Inside the conservation lab: restoring gilded frames

Jul 16, 2014

Gilded picture frames are some of the most common objects treated in Historic New England’s conservation lab. Frames are not just displays for works of art; they are works of art themselves. They are usually made of several different materials, including wood, gesso (a paste made of chalk and animal glue), compo (a moldable putty made of chalk, rosin, animal glue, and oil), bole (colored clay), and gold. Because each of these materials reacts differently to changes in humidity and temperature, frames are easily susceptible to damage.

The elaborate oval gilded frame shown here (click the images to enlarge) houses a pastel portrait and hangs in the hallway of Josiah Quincy House in Quincy, Massachusetts. In addition to cracks in the gilding, the frame was missing parts of its ornate decoration. Because the decoration on the frame is symmetrical, Historic New England’s conservators were able to recreate the missing pieces.

First, a preparatory drawing was made using the intact other half. Then the pieces were sculpted out of epoxy putty. The pieces were attached with a conservation-grade adhesive, then coated with black paint in imitation of the black bole on the original. Finally, real gold leaf was applied to the pieces, followed by toning with paint. After conservation, the frame is whole and attractive again.

Come learn more about this treatment and others at Conservation Close-Up at Quincy House on Saturday, July 19.

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