Gilded frames shine in the conservation lab

Mar 27, 2015

When you look at a painting or drawing, it can be easy to overlook a beautiful frame as a work of art in its own right. Historic New England staff members are treating several gilded frames in our conservation lab.

Gilded frames can feature gold-leaf techniques that are worth up-close examination. Water gilding produces a beautiful, bright, burnished surface over a water-soluble protein glue. Oil gilding produces a relatively dull but uniform surface when gold leaf is applied over an oil varnish that is allowed to dry until it is just barely tacky.

Certain elements of gilded frames are especially vulnerable to damage. Water gilding can be easily worn down, as gold leaf is incredibly thin, revealing the support layers of clay bole and gesso. Bole and gesso can be mechanically damaged and lost, especially at high points on the frame’s profile. Decorative elements, such as leaves or borders molded out of “compo” resin, can be lost or broken.

Conserving a frame can be a lengthy process. Treatment steps include cleaning the surface, consolidating flaking gold and gesso, and filling in areas of loss. If disfiguring bronze overpaint is present, it will need to be removed using solvents. Where gesso has been lost, new gesso is applied and shaped to allow the application of gold leaf. Gesso fills containing the dense compound bismuth oxide can be distinguished from original gesso through X-rays. Lost decorative pieces can be replaced with epoxy fills cast from molds of remaining decorations.

Soon these beautiful frames will be reinstalled at Historic New England’s Quincy House, which is undergoing a multi-year interior revitalization. When treatment is finished, we expect the frames and the artwork they complement to shine a little more brightly.

Support the preservation of Historic New England’s extraordinary collection with a gift to the Collections and Conservation Fund.

Above left, from top: Before, during, and after treatment. Click each image to see full size.