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By Harriet Cash on

Conserving a historic picture frame – an update

Find out how the conservation of our gilt picture frame is going, including some unexpected tools and techniques!

If you read the recent update from the conservation workshop, you’ll know that fine art conservation student Izzy McKie has been working hard to conserve a late-19th century gilt picture frame from the art store. Keen to see the progress, I caught up with Izzy to find out how it’s been going.

As soon as you walk into the workshop, the difference in the frame’s condition is noticeable. Over seven days (and using a veritable mountain of swabs), Izzy carefully stripped the frame using a mixture of acetone and saliva (that’s right, just plain old spit) to clean it ready for repairs and gilding.

A conservator in black top and white latex gloves uses a cotton swab to clean a gilt picture frame

A close-up of a gilt picture frame, with a cotton swab being used to clean the carved design
Gently swabbing to remove dirt

The acetone removed the spray paint, while the antiseptic properties of saliva helped to remove the surface dirt and clean the frame. Sometimes it’s the simplest, most natural methods that work the best!

A large pile of dirty cotton swabs in the centre of an empty picture frame
It takes a lot of cotton swabs to clean a whole frame…

With the frame clean, the next job was to make Steramould moulds of the ornamentation, to produce replacements for various missing sections (such as the acanthus leaf design).

A gilt picture frame with light-blue Steramould substance applied in small areas
Using Steramould to make moulds of missing sections of ornamentation.
Six pieces of light-blue Steramould with impressions of the frame details, on a plastic sheet
Ready to cast the replacement sections.
The white-gloved hands of a conservator applying replacement details to a gilt picture frame
Applying the new castings.

Once in place, these were then toned with a mix of acrylic paints. Any very small bits still missing were filled in with a substance called Flügger. Once Izzy is finished with a section, it’s very hard to tell the difference.

Two tubes of acrylic paint in different shades of brown
Mixing acrylic paints to the right shade.
The newly-cast replacement after toning.

The corners of the frame presented a slightly different problem, as all four were damaged or broken off completely, leaving nothing to make a casting of. In this case, Izzy has used plasticine and dental tools to create a new corner detail which can then be cast in the same way as the leaves. This is part imagination and part detective work, using reference to other frames by the same makers to create something plausible for the frame’s period and style.

The corner of a gilt picture frame with a leaf detail added in green plasticine
Creating a replacement leaf design for the frame’s corners

With that done, the really delicate, fiddly job was next—gilding the frame using 23 ½ carat gold leaf. This involves applying a glue size which is then used to flood the surface, then applying the gold leaf straight away using a special squirrel-hair brush (gilder’s tip).

Conservator applying gold leaf to a picture frame
Applying the gold leaf
Gold leaf being applied to a picture frame using a flat squirrel hair brush
Applying the gold leaf using a delicate squirrel-hair brush

The leaf has to go on flat, otherwise it crumples – making this an incredibly delicate task! Once this is all done, the gold leaf will be toned using watercolours and non-yellowing varnish. The aim isn’t to make the frame look brand spanking new, but rather to conserve it so that it survives as long as possible.

In among all this Izzy’s also found time to reapply a layer of gesso to areas where it’s missing—this was used beneath the original composite and clay layers as a primer, to help hold everything together.

Corner of a gilt picture frame with a white layer of gesso newly applied
Reapplying a layer of gesso

Possibly the most intriguing thing about the whole process is the variety of tools and skills used—none native to conservation but learned and borrowed from all sorts of other trades. A picture frame alone could require skills in carpentry, framing, gilding, chemistry, curation, art history and more—with the aim that when finished, the conservation process will be invisible to the average person.

We’ll update this post once Izzy’s finished to show the final result—in the meantime, for more insights you can explore all our posts about conservation work at the museum.

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