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?