Art conservation | How are frames chosen?

When Flora Macdonald Reid's 1895 painting The Market Scene, Bruges  entered the National Galleries of Scotland collection without a frame, we in the the conservation team knew that we would have to start from scratch to make it fit for display, but it also presented us with an opportunity to really explore a variety of framing options for the artwork. This blog explores that process.

We began by situating this painting within our own collection and found several frames that were roughly contemporary to it on works by artists including Samuel John Peploe, David Young Cameron, and John Singer Sargent that may have made appropriate models for a reproduction.

A fragment of an exhibition label from 1894 is visible on the reverse of this painting by Flora Macdonald Reid from the Dudley Museums collection. © Dudley Museums Service

We also explored examples of Reid’s work in other collections.  We contacted eight institutions, including the National Trust and the Laing Gallery, to obtain images of frames for their Reids. It is an unfortunate fact for Frame Conservators that often the official photography taken of art objects does not include the frames in which they’re housed, which makes research into frames like this much harder to do!

However, we received a very positive response from contacts across the UK who were all interested in our project and happy to contribute their own images which included crucial shots of the frames.

This effort yielded one great result; a Reid which appeared from a reverse shot to be in a frame that could very likely have been its original, as it included a fragment of an exhibition label from 1894 (often things like labels are vital in determining the history of a frame) so this too could provide us with a good example on which to model a reproduction.

The Conservator’s next step is to liaise with our colleagues in the Curatorial department to discuss our findings and proposals. At a meeting we presented a few options, one of which was to consider a copy of the potentially original frame discovered on a Reid in another collection, plus a wild card!

This frame in the Lowland style, dating from the mid to late nineteenth century was found in the National Galleries of Scotland's collection.

The Galleries has in its collection a large number of empty historic frames and among them we were aware of a beautiful frame in the Lowland style dating from around the mid to late nineteenth century. The size of this frame was, within a few millimetres, an exact match for the Reid! We discussed at length this ‘wild card’ option as our initial assessments had all agreed that as an important addition to the Scottish collection, this work required a Scottish style frame.

However, it was unanimous; regardless of the national identity of the artist, the subject matter should also be closely considered and the Flemish market scene looked great in this dark wood, ripple and flame style moulding. It required only the addition of a delicate gilded slip to make the work fit the frame.

The Market Scene, Bruges, pictured on display at the Scottish National Gallery.

The frame itself required extensive conservation treatment to become a sound housing for the canvas as it was extremely warped and riddled with historic woodworm holes across the face. To tackle the warp the frame underwent a controlled break at two opposite mitres and was then soaked and flattened over a period of weeks.

Once it was level a back frame was added to provide structural stability. The blemished face of the frame was treated so that the pockmarks were no longer visible and the whole surface was cleaned and burnished.

The finished frame  can now be found on display surrounding The Market Scene, Bruges, at the Scottish National Gallery.

By Emma John, Conservation Technician - Paintings and Frames