Upon seeing the painting after conservation
my client wisely decided that addressing the frame would not only be prudent but be of
great benefit to the painting as well. Having installed the painting into the frame with
brackets and screws, the removal was easy and didn’t subject the painting to any unnecessary
stress. Before any work could begin on the front of the frame attention must first be
paid to the back. All of the old hanging hardware was removed as its functionality and security
was highly questionable. In addition the back of the frame needed to be fully cleaned of
the old paper tape and glue residues before the actual conservation could begin. This
paper is often applied to make the back of the frame appear tidy but serves no functional
purpose and is just messy to deal with. With the frame construction now revealed the disassembly
could begin. The liner was removed as per my client’s request the linen would not be
replaced, rather it would be gilded to match the frame. After stripping and disassembling
the liner the old glue needed to be removed as well. As this was white glue a chemical
stripper was needed to remove the adhesive and as the chemicals are toxic a full face
respirator is essential. While all of this may seem excessive, crafting a new liner was
unnecessary and trying to reuse the original if possible is always best.
With the frame disassembled the work on the front could now begin. At one point in the
past the frame was gessoed over and glazed in white and brown paint. This was probably
done as styles changed and the original frame seemed out of fashion. Luckily for us the
quality of the work was low and the original shellac never removed so the gesso didn’t
form a very strong bond to the frame and with a bit of labor it can be removed. Using a
stiff nylon brush along with other tools the paint and gesso layer was chipped, scraped,
flaked and manipulated off the surface of the frame. Water, alcohol and enzyme cleaner
were all used to remove the gesso residue and remaining bits of shellac. Making sure
that all of the contaminates were fully removed from the gold leaf was essential as a pure
surface is necessary for re-gilding and the other work to come. Using a stiff bristle
brush and soft towels to remove the residues allows the intensity of the original gold
to come into full view. The stability of the ornamentation is checked
as over time it can become detached from the wood molding and lost. When a loose piece
is found it’s removed and set aside until it can be rebounded with the wood using a
stable conservation adhesive. Luckily no molding was lost and no casting was needed. The liner was reassembled, glued, and clamped
together in preparation for planing and sanding. All of this is done to ensure that the surface
of the wood is smooth and free of imperfection and ready to accept the new gesso layer.
To make the gesso a high strength hide glue is combined with water, allowed to sit and
swell, heated, strained and then combined with guilders whiting, mixed and strained
until creamy smooth. Normally rabbit skin glue is used but in this case as the liner
will have to be distressed the extra strength of the hide glue is warranted.
Up to eight thin coats of gesso will be successively applied to the wood. The gesso can be brushed
on as in this case or sprayed for a larger scale of work. Once dry it will be sanded
smooth in preparation for the application of the bole. Like the gesso the bole will
be applied in many thin layers and eventually wet sanded, buffed and polished to a smooth
surface. Again, this can be sprayed when the surface is highly sculpted or there are many
frames requiring this step. Once the bole is smooth and polished the gilding
can begin. The first step is to apply a size and in this case an oil product is being used
as opposed to a water, alcohol, or rabbit skin glue option due to its long open time,
extra durability and frankly forgiveness. A suede gilders pad receives the delicate
23 karat Italian leaf and it’s then cut with a gilding knife to manageable sizes. A gilders
tip brush of natural animal hair with a slight static charge will pick up the leaf enabling
its placement onto the tacky size. The leaf is pressed into the size and allowed to sit.
A mop or other soft haired brush is used to press the leaf into the size and remove the
extra gold which can be saved for later use. At this point the liner is ready for distressing
and toning to match the original frame. Using high tech tools such as tape and sandpaper
the surface of the liner is distressed and worked in an effort to match the state of
the original frame. The toning of the gold is done with blonde shellac and pigment dyes.
Successive layers of shellac can be applied, removed, and otherwise worked until the tone
and appearance of the gold matches the original. Other substances such as pumice or rottenstone
are used to simulate dust and dirt. In addition to toning the liner the client desired to
have the intensity of the gold brought down a bit so the entire surface of the frame is
tinted as well. Matte milk paint is mixed to a neutral tone
and applied to the edges of the frame where no gilding was added.
Acid free cotton rag paper is cut and applied to the part of the liner rabbet that makes
contact with the paint to protect it. The painting can now be installed into the
conserved frame using brackets and screws and new hanging hardware installed ensuring
the this frame will remain where is should; firmly on the wall.
And now to go along with the conserved painting we have the frame fully restored. Midway through
the cleaning of the frame I invited my client in to the studio to view the state of the
gold and after discussing the options including a full stripping we decided that the condition
of the leaf wasn’t such that it was visually problematic and that all new leaf wasn’t necessary.
My client wasn’t bothered by the wear to the leaf and felt that it added something to the
frame and painting. The choice to tone down the intensity of the gold was, in my opinion
a wise one as it allows the frame to be brilliant without dominating the painting.