What happens when a recently conserved painting is ready for display in the galleries but its frame is all wrong? This is the story of how a curator and frame conservator teamed up to create a historically accurate reproduction of an unusual 19th-century frame.
In the summer of 2019, Miriam Stewart, curator of the collection in the Division of European and American Art, considered organizing a display of paintings and drawings by 19th-century British artist Albert Moore. Examining the museums’ four works by Moore, Stewart was struck by the condition of the painting Study for “Blossoms.” With a dramatic tenting crack pattern covering its surface, the painting appeared to need extensive conservation treatment. Stewart requested the work be brought to the paintings lab in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Study for examination by paintings conservator Kate Smith. This transfer of the work from storage to the lab set in motion a dynamic multipronged, collaborative project that spanned three years, involving six Harvard Art Museums colleagues and the expertise of a local frame-maker and five paintings conservators, conservation scientists, and frame conservators in the United Kingdom.
For the first two years, “Project Moore,” as it came to be called, was led by Ruby Awburn, former Richard I. Shader Fellow in Paintings Conservation, and Sophie Lynford, Rousseau Curatorial Fellow in European Art, in partnership with associate conservation scientist Georgina Rayner. The team undertook extensive technical and scientific analysis of Study for “Blossoms” and made important discoveries about Moore’s working methods. They published their findings in Materia: Journal of Technical Art History in February 2022. During this period, Awburn also treated Study for “Blossoms,” removing a thick, yellowed varnish and reducing the noticeable white highlights of the painting’s open cracks with in-painting. Study for “Blossoms” was ready to go on display, but there was still one problem: it did not have an exhibitable frame. Enter Allison Jackson, assistant frame conservator, who, in the third year of the project, constructed a new frame for Moore’s painting after the artist’s own design. The goal was to have the frame conceived and constructed in time to be displayed in the installation Framed: The Victorians in the museums’ Pre-Raphaelite gallery this spring.
Albert Moore’s Geometry
During his 30-year career, Moore rarely strayed from the compositional formula for which he was known. His oeuvre is comprised primarily of narrow, vertical canvases featuring slender women draped in classicized garments and placed in shallow decorative settings (as seen in A Garden, above). The visual homogeneity across Moore’s paintings can be attributed to his systematic working process, which integrated methods from the field of architectural drafting in which he had been trained. Gridding was central to Moore’s practice. Many of Moore’s preparatory drawings reveal networks of lines that intersect at irregular angles, governing the diagonals that undergird every element—from his figures’ postures to the placement of the folds in their drapery. In certain instances, Moore applied his grid directly onto the canvas of oil studies. In Study for “Blossoms,” graphite gridlines are visible under the thin paint layer near the figure’s head and feet.
Geometric forms are also seen in Moore’s frames, many of which he designed himself. Marked by shallow profiles decorated with linear ornament, his frames drew from classical architecture and emphasized his figures’ classically inspired costumes and poses (see the frame in Pomegranates, below). His frame designs emphasize his paintings’ shallow depth, the geometric gridding that governed his compositions, and their ornamental qualities.
Artist-designed frames became popular during the second half of the 19th century in Britain, particularly in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and their successors. Moore joined a growing group of Aesthetic movement artists, including Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who viewed frames as integral components of finished paintings. These artists rejected mainstream frame-making, which had become industrialized by the mid-19th century. Details that had previously been carved by hand were often completed by machines. To reduce labor costs, frame-makers often relied on less expensive materials. They would use gold paint instead of gold leaf, for instance, and in place of wood for ornamentation, they applied molded compo, a mixture of chalk, hide glue, resin, and linseed oil. The Pre-Raphaelites lamented these changes, believing that mass-produced frames diminished the overall effect of their paintings. These artists soon began to design their own frames, rejecting many of the stylistic shortcuts industrial frame-makers had made ubiquitous.
Study for “Blossoms” was acquired by New York–based collector Grenville Winthrop in 1932. Winthrop often discarded the original frames of paintings in his collection, preferring frames with simple, low-profile designs. It was therefore likely that the work received the heavy gold and linen frame with two panes of glass seen in the image below soon after Winthrop purchased it.
There are no records documenting the original frame for Moore’s Study for “Blossoms,” but the curatorial and conservation team knew that the Winthrop frame was a mismatch in style for the newly treated artwork. While in fashion at the time of Winthrop’s acquisition of the painting, the frame diminished the viewing experience and interpretation of the painting. In both concept and visual congruency, the frame was discernably separate from the work. Furthermore, the double glazing placed additional distance between the viewer and the canvas by creating an overabundance of reflections that obscured Moore’s meticulous painting techniques. In short, Study for “Blossoms” needed a new frame.
Research and Design
The process of creating a new frame for Study for “Blossoms” began by closely studying original frames designed by Moore. As mentioned above, the artist developed a singular aesthetic and compositional formula that he repeated across his frames. He began with a flat main molding (known as a frieze) made of oak. Detailed geometric profiles were applied on either side, and classically inspired ornament was inserted throughout. Two examples of original frames by Moore can be found on the paintings Pomegranates, in the collection of Guildhall Art Gallery, and A Garden, in the collection of Tate Britain.
Allison Jackson began her research into original Moore frames by contacting frame conservators at Guildhall and the Tate. Alastair Johnson, at the Tate, provided the file for Moore’s frame for A Garden, which was treated in 2001. Detailed records of the treatment provided information about the frame’s condition before treatment; cross-sectional analysis; a profile drawing of the frame (seen below); and a description of the treatment. Johnson generously shared scaled pictures of the mock-up they made to test their finishing techniques, details of the surface, the type of gold used, and personal notes and advice on the finishing process. Mark Searle, at Guildhall Art Gallery, provided a to-scale profile drawing of the frame for Moore’s Pomegranates. This information was invaluable to Jackson when she turned to conceive the frame for Study for “Blossoms.”
Because of the comparable canvas sizes of Study for “Blossoms” and Pomegranates, we decided that our frame should have similar dimensions to that of Pomegranates. Jackson created a new drawing that converted into inches the metric system–scaled drawing received from Guildhall, but she left the applied moldings open for interpretation. She sent the drawing to frame-maker Brett Stevens of Groton, Massachusetts, who would be constructing the frame. He first surveyed his inventory of profile knives (which are used to cut the wood to create the moldings) to identify any existing knives that were close to the shapes needed for our desired molding profile. After reviewing the profile knives that Stevens had in stock that were close matches (see above), we decided that it was important to remain true to Moore’s original design. To commission a close reproduction of the frame on Pomegranates, a custom-designed profile knife, made to the specific shape of Moore’s applied moldings, was required. We also sought to incorporate the grooves, or channels, for the running bead on the frieze of the frame and to reproduce the gentle descending slope of the profile toward the plane of the picture. Jackson searched for ornaments that would both match Moore’s own and fit the frame’s channels.
Fabrication and Finishing
With the new customized profile knives in hand, Stevens began construction. The base of the frame was laminated out of two pieces of rift sawn oak, which was also used for the liner and applied moldings. The frame was then joined with mitered half-lapped joints. This type of joint is created by removing a quantity of wood (in this case, in a triangular shape) that is half the thickness of each board. The boards then fit neatly together and are adhered with glue. The two applied moldings were cut with the custom-ordered profile knives on a molding machine and applied with a pin nailer to the main frame molding. The inner molding was slightly recessed, to aid in the downward progression of the profile. The channels in the main molding were cut with a table saw, and the back edge of the frame was finished with a router and cove bit.
When Stevens finished constructing the solid oak frame, he delivered it to the Harvard Art Museums paintings lab, where Jackson took over ornamenting, gilding, and finishing it. To prepare for gilding, the frame was sanded and coated with two coats of dilute shellac and a custom yellow oil-based paint. The composition ornament was also sanded and sealed with shellac and the same yellow paint before it was applied to the frame using hide glue.
After sufficient drying time, gold size (an adhesive used in gilding) was applied to the frame surface. After waiting 12 hours, Jackson began gilding. She used Dauvet 18.4 Karat Vert Fonce gold leaf, the same gold that the Tate used when regilding the frame for A Garden. The gold-leafed frame was left to cure (essentially, to dry and harden) for 10 days before toning.
Toning is the process that makes the frame look like it was produced in the 19th century. To do this, Jackson first applied a dilute solution of watercolor-tinted rabbit skin glue to mute the brightly gilded surface. Then she applied a coat of shellac, tinted with reddish dye, and on top of that, she washed a mixture of Japan paint diluted in mineral spirits over the surface. She gave the frame a more aged appearance by gently beating it with some tools and lead weights. A final wash of the Japan paint mixture was applied to darken the fresh areas of intentional wear. Finally, the painting was installed in the toned frame.
Framed: The Victorians
In May 2022, Study for “Blossoms” and its new frame were hung in the Pre-Raphaelite gallery (Gallery 2130), as the centerpiece of the installation Framed: The Victorians. The display brings together a selection of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their successors paired with artist-designed frames. Original frames, designed by painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and George Frederic Watts, were produced by master frame-makers who worked with Victorian artists to realize their unique designs. Pairing these historical frames with the newly created, period-specific reproduction frame on Study for “Blossoms” links the craftsmanship, skill, and expertise of Victorian frame-makers with those who contributed to Project Moore. By recognizing the labor of craftsmen and carvers separated by 150 years, we seek to reinsert them into the narratives from which they have long been excluded.
The authors thank Alastair Johnson, Sean Lunsford, Mark Searle, and Brett Stevens for their contributions, intellectually and materially, to the construction of the frame for Albert Moore’s Study for “Blossoms.”
Allison Jackson is assistant frames conservator in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and Sophie Lynford is the Rousseau Curatorial Fellow in European Art, both at the Harvard Art Museums.