painted as if it were a Rothko. It’s a bit like the cadenza that the performer in a concerto can include, if he wants to add something to the composition.

Are wormholes common in antique frames? And do you treat them?

We would fumigate the frame to make sure that the beetles that caused the damage have all gone. If they’re very distracting, they can be filled with colored wax, just as when you’re restoring the picture. But generally, you put up with it. It’s part of the antiquity. Frankly, I say to clients who are getting worried about holes, “Look, this is proof of the age of this object. You can’t even try copying it!” When someone does, using dentist drills and old timber, we always know.

There’s wonderful guys in Italy and elsewhere faking frames,… But underneath it, these beetles are beavering away in sort of carriageways, so that if you saw through it laterally, it’s a whole sequence of grooves where they’ve been going, they only get the hole when they pop up. And the faker doesn’t understand this sometimes and puts a piece of antique, so called antique wood on the back, which has been planed and exposing all these channels, which could never have existed in reality, unless you had split them in half, you know, it’s like a cross section through something.

Are there many fake antique frames around?

You occasionally see them. I’ve bought one deliberately for the design at Pastilla , a finished 16th-century original. I knew that it was fake, but I didn’t mind, since it was just a rather good example.

How do you know it’s a fake frame and not a replica?

We would make a replica of something like the one I’ve just been describing, but we wouldn’t make the back look 500 years old, right? The fake guy is more interested in the whole object and wants you to feel that whichever way you look at it, it’s old. But he may have had a fake bank account as well!

Let’s talk about the Dutch ripple frame. How do you make the ripples?

It’s a cabinetmaker’s task. They use a specially designed jig that pushes strips of wood over a serrated steel bar. Making these wave moldings is important. And of course, the wood is key.

The French encyclopedist Diderot, who covered every subject under the sun, included an entry on the making of one of these machines. And we asked an engineer to make one based on the drawings he did in the 18th century. We used it, but eventually gave it to the National Gallery.

I saw that machine in a documentary about the National Gallery, which came out about 10 years ago.

Yes, that’s right.

A.J. Ruobo, L’Art du Menuisier (1769-75), Machine propre a faire des moulures ondeés, plate 134

What makes the frame black?

They’re either Indian ebony, veneered, which gives it this fabulously deep, jet black cover. Or they’re ebonized, meaning they’re painted or stained black to give the effect of ebony. It’s much better to work in ebonized pearwood, an unbelievably close-grained wood. It’s so smooth, you’d think it’s glass. It’s pink, and when you stain it, it doesn’t show any grain or sign that this wasn’t black from day one.

The Vermeer in the Metropolitan Museum was driving me mad from the moment I first saw it.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith?

Exactly. It’s the clash between the composition of the painting and the big pseudo-Baroque French frame on it. Everybody puts French frames on for some reason, but they just don’t get it. But then the curator agreed to get rid of it, so we made a copy of one of the rarest Dutch frames I’ve ever seen – the original’s hanging by the front door—in pearwood. ❖

Paul Mitchell is the owner of Paul Mitchell Ltd in London and the author of Frame Works (1996), a reference book on European portrait frames.
Editor: Mary Wang
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