In the Context of the Frame

Choosing a suitable frame for an Old Master is no simple matter. Especially considering the enormous variety available from different periods. Which is why specialists are often called in. Frame-making is John Davies of London’s speciality and together we compiled the following report.

In all the years we have been involved in the art world, we have only rarely encountered Old Masters in their original seventeenth-century frames. Frames have invariably been adapted in the course of the centuries to suit the fashions of the day. In the early nineteenth-century, for example, it was the heavy, golden Neo-Classical model that prevailed. Entire collections were reframed in the style, as the Ioannides Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum illustrates.

For years current fashions were considered more important than an appreciation of the historical perspective. It was only in 1984, with the publication of Framing in the Golden Age, accompanying a similarly-titled Rijksmuseum exhibition, that a change occurred. This seminal work was the first to explain to a wide audience how seventeenth-century paintings were originally framed. For many it came as a surprise, and for art-lovers it was a revelation, to see the extent to which a frame determines the ambience of a painting.

A fine example is the winter landscape by Aert van der Neer at Museum Bredius. This painting, with its gold, nineteenth-century frame was transformed when it was placed in an ebony frame based on a contemporary seventeenth-century model.

Because the dark wood harmonizes with the black in the landscape, the whole painting acquired a new depth and a sense of tranquillity. Suddenly the winter landscape is more convincing.

Authentic seventeenth-century frames are exceptionally rare and naturally expensive. English frame-maker John Davies therefore decided to specialize in new frames based on old models. He has a 250-page catalogue and store of expertise. He can tell exactly what kind of frame a particular work would have had. In practice, however, the historically correct frame is not always the best aesthetic complement to the painting.

To illustrate this we have taken the Still Life with Flowers by Alexander Adriaensen. Painted in the Southern Netherlands around 1640-1650, various types of frames are possible for this work.

Perhaps the most obvious is the cassetta frame which became popular in Flanders in the second quarter of the seventeenth century and reveals Italian and Spanish influences [A]. Although historically correct, this frame makes the still life seem rather dull and reduces the effect of the warm, glowing colours.

A variation on this model is the gilt cassetta decorated with stylised foliage [B]. This frame gives the still life a pleasant appearance, while the decoration emphasises the cross composition. These minor adjustments to the same cassetta model make the floral piece more accessible and attractive.

In view of the intense cultural contact between the Southern and Northern Netherlands another potential area for a frame is the Dutch Republic. A style prominent in this period is the North-Holland gold-edged back frame [C]. However, the effect this frame has on the painting is not really an improvement on the previous models: it makes the still life seem course and dull.

The Lutma frame, on the other hand, radiates grandeur and opulence [D]. This frame is named after Johannes Lutma the Elder because of the resemblance to the Baroque decoration on his silver objects. While the ornamental shapes of the frame are echoed in the still life, and the floral arrangement no longer looks clumsy, in fact the frame is actually over the top.

In our view, this painting’s perfect match is not to be found in the North, but rather in the South. Where the so-called Diamond Copen model originated is known for certain [E]. With its tortoiseshell inlay this frame is reminiscent of Flemish collector’s cabinets, although it might equally have been made in Northern Italy or Southern Germany. While this may not be the first place one would look for a frame for a Flemish still life, the combination produces an excellent result. With its finely carved, undulating ebony relief this frame provides the appropriate graceful and subdued ambience; the embellished corners reflect the cross composition in the painting and the colours link the frame to the still life. This is achieved in the tortoiseshell elements which are tinted white-pink, to correspond with the roses in the painting. Tortoiseshell was tinted in the seventeenth century too, although today Davies employs an artificial substitute since the species is now protected. In this case, the final choice is certainly the best, and happily also within the historically acceptable.


P.J.J. van Thiel, C.J. de Bruyn Kops, Framing in the Golden Age. Picture and Frame in 17th-century Holland, Amsterdam/Zwolle 1995 (English edition of Prijst de Lijst, Amsterdam 1984)