An intriguing old photograph inspired the re-presentation of Arthur Streeton’s major work Spring, dated 1890. The photograph shows part of the 1916 exhibition of the Baldwin Spencer collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Spencer’s collection included works by many respected artists of the time including E. P. Fox, Frederick McCubbin, George Lambert, Hans Heysen, Charles Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton.
In the 1916 photograph, Streeton’s Spring is displayed in a different frame to the one that has been in the NGV collection for many years. It shows the earliest known frame choice for the painting. With Spring set to feature in two forthcoming exhibitions, the decision was made to create an historically correct reproduction frame based on the photograph.
To begin the reproduction process, the frame depicted in the photograph was measured and scaled drawings were made using the painting’s canvas size as the relative scale. The photograph was taken from a distance and to the side of the painting, which is hung with the top of the frame tilting forward. This view has the benefit of showing the shape of the outer part of the frame, but also has the drawback of causing distortion to the scale of the frame. As luck would have it, further research unearthed additional images of Streeton’s Spring, confirming the same frame was on the work when the Baldwin Spencer Collection was exhibited in 1912 at the Prahran Town Hall.
Four photographs of this exhibition are mounted together. Two of the images show Streeton’s Spring from a more frontal position giving a clearer reading of the scale of the frame. Using both photographs it was possible to cross-reference the scale and ornament*Decoration that is applied to a plain frame moulding. to improve the fidelity of the reproduction. The frame is plain in its construction and having minimal ornament, appears architectural in character, similar to a wide architrave around a door or window. The frame profile*The profile is the main shape of a frame moulding. A profile drawing is an illustration of the frame moulding in cross-section. is 20cm wide and made of three sections; a main outer section which has a half round on top and a beveled inner face leading to a second section with a sanded flat area and finishing with a narrow slip*A narrow inner frame, generally flat or bevelled, that sits within the rebate at the sight edge of the main frame. which acts as a visual and physical connection between the painting and the frame.
Using the scale drawings from the photographs, timber prototypes were made to finalize the details of angles, shapes and sizes of the sections that combine to create the profile. The prototypes were also used for testing the type of gilded finish to be applied to the frame.
The confirmation of the final details was a collaborative process with Conservation and Curatorial colleagues meeting to discuss the merits of each in relation to the photographs and the painting.
The next step was the construction of the reproduction frame itself. The timber chosen was a softwood called Jelutong which is lightweight and has a straight uniform grain. While Jelutong is easy to work, it also has the benefit that it is very stable with minimal movement of the timber over time. The first outer main section was made up of three components, with profiles cut out using knives specifically shaped for the task and inserted into woodworking machinery. The shaped pieces were then glued together, creating a hollow inside. This method of construction creates a lighter, stronger frame with an economical use of smaller size timbers, with little machine waste. The middle section consisted of a flat that has sand glued onto the surface. Samples were made to choose the correct size grit and density of sand on the surface. A sanded flat was a common decorative feature used on frames in the nineteenth century. The final section at the inner edge of the frame, the slip, had a small square profile. All three sections are then mitred (cut at 45 degrees) glued and clamped, creating three separate frames. The three frame sections were fitted and fixed together creating one large frame.
The frame was then sprayed with gesso*A mixture of animal glue and gypsum applied in multiple layers to timber to create a foundation for decorative finishes such as painting or gilding. May also refer to ground layers containing chalk. A mixture of animal glue and gypsum applied in multiple layers to timber to create a foundation for decorative finishes such as painting or gilding*A decorative technique where a layer of incredibly thinly beaten metal (commonly gold) is applied to a surface. . May also refer to ground layers containing chalk.
A mixture of rabbit skin glue and whiting (chalk). Gesso is used as an undercoat for frames that are to be gilded as it creates a smooth compact surface on which the gold leaf*Gold or gold alloys beaten to a thickness of approximately 0.1 microns. can be applied. After several gesso coats the frame was sanded*The application of a granular material to a tacky surface to create a textured effect. Commonly sand is used, but other materials can be substituted for different effects. It is usually applied to flat sections of the frame. to a high finish. A mixture of coloured clay and glue, known as bole*A fine clay mixed with animal glue which is the foundation layer for gilding. Prior to applying bole the timber is prepared with gesso. In burnishing, the bole beneath the gold is polished to give high shine to the gilded surface., was then applied over the gesso. Several coats of bole were applied using a combination of colours; yellow for the main section with red on the top half round, black on the inner middle and a pinkish red colour for the slip. Different bole colours were used to create different effects as the underneath colour subtlety comes through the gold. These colour selections, as well as the karat of gold and type of gilding methods, were based on selected historic frames within the collection that have original finishes intact, helping to recreate a finish that would appropriate to the late 19th century.
The final step was the gilding process. This is the laying of gold leaf, in this case is 23 carat gold, onto the frame. It was gilded using two types of gilding, known as oil and water gilding*One of two main types of gilding, where gold leaf is laid onto a prepared surface of gesso and bole. ‘Gilder’s liquor’ (generally water with a small amount of alcohol) is used to reactivate the adhesive in the bole, securing the gold leaf in place. It is more commonly used on flat or gently curved areas of ornament, and can be burnished to a high shine., as is often seen on nineteenth century frames. Oil and water refer to the material which the gold leaf adheres to. The oil gilding mordant*A type of adhesive used to adhere gold leaf and other metals during gilding.. is linseed oil-based, and was brushed onto the selected areas, left to reach a suitable tack and then the laying of gold leaf could take place. Water gilding uses water brushed onto the bole to activate the glue within it, providing the adhesive properties for laying down the gold leaf. The main section and the sanded flat were oil gilded*One of two main types of gilding. A drying oil such as linseed oil mixed with metallic dryers is brushed onto a frame to create a slightly tacky surface. The gold leaf is then laid onto this. It commonly applied to decorative or ornate surfaces. Also called mordant gilding. . Due to the short window of time when the oil layer reaches the correct tack for the gold leaf to adhere to, the gilding was done in stages over several days. The slip was water gilded, using a gilder’s tip*A natural hair brush, usually made with squirrel hair, used by gilders to pick up gold leaf. to pick up the gold leaf, brushing on water over the bole then carefully laying on the leaf.
Once the gilding was completed the frame was toned to make the frame look less new and bright, making it appear more in keeping with the age of the painting. This was done by abrading and distressing the gilding, then brushing with several coats of ormolu*A coating applied to gold leaf to matte the surface, shift the tone or as a protective layer. It is generally made with animal glue and shellac, into which pigments or dyes can be added., a glue and shellac*A resin secreted by the lac insect that is dissolved in alcohol to make a varnish. mixture. The frame was then rubbed with sandpaper and steel wool and knocked with hammers and other tools to recreate wear and tear. Following toning*The application of coatings to a frame to reduce the brightness of the gilding. Often these coatings are glue-based (see ormolu). the frame looked old, not drawing attention to itself, and working well with the painting and other 19th century works in the collection.
The now historically correct frame sits with the painting; the frame’s golden tones complementing Streeton’s vibrant spring-time palate. By returning the framing of Streeton’s Spring to its original concept it has transformed the way we view the work as well as its context in relation to other works by Streeton.