Framing 'Christ Teacheth Humility' by Robert Scott Lauder (part one)

The Conservation Live Project involving Christ Teacheth Humility by Robert Scott Lauder has given our Frame Conservation team the opportunity to not only conserve and restore a huge frame, but to also research its origins. Since 1983, the painting has been housed in a National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) simple stock frame and it was now time to return it to its glorious nineteenth-century design.  

A large outer frame was purchased in 1859, some twelve years after the painting was completed. The real ‘original’ frame may very well have been what we call a ‘slip’ frame, which would have allowed the canvas to be handled, transported  and displayed in Westminster Hall, the location it was painted for as part of a competition. 

Records from the Royal Association Promotion of the Fine Arts Scotland (RAPFAS) reveal that a J. D. Smith, 1845-1885 Edinburgh, was paid £20 to frame Christ Teacheth Humility on 7 December 1858. That equates to around £2000 today, and amazingly, with current costs of materials and labour, this would go nowhere near purchasing such an elaborate frame! 

It is possible that this new frame encompassed the original, as there is evidence from the size and historic fixings to support this, but unfortunately that section of the frame no longer exists. Smith is well documented within Gallery frame records and his designs and profiles are sometimes used as research and templates for the making of period reproductions. 

At the start of the project this painting had been separated from its frame for at least fifty years. While the painting was on loan, and displayed in a temporary (and much smaller, lighter!) design, the four separate lengths of the original had been kept in various storage facilities. Thanks more to the watertight memory of our frame conservator, and less to fifty-year-old record keeping, we were able to easily locate the older one and identify it by chalk markings on its underside.  However, to be absolutely certain, we would have to reconstruct the frame and take detailed comparison measurements of the canvas and the ‘rebate’ size – the inner ledge in which the painting is held. 

With the combined efforts of our technicians, art handling colleagues and volunteers, we were able to reconstruct this monster frame. We worked as a team to carefully rest the canvas in the frame. At this stage it had not been fitted out to modern conservation standards, so we had to work with extreme care to ensure that the rough rebate of the frame would not damage the delicate painted edges of the artwork. For visual affect we simply had to see the two reunited.  The dimensions were a match, confirming that this was the long-separated Lauder frame, making our way forward now clear - to restore this incredible frame and bring the canvas home.

There was one big thing missing: the slip. Often between the frame and the artwork there will be a second frame, an inner frame, or what is known as a ‘slip’. These can be quite unassuming, but in this case, we knew the slip would be a key component. When you look at the painting it is quite clear that it was not designed to sit within a square frame. The top corners of the canvas are bare and various incarnations of the original arched slip can be seen in the painted surface. The painting  sat in a temporary slip which was deemed unfit for purpose by modern conservation standards. It needed to be removed and a new one constructed from scratch. The events of 2020 halted progress on the slip, but the materials to make it have now been sourced, and designs discussed. The team is eager to get going and share with you the next stage of this exciting project as it unfolds!

Blog by Emma John, Senior Frame Technician. 

3 November 2021