Making a gold leaf frame from scratch…..The Italian way

December 10, 2014 in Frames by Tim Everett

Making a gold leaf frame from scratch…..The Italian way

GILDING….notes on

November 4, 2014 in Frames by Tim Everett

Gold Leaf

Gilding is the process of applying a thin layer of gold leaf onto a prepared surface of gesso, which is a paste base.  The gilt surface can be burnished to create a bright finish.  There are different types of gilding, including oil gilding, water gilding, and mercury gilding.


Interior of a Frame Gilding Workshop (oil on canvas), Adan, Louis Emile (1839-1937) / Musee des Beaux-Arts, Angers, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library


Gilding Techniques:
Two main techniques are used when applying gilding to architectural decoration: - oil gilding and water gilding.

Oil Gilding:
This method can be used to apply gilding to most internal and external building surfaces.  The first step is to prepare the surface onto which the gilding is to be applied. This is done with paint or gesso. Gesso is made by mixing chalk or gypsum with liquid glue known as size. This is covered in a thin layer of gold size which is left until it is nearly dry and ready to accept the gold leaf. Finally, a protective coating can be added.

Water Gilding:
This process requires greater preparation of the surface onto which the gilding is to be applied but, compared to oil gilding, a superior finish can be produced. Before water gilding is applied a number of coats of gesso need to be built up on the substrate to produce a smooth surface. This is followed by several coats of bole. Bole is coloured clay mixed with size. The surface is then wetted with a mixture of water and metholated spirits and the gold leaf applied instantly. As the
water soaks into the gesso it draws the gold firmly onto the surface. The gilded layers are then polished using agate (a form of hard quartz like stone) burnishers. Judging when the surface can be burnished is critical. If the correct degree of dryness has not been achieved the leaf can be easily damaged. The burnished gilded layers can, if required, be toned down using oil based varnishes and pigments.


Materials used in gilding:
Despite variations in technique of application, the same basic materials of leaf and size are integral to all methods. As with all elements of traditional buildings, an understanding of the materials used is conducive to their proper care. With gilding the following should be noted:

l Leaf: Very thin sheets of metal (around
1/250,000th of an inch thick) are used
and are supplied on a backing paper in
“books”. The most common type of leaf is
gold although other metals, such as silver
or platinum, can be used. Gold can also be
alloyed with other metals to provide different
tints and shades. In common with all gold,
leaf can come in varying degrees of purity
ranging from 12-24 carats. The purity of the
leaf can alter the appearance of the finished
l Size: In oil gilding a liquid glue known
as gold size is applied to the substrate. This
forms an adhesive that acts as the binder
between the metal leaf and the prepared
surface. This size is most commonly made of
heated linseed oil although, in the past, other
materials such as rabbit skin glue were used.
In water gilding size is mixed with water to
help provide the necessary composition to aid
adhesion between leaf and substrate.
l Gesso: In order to provide the surface to
receive the gold leaf a fine plaster-like material
has to be applied to the substrate. This layer of
gesso is made by mixing chalk or gypsum with
size. Warm liquid gesso is applied in several
layers and, when dry, is sanded to a smooth
finish to create the necessary surface.
l Bole: Bole is applied over the gesso layer.
In water gilding techniques bole is used
beneath the leaf to create a very fine, hard

surface. This allows the gold to be polished
(burnished) to a bright sheen. In some cases
the colour of the bole can influence the
appearance of the finished work.
l Surface coating: After gilding has been
applied it is sometimes coated for aesthetic
reasons or protection. Silver gilding is always
coated with varnish to prevent it becoming
tarnished. The surface coating can take
the form of lacquer, clear glaze, or toned
varnish, depending upon the desired level of
protection or required appearance. It should
be maintained thereafter because removing it
exposes the leaf and alters the appearance.
l Tools: A variety of specialist tools are used
in the gilding process. A gilder’s pad and knife
are required to cut the leaf into the desired
size and shape for the job. A flat brush is used
to transfer the leaf from the pad onto the
substrate, and these come in a variety of sizes.
Other brushes are used to smooth the gilding
into position, and to remove excess leaf. A
variety of other tools are employed in the
application and preparation of gesso, bole and


A replica frame for a Henry Fuseli painting

October 29, 2014 in Frames by Tim Everett

A replica frame for a Henry Fuseli painting

A more appropriate replica frame for a 1783 Henry Fuseli painting provides a suitable setting for this mysterious creation.

For a frames conservator, making a replica frame for a painting is always a challenging project. Determining what frame is correct for the period demands extensive research in a field that is still young in terms of connoisseurship.

Henry Fuseli Percival Delivering Belisane

Fig 1. Henry Fuseli
Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783.
Oil on canvas, support: 991 x 1257 mm
frame: 1248 x 1510 x 108 mm, painting, in previously existing frame

Henry Fuseli Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma

Fig 2. Henry Fuseli
Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783
painting in new replica frame

Deciding to make a new frame

Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1873 and its frame were examined in preparation for Tate’s 2006 exhibition, Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. The existing nineteenth-century swept composition frame, in a rococo revival style, was immediately recognised as inappropriate for a painting of 1783. In addition, the frame had been reduced in size to fit the painting, which compromised its decorative scheme. To make it visually acceptable this frame would have needed to be restored to its original dimensions, but then it would no longer fit the painting. Consequently the frame was archived and a decision taken to make a stylistically appropriate replica frame.

Diagram showing the 8 cuts where original material was removed

Fig 3. Diagram showing the 8 cuts where original material was removed

Detail of cut Fuseli Persival Delivering Belisane from the enchantment of Urma

Fig 4. Detail of cut on the frame of Henry Fuseli’s Percival delivering Belisane from the enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783

Researching a replica frame: contemporary representations of displays

In 1784 the Royal Academy’s approach was to frame everything in temporary exhibition frames. This allowed paintings to be hung directly abutting one another. As E.F. Burney’s The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1784: The Great Room, North Wall illustrates, all the paintings were framed with simple, flat wooden borders, which are quite different from the more ornate styles used for displaying pictures in private houses. Therefore images of this type were not informative.

Researching a replica frame: other known Fuseli paintings with ‘original’ frames

Here there were three possible candidates: Ezzilin and Meduna 1779 (Sir John Soane Museum, London) Thor Battering the Mitgard Serpent 1790 (Royal Academy, London) and The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ 1784–5 (exh. Royal Academy 1786). The last was considered to be the most suitable as its historical accuracy of style and technique for 1783 could be confirmed by consulting the John Anderson Frames Images Archive, held at Tate. It was also the most practical, being a work in Tate’s collection, since access to the frame was necessary for the research. Conservators also had to ask themselves whether it would be technically possible to copy the frame in the time available.

EF Burney The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1784

Fig 5. E.F. Burney, The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1784: The Great Room, North Wall
Framed painting in centre is Fuseli’s,Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking 1784

Henry Fuseli The Shepherd Dream, from Paradise Lost 1793

Fig 6. Henry Fuseli’s The Shepherd’s Dream, from Paradise Lost 1793
Oil on canvas, support: 1543 x 2153 mm 
frame: 1784 x 2395 x 107 mm
painting, in its original eighteenth-century frame

Identifying the ‘original’ frame 

Detective work on construction, wood identification, later additions and gilding schemes for the frame around The Shepherds Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ 1784–5 allowed the team to establish how that original frame was made and how it might have looked prior to later additions. It was discovered that several gilding schemes had been applied over time and that the flower corner decoration was a later addition.

Constructing the replica: a mix of new and old

In making the replica, wood-working machines were used to save time. A spindle moulder was used instead of hand planning to copy the shape of the original eighteenth-century wood profile. However, where possible, traditional techniques were used. For example, the three rows of applied decorative lime wood ornament (waterleaf, egg-and-dart and ribbon-and-stick) were meticulously carved with mallet and chisel.

Various stages in carving ribbon and stick decoration Fuseli Percival Delivering Belisane

Fig 7. Various stages in carving ribbon and stick decoration

Burnishing the water gilding Fuseli Percival Delivering Belisane

Fig 8. Burnishing the water gilding

Before attaching the decorative carving to the assembled frame, everything was ‘whitened up’ by brushing several coats of a mixture of chalk and rabbit-skin glue onto the wood. After smoothing back this surface, special gilder’s coloured clay/bole was applied. It was possible to colour-match the plum and yellow clay which was the first scheme on The Shepherd’s Dream’s frame. This was important as the clay lies directly beneath the gold leaf and its colour influences the final appearance of the gold. The final step was the application of traditional oil gilding and water gilding, followed by burnishing some areas of the water gilding to a mirror finish.

Plum and yellow clay Fuseli Percival Delivering Belisane

Fig 9. Plum and yellow clay

Corner detail of finished frame Fuseli

Fig 11. Corner detail of finished frame

Ensuring a compatible frame

The degree to which a newly gilded frame is toned is always the subject of much discussion. In keeping with Tate’s regular practice, it was decided not to create an antique look but only to lightly tone the new, bright gilding to make it compatible with the eighteenth century painting.

This exciting project has provided Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1873 with a stylistically faithful eighteenth century replica frame which allows viewers to enjoy Fuseli’s mysterious creation in a suitable setting.

Frame before toning Fuseli

Fig 11. Frame before toning

Frame toned on display in the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at Tate Britain

Fig 12. Frame toned on display in theGothic Nightmares exhibition at Tate Britain 

Frame Ethics

October 29, 2014 in Frames by Tim Everett

Frame Ethics


Frames are both functional items and decorative objects with artistic value. They are often redecorated, modified or replaced, and vulnerable to damage during handling and transport.

Alterations to the front or back of a frame can result in the loss of basic information and make it difficult to ascertain its age or provenance. Close examination, supported by scientific analysis of the materials and techniques used in the frame’s construction, can help us identify any changes that have taken place.

Understanding the authenticity of each frame helps us appreciate its role in the history of the painting. Tate’s frame collection provides fascinating insight into the history of its collection.

Authenticity of frames

Determining whether, or to what degree, a frame is authentic is core to understanding its relationship to a painting. Identifying changes in appearance, function and context allows us to appreciate its authenticity, its unique qualities as an object and its relation to the picture and setting. Every frame has to be interpreted individually.

When should a frame be considered original and/or authentic to a painting?

  • When it is made, designed, selected or authorised by the painter – however, some artists reframe paintings in a different style years later.
  • When it is chosen by the first owner or dealer – this could be a painting’s ‘original’ frame, even if it the artist considers it to be in stark contrast his intentions.
  • When it is contemporary but not original to a painting – a stylistically appropriate frame of the same age may be the next best thing to a known original.
  • When it is a ‘livery’ or ‘gallery’ frame – not necessarily original to the work but part of the painting or collection’s history.
  • When it is a replica – replicas allow a painting to be presented as deemed appropriate; but how authentic is something newly made outside of the original context?

An authentic frame may not necessarily be of a carefully considered design, or even well made. However, it does convey ideas about the time and spirit in which it was made.

Tate’s collection houses paintings and frames from many sources in different contexts. Picture frames still fulfil their original practical function, but are also often modified to accommodate glazing and backboards. When a frame is known not to be original an historical connection between frame and painting, or group of paintings, is frequently considered significant enough to preclude reframing.

Replica frames

Replicas frames may be made for a variety of reasons, including when:

  • The painting has no frame.
  • The frame around the painting is not original, has no long term historical or aesthetic connection with the painting and though it may protect the painting its unsuitability detracts from the art work.
  • The original frame is in poor condition and it is either impossible and/or too expensive in terms of labour costs and time to conserve or restore; or the frame detracts from the painting due to its poor condition.

New replica frames are only used following rigorous research to establish provenance, context and appropriate alternatives. This process highlights the inevitable gap between the appearance of old frames today and in their original setting.

The decorative surface of each replica is much debated. How should we get the right balance between the likely condition of the frame when new and an indication of age and condition commensurate with the painting and surrounding frames? Should we replicate original techniques we know to be inherently unstable in the knowledge they will deteriorate in an ‘authentic’ manner?