The picture frames we choose are usually more of an afterthought compared to the consideration we give to choosing the paintings themselves. Edinburgh builder, Mackenzie Hughes looks at choosing the right frames for your valuable paintings and, with guidance from Susan Heys, conservator with the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh, offers tips on how to look after them.
A brief history of picture frames
Picture frames prior to the late Georgian period were often made from carved wood then gilded. This, as one would imagine, was a skilled, yet labour-intensive task. From the Regency and late Georgian periods, carved-wood frames made way for composition frames which could be produced more quickly on a larger scale. ‘Compo’ frames, as they’re known in the trade, were introduced in the late 18th century and within twenty-five years had replaced carved-wood frames altogether. Composition frames contain several ingredients including animal glue, whiting (or plaster), linseed oil and resin. The pliability of this composition meant frames could be made in moulds with intricate designs and gilded like carved-wood frames. Although plaster and even papier mâché have been used to make picture frames, many late Georgian and Victorian frames are composition.
Choose a picture frame of the same period as the painting
Choosing a frame is a personal decision but as a guiding principle, if the painting you’ve bought happens to come with the original frame which was made for it, then it’s best to keep them both together to more accurately represent the aesthetics of the era your artwork came from. Many paintings from the Victorian or Georgian periods, often have their gilt-frames removed and replaced with plain frames. If this is the case, you may want to try to locate a frame from the same period as the painting, as this will almost always show it off to its best advantage. There are of course exceptions to the rule. For example, it has been known for a Picasso to look amazing in an old master’s frame, but the rule of thumb is to match the frame to the same period as the painting.
As an additional piece of advice, if you’ve managed to secure an old frame at auction which needs restored or treated, don’t attempt to do it yourself as you may risk its value. Instead, take it to a professional who will take care of it for you.
Handling and hanging your painting
Once you bring your painting home, it’s best not to hang it using cord or picture wire as this will put stress on the frame. Instead use at least two fixings so that the weight is borne equally across it’s area. Depending on the weight of your painting you may also want to consider mounting a bracket under the painting for additional security.
Hanging or moving a valuable painting should be at least a two-person job. If however, you must move it yourself try not to hold your painting by the top or the sides of the frame; instead, hold it by one side of the frame and the bottom (depending on its size of course).
As an added point, you should never handle your frame or painting with your bare hands as the oil from your fingers may damage it. You may also leave fingerprints which can be difficult to remove. Some art experts will recommend wearing white cotton gloves but, unless you have your own pair which are clean and kept just for this purpose, wear disposable, powder-free latex gloves instead. Remember also to remove your jewellery and rings, if possible, to avoid them rubbing and scratching the surface of the painting or frame.
Where not to hang your paintings
It’s probably better to think about where not to hang your paintings rather than where to hang them. For example, the inside of an external wall may pose a problem as the heat can fluctuate and cause your painting and frame to expand and contract which can cause them to crack. Likewise, it’s recommended that you shouldn’t place your paintings in direct sunlight or in any room which has a fluctuation in humidity such as in a bathroom. If you want to use accent lighting for your paintings, it’s best to steer clear of ultra-violet or halogen lights as the UV rays and heat can damage them. Special LED lights are available instead, which are ideal for the job.
Dusting and cleaning your painting and frame
How do you keep your paintings and frames clean and dust-free? Firstly, avoid using bristle-brushes or feather-dusters as they tend to scratch. Instead, start with the softest brush you can buy such as a new make-up brush with the metal ferrule covered for added protection. Damp cloths or liquids may damage delicate frames, especially the gilt, so it’s best not to apply them. If you want to clean the glass on your pictures spray the cleaning liquid sparingly onto your cloth first rather than directly onto the glass as it may run down between the glass and the frame which can damage both your frame and your painting.
You can, if you prefer, have your paintings and other valuable items, such as sculptures and ornaments, cleaned professionally. An art conservator will advise you on how to go about this.
If you would like to know more about the framing and conservation service from the Fine Art Society Edinburgh, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your request and they’ll be happy to help you.