Frames are multi-layered objects, traditionally comprising a wooden structure, on to which ornament is added (either carved or created in a mould), followed by a gilded surface finish. There are many variations in the methods and materials of manufacture depending on the period and origins of the frame. Most picture frames remain functional items, providing a visual and protective border for the artwork within them. Inevitably, picture frames receive more wear and tear, as well as exposure to greater extremes in temperature and relative humidity, than the works that they house, which are protected by the frame, glazing and backboard.*A board applied to the back of the frame to protect the painting from physical and environmental damage.
Normal changes seen on old frames may include timber shrinkage gaps at mitre joints,*A joint at the corners of frames, created by cutting the timber diagonally at 45°, and held together with adhesive and nails or screws, and sometimes reinforced with splines (tapered inserts visible at the back). cracking to ornament and discolouration of coatings. In many cases these changes are part of the ‘natural ageing’ of a frame, similar to ‘patina’*The subtle changes to a surface that gradually occur through every day use or the life of an object. Generally patina is desired on a frame, reflecting the age and history of the piece. , which is valued on antique furniture. However, in other cases, major and irreversible damage to frames can occur, with the main causes being inappropriate restoration, cleaning, handling and exposure to very damp or dry conditions. The information below outlines how to care for frames and minimise changes to their condition.
Detail of typical ‘natural ageing’ on a frame, which is the original for the painting William Orchardson, The first cloud, 1887.
Gilding involves the application of incredibly thin sheets of beaten metal such as gold, silver or brass, to specially prepared surfaces using a variety of techniques. The gold metal used for gilding is around one hundred times thinner than a strand of hair and so is very vulnerable to damage from abrasion and wear. Coatings or varnishes are often applied over the metal. Some gilding is sensitive to moisture, while other types are affected by cleaning solvents.
Always check the condition of the frame before handling and consider wearing gloves, such as nitrile or latex gloves, for easily marked surfaces. The ornament on frames may be delicate and brittle in nature. For ornament made from glue-based materials, shrinkage cracking*Cracking to a moulded ornament, such as composition, due to natural drying and exposure to sources of heat. The drying effect causes shrinkage of the material that can result in cracking. is common. Ornament can be damaged if too much pressure is applied.
Frames are best handled from the structurally strongest part, which is the timber chassis, avoiding the ornament if possible. For moderately sized or larger frames use two people to lift, one at each side. Each person supports the frame from underneath and at the side, mirroring each other’s movements to avoid twisting the structure of the frame. Plan how and where the frame is to be moved, ensuring the path is clear of obstacles, and the destination is prepared. Avoid stacking ornamented frames against each other as this can damage the ornament.
If ornament or gilding fragments become dislodged, it is a good idea to store them in a plastic zip lock bag, labelled with artwork details and location of the loss if known. If the fragment is small the bag may be tied to the hanging system at the back of the frame. In this way, the detached parts remain with the frame for future repair by a qualified professional.
If a frame requires repairs it is recommended that it be assessed by a conservator with experience in the treatment of frames or a related field such as furniture, three-dimensional objects or paintings. (For further information, see the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials website
Dust layers are unsightly and can also attract moisture and insects; however, too frequent or vigorous dusting can lead to abrasion of delicate surfaces. The horizontal parts of a frame (top and bottom frame members) tend to collect the most dust. Prior to dusting, inspect surfaces and ornament to ensure they are stable and secure. For gilded surfaces use a large soft-bristled brush to gently flick the dust off the surface into the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner, which as a precaution is to be covered with a mesh in case any fragments become detached. Ensure that the vacuum nozzle or hose does not come into contact with the frame surface.
Appropriate environmental conditions help preserve frames as well as the artworks that they house. Stable and moderate temperature and relative humidity are important to prevent shrinkage and swelling of organic components of the frame that may lead to cracking, distortion, flaking, or detachment of the ornament and finishes. Damp environments or contact with moisture can also lead to damage due to mould growth and corrosion of metal components. Light sources containing ultraviolet radiation, such as sunlight, can accelerate the deterioration processes for a range of materials and coatings, while high light levels can generally lead to fading or discolouration. Avoid hanging or storing works above heat sources such as heaters or fireplaces, against cold exterior walls and in direct sunlight.
Back of the frame
It’s important to note that there may be significant information on the backs of frames worthy of preservation, such as frame maker and exhibition labels that contribute to the understanding of each work. See ‘What do frame maker labels reveal?’.
Check hanging systems to ensure they are secure. To securely hang and house an artwork (including fitting-up with a backboard), additional hardware*The screws, hooks and hanging devices used to hang a framed picture. and timber sections may need to be attached to the back of the frame. Use screws rather than nails and use the minimum number and size of fasteners required for the safe housing of the artwork, avoiding interfering with important information such as inscriptions and labels at the back of the frame.