A (Short) History of Picture Framing
“A picture without a frame is like a soul without a body” – Vincent Van Gogh (allegedly!)
A picture frame performs both aesthetic and practical roles. It is the boundary of the composition; defining, complementing and separating the artwork from its more mundane surroundings. Framing a picture also protects the art from damage and allows it to be more easily hung on the wall.
There is apparently archaeological evidence that in pre-history picture frames were used in northern Germany by Mesopotamians (sounds unlikely to me though!). What we do know is that in the ancient classical world frames were used for mirrors. Paintings then tended to be on walls as frescos of varying size and complexity and were framed by borders integral to the image. Decorative borders appeared as early as 2000BC in Egyptian tomb paintings. In classical Rome and Greece, fresco-painted or mosaic-tiled borders echoed the shapes of the walls or layout of a room’s interior, allowing the room itself to frame the image.
In the European medieval period, artists began painting onto wooden panels and their decorated edges developed into a formal, movable picture frame. Art was very much an extension of religious worship, and the first separate frames imitated the architectural surroundings of the cathedrals and larger churches. As these became more elaborate so did the frames of the art within.
As the role of the artists began to change into a more secular tradition, the art of frame-making likewise evolved. The painters began to see themselves as individualists and creators of art for its own sake, rather than as an extension of religious belief and worship. The 15th and 16th centuries, from Renaissance Italy through to the rest of Europe, artists and their patrons needed frames to set their work apart from its surroundings, not least because a rich patron would want his investment in art to be obvious to his visitors and acolytes. It would not have been unusual for a painter to create his own elaborately gilded or painted frames.
This early flowering of frames-as-art calmed down somewhat as the Seventeenth Century saw the epicentre of great art move North-East to the more restrained Protestant areas of the Netherlands and Belgium. The greater extravagance of the 18th Century and the influence of Renaissance Italy on the Grand Tourists, with the growth of the portrait as an essential accoutrement of wealth, taste and social standing, saw the re-emergence of the elaborate gilded frame.
At last, in late Georgian and Regency England, the use of pictures as domestic decoration filtered down to the bourgeoisie and below. Prints, both as pure art and as political commentary and satire, were in great demand. Artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, William Hogarth, James Gillray and, a little later, George Cruickshank made a very good living selling their art as prints, often individually hand-coloured. Print publishing and selling, led by such as the redoubtable Ackerman, grew up as a whole new industry in London. Of course this new art medium needed framing in order to be properly displayed and enjoyed. Picture frame making became an offshoot of cabinet making, and simple, affordable wooden frames were developed to satisfy the new demand. To this day, the ‘Hogarth’ frame (very dark wood with a simple gold line or two) is a staple of picture framers looking for a simple, traditional solution.
The Nineteenth Century saw the continued development and extension of the market for art. The upper classes still required portraits as an affirmation of their lineage and social standing, and also bought art for art’s sake; they would not settle for simple timber frames (unless around their subversive caricatures) so continued to need gilded frames, albeit perhaps less elaborate than preferred by the generation or two before. Yet the extension of wealth driven by the industrial revolution, especially in the relatively liberal climes of Victorian England, meant more and more walls needing more and more decoration – and patterned wallpaper was far too expensive for widespread use. The 1850s saw the breakthrough in printing technology that allowed volume colour printing at an affordable cost. Publications such as the Illustrated London News and the Graphic bound in colour prints especially to be removed for framing. In America the firm of Currier and Ives, fully incorporated in 1857, published cheap prints in their millions for the masses.
All these prints needed framing, usually in simple wooden frames reflecting the interior furnishings of their surrounds. This desire for simplicity spread to the world of artists as they fought for their work to be seen as desirable in its own right and not as an extension of interior decoration. It didn’t mean that the artist was unconcerned with the frame around his work though. That icon of impressionist movement in France, Edgar Degas, for example, was constantly concerned that an owner might change one of his frames and was even known to either buy the painting back or actually prise the frame off if a collector had changed his own choice of frame for a gold one. Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, a successful art dealer in his own right, "I can only finish my pictures when they are framed".
As the 20th century progressed, technology allowed an affordable picture frame to be made in almost any material: no longer do we need wood but can use metal and plastic in an almost unlimited range of shapes and sizes of moulding. Glazing need not be of glass, with plastic substitutes such as plexiglass, acrylic and Perspex allowing even greater flexibility and ease of handling. The glass can even be coated to cut off UV light or to be made non-reflective. Don’t mention it too loudly, but nowadays some people even prefer their art unframed!