Behind the Scenes at Dulwich Picture Gallery: The Restoration of an 18th Century Frame

I recently visited Tom Proctor, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s frame conservator, who is currently restoring the frame of the Gallery’s recently rediscovered masterpiece made in Titian’s studio, Venus and Adonis. Tom took me through the various phases of this ambitious and lengthy project.

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Venus and Adonis was recovered from storage in  2009, having been hidden away in the depths of the Gallery since the late 19th century. Originally acquired by the Gallery’s founder as a work by Titian, the painting’s authorship was later questioned leading to it being demoted as a late 17th century copy and eventually removed from display. When the work was finally rediscovered it was in desperate need of restoration. There were tears in the canvas, flaking paint and a dirty surface covered in yellowing varnishes. However thanks to Mrs Sheila Boyle, who has generously funded the careful conservation, the painting has been restored. Excitingly, restoration and extensive scientific analysis have identified the painting as an authentic 16th century work executed in Titian’s studio. Find out more about the restoration of Venus and Adonis and our conservation programme.

IMG_1631However, it was not just the painting that had deteriorated after years of neglect but also the frame. Frames are both functional items and decorative objects with artistic value. An authentic or original frame forms part of a painting’s history and is often an important part of the work. Whilst they provide protection for paintings, frames themselves are vulnerable to damage and need to be conserved. When this frame was found it was damp and battered, with most of the gold leaf having  flaked off the surface to reveal crumbly, old gesso and bare, knocked about timber. This was mostly due to the frame having been stored in an old garage near to the gallery, where it was cold and damp in winter and dry and hot in summer, the worst conditions for a carved frame to be exposed to.

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The exact origin of the frame is unknown, but we do know that it was purchased with the painting in the 1790s and it is likely to have been created especially for the work. The carving is incredibly elaborate, with an interweaving pattern of foliage, birds and flowers, and many of the details echoing references in the painting. The positions of the two birds in the central section of the top panel, for example, mirror those of the ill-fated lovers, Venus and Adonis. The frame is made from solid oak, a wood traditionally used by French carvers and known for being one of the toughest to work with due to its hard grain. Both design and technique suggest a highly skilled craftsman.

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It would have been a discredit for this beautiful frame to have been left in the condition in which it was found. The Gallery is therefore incredibly grateful to Mr and Mrs Dennis and Lesley Robins for sponsoring the frame and enabling it to be restored.

“We were inspired by the presentation on the restoration of the painting, and wanted straight away to finish the job, as it were, by enabling the frame to be restored. During our visits to Tom’s workshop we have been fascinated to see the outstanding skill of both the original craftsman and Tom himself and his team of assisting craftsmen. We are truly excited at the prospect of seeing the frame reunited with its picture after so much painstaking work.”

Lesley Robins

“I would like to add my gratitude to Mr and Mrs Dennis and Lesley Robins for making the restoration of this beautiful but much neglected frame possible after such a long wait for generous support, and I will strive to return the frame to a secure condition and an appropriate appearance, so that it suits the sensitively restored painting well and will once again be an appreciated part of the galleries collection.”

Tom Proctor, Frame Conservator

Tom has now been tasked with this exciting and time invested project. The frame is almost eight by eight foot and although not quite the largest frame he has ever worked on, it is by far one of the most complex…

Stage One: getting the frame to the studio

The frame needed to be removed from the Gallery’s store and at eight foot square this was not easy. Being too large to fit through a corridor door, the frame had to be dismantled into four parts, requiring the removal of several 300 year old handmade nails that have been holding the sections of the frame in place.

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Stage Two: stripping down and restructuring

Once the parts had finally been moved to the workshop Tom had a very lengthy project before him. He began by making the unusual decision to strip the frame right back to the original timber, rather than attempting to preserve the existing old gesso. This decision was based on the gesso being very unreliable, unstable and brittle due to years of poor storage conditions. The existing gesso layers were completely without any incised patterning which is an important element of the decorative appearance. Stripping the frame gave Tom the opportunity to see all of the original carved details that had been lost over the years and assess the structural damage and cracks in the timber, which the gesso had been covering up. Next he used adhesives to secure any parts that had broken off. Tom and his carving colleague Steve Slack are now in the process of meticulously re-carving any parts of the frame that are missing. To do this they are securing new blocks of oak onto the frame and then carving into them using the rest of the frame as a template for the pattern. As well as oak, Tom is using sweet chestnut, a very similar wood but with a slightly softer grain.

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Stage Three: whiting

When Tom has finished restructuring all four sections of the frame he and some gilding colleagues will begin applying gesso, a mixture of glue and chalk powder, which is used as a primer straight on top of bare timber. First he will fill any big cracks in the wood using gesso putty, a thicker gesso mixture, and then apply at least eight layers of gesso to the frame. The gesso will then have to be smoothed down to a fine finish and then many, many hours will be spent re-cutting intricate patterning into the whole of the frames surface. This detailed work subtlety enhances the decorative detail in the frame and becomes an important part of the frames final appearance.

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Stage Four: bole

Once all the gesso has dried it is time for the clays. First a layer of yellow bole, a mixture of earth clay and ‘rabbit skin glue’ will be brushed onto the new gesso layers. Next a layer of a deep red bole will be applied, which will lie directly beneath the gold leaf and influence the final appearance of the gold. Once the bole has dried a layer of gilders water is applied. This is a mixture of ionised water and meths with a small amount of rabbit skin glue, which softens the glue in the bole enabling the gold leaf to stick.

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Stage Five: gold leaf

Finally it will be time to apply the delicate gold leaf, a lengthy process requiring great concentration to make sure little of the precious gold is lost. Once the surface has been covered, it will be time to burnish selected parts and highlight sections of the matt gold leaf with an agate stone. Lastly the surface will be distressed to give an impression of age using a variety of traditional materials and methods.

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Stage Six: reunion of painting and frame

Once Tom has fixed the four parts of the frame back together it will be time to refit the painting…

“It will be both fascinating and exciting to at last see the painting reunited with its companion painting. Hopefully it will prove to be a successful reunion after so many years adrift from each other, and an important part of the galleries collection returned to Soane’s walls for its visitors and supporters to enjoy.”

Tom Proctor, Frame Conservator


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