Framing the RingQuest series; the Artists – Craftsman Tradition revived

The opportunity to present an exhibition – and especially a series of paintings by a contemporary artist in top-quality Antique-style frames – is a rare and creative opportunity. Styles of meticulously crafted, hand-carved frames may be drawn from a wide variety of historic styles. In this instance, the selection of each frame for a particular painting has been carefully chosen by John Davies, the framer, in collaboration with Peter Nahum, the artist’s patron. As a group, they document a successful communication between collector and frame maker and demonstrate the interplay of painting and frame as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. The question of the “right” frame for any individual painting is one of the most difficult to answer in the daily business of museums and collections – at least, when defining a frame as an essential complement to the image. Since the emergence of European panel painting, there has been a large diversity of frame styles, used in different combinations with a variety of images. In consequence a number of the early collectors of paintings also became passionate collectors of frames. This in itself was an achievement, as beautiful antique frames were rare even then.

During the 19th century finely handcrafted frames became more and more a rarity; the craft of frame making and gilding was disappearing with industrialisation, as well as painting being defined as a more as a craft than an art. This erosion of the traditional frame-maker continues today, where mass produced frame design and instant framing on the high street are the norm. The picture frame had been degraded to a mere commercial object that was easily purchased to order, including framing single exhibitions all in exactly the same frame style, rather than working to the individual pictures. This “industrialisation” is the result of the majority of painters and frame makers working to supply the expanding “art industry”. In the face of this fatal trend several museums have begun to assemble collections of samples of old frames, counteracting “fashion and dilettantism”. It is worth mentioning that today the hand-carved frame makers, who eschew exclusive ideals of craftsmanship, have created their own collections of historical models and samples of antique frames to work from. However, collectors of paintings, restorers and particularly artists had already discovered the advantages of using old frames before the re-emergence of today’s craftsman-framer. These artists saw the possibility, by framing their paintings with original antique carved frames, to re-interpret the material, conceptual and aesthetic functionality of the final works, by reassessing the interaction between painting and craftsmanship, picture and space, artist and viewer, or past and present. It was both something of a challenge to paint a picture already destined for an existing frame or to compliment it with an antique frame after it was finished. After all, antique frames had already established their own credentials over the centuries, and had established a certain standard for quality in their own right.

Among the greatest achievements in the history of frames are the perfectly designed frame styles that became the standards in each of the different cultural spheres – Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and the German speaking countries – from the beginning of the late 16th century, and later encompassing Britain and North America. The style of these frames, produced in small numbers by designer-craftsmen, is the result of the accumulated experience in the use of diverse materials, changing aesthetics, and the continuity of their trade over many generations.

Because of this long tradition, there are frame designs and antique frames in existence for all styles of painting and furniture over the last three hundred and fifty years. Some were made to specifically relate to the picture’s colour scheme and content; others rather represent the original owner and may relate to the place where the picture was to hang and its surrounding architecture or simply the fashion of the time and place. Some old frames can be defined, to some degree, as interchangeable “companions” to a picture. There are not only different types of frames but also different shapes: round, oval, wide and narrow frames, and different profiles, high on the outer edges and gradually diminishing, and the reverse, flat as well as heavily structured and three-dimensional, including the concave and convex. In turn, frame production relates to the format of the picture and occasionally to its meaning or intended message. There is more: the frame’s make-up, its surface treatment, the materials used and their finish, and, of course, the intended aesthetic effect depends on many criteria. In the 18th century, gold dominated. However, before and after, there were a great number of different ways to present a painting.

 “My paintings over-rule any personal biography; in my pictures I show my life and experience” (“Meine Bilder ersetzen jede Biographie, in meinen Bildern zeige ich mein Leben und Erleben“], wrote Otto Mueller. His friend Wassily Kandinsky thought that “every picture mysteriously encapsulates a whole life, with torments, doubts, hours of exultation and enlightenment” (“in jedem Bild geheimnisvoll ein ganzes Leben eingeschlossen, ein ganzes Leben mit vielen Qualen, Zweifeln, Stunden der Begeisterung und des Lichtes“). Both were representatives of the German Expressionist Movement which, in the words of Kandinsky, dissociated itself from the conventional artists of the day where “the majority of whom merely seek new mannerisms to produce millions of works of art, with cold heart and dormant soul” [“von denen die Mehrzahl nur nach neuer Manier sucht und ohne Begeisterung mit kaltem Herzen, schlafender Seele Millionen von Kunstwerken schafft“].11

Traditionally, from the seventeenth century onwards, frames exclusively related to their finished paintings, regardless of the spatial environment. Their function was to create a “contemplative atmosphere” for the viewer. This kind of framing fell into disuse in the early 19th century and was rediscovered during late-romantic aestheticism, art nouveau and surrealism. The frames of these movements align with the pictures aesthetically and conceptually. They grew out of, and continue the tradition of the centuries-old European way of presenting the early panel paintings. It is no coincidence that modern works show to their greatest advantage in antique style craftsmen-made frames. Thus they confirm the words of the philosopher and writer José Ortega y Gasset: “Pictures live nourished by their frames. This union of frame and picture is not fortuitous. One needs the other. A picture without a frame looks like a disrobed, naked man.” [“Bilder leben eingehegt von ihren Rahmen. Diese Verbindung von Rahmen und Bild ist nicht zufällig. Eines bedarf des anderen. Ein Bild ohne Rahmen sieht aus wie ein geplünderter, nackter Mensch“].

In this exhibition of Paul Raymond Gregory’s monumental paintings, the collaboration of craftsman frame-maker and patron is clearly demonstrated in the most dramatic and sympathetic manner. It shows how imaginative adaptions of traditional and off-beat frame designs can enhance and bring alive the theatrical imaginations of a true Gothic artist.

© Eva Mendgen 2007

All images and text Copyright © Studio54 1999-2024