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27 Jul 21

Making whole again: Re-creating large missing ornaments on two frames

In preparation for the display of two important artworks at the National Gallery of Victoria, major conservation treatments were undertaken on the frames to replace large areas of missing ornament.*Decoration that is applied to a plain frame moulding. The frames vary in origin, style and materials, but the aim of the work was the same: to accurately recreate the missing areas in a way that followed conservation ethics and principles. Central to the approach was respect for the original ‘fabric’ of the frames, ensuring there was as little change as possible to original parts during the restoration, and likewise that any newly replaced ornaments would be able to be safely removed during the future treatment of the frames.

Henry Short’s still life Fish, fruit and flowers, 1860, was the first Australian painting to enter the collection of the newly established National Gallery of Victoria. In 1871 the NGV engaged W.R. Stevens of Bourke Street, Melbourne, to create the current frame. This frame has an ogee*A term used to describe a frame moulding with an S-curve profile. moulding decorated with a detailed all-over pattern and large corner ornaments.

Václav Brozik’s monumental historical painting The defenestration, 1618 was produced 1889-1890 and purchased by the NGV in 1890. The original frame for the work is massive in scale, measuring almost 1.8 metres by 2.6 metres, and is heavily ornamented, including a large spiralling leaf at the outer edge. Although the frame maker is unknown, the style and high standard of finish of the frame suggests a European origin.

After frame treatment, Václav Brozik The defenestration, 1618, (1889-1890), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased, 1890.

Description and condition

Conservation treatments begin with examination and testing to gain an understanding of how the frame was made, the materials of which it is composed, and the condition. In a general sense both the Short and Brozik frames are similar with a wooden structure, applied ornament, and a gilded finish. However, in terms of materials, there are distinct differences between the two frames. The ornament on the frame for the Short is composed of composition (also known as compo)*A mouldable material used to produce decorative ornament for picture frames. Compo was used extensively in picture frames from the late 18th century, and along with cast plaster, largely replaced hand carved ornament in the 19th century. Recipes vary but it is generally comprised of chalk or gypsum mixed with linseed oil, rosin, and animal glue. When warm, compo has a dough-like consistency and can be pressed into rigid moulds. The material stiffens on cooling but can be re-heated to so that it is pliable for positioning on the frame. , a glue-based material that is pressed into moulds to create the design. Whereas the ornamental forms on the Brozik frame are made from plaster of Paris, which is mixed with water to create a slurry that is poured into decorative moulds. Both materials were widely used during the 19th and 20th centuries both locally and internationally.

Close inspection and testing revealed that two techniques of gilding*A decorative technique where a layer of incredibly thinly beaten metal (commonly gold) is applied to a surface. with gold leaf*Gold or gold alloys beaten to a thickness of approximately 0.1 microns. (incredibly thinly beaten gold metal) were originally used to decorate the frames. Oil gilding*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. using an oil mordant*A type of adhesive used to adhere gold leaf and other metals during gilding. was used on most surfaces of both frames, with highlights produced in burnished water gilding*One of two main types of gilding, where gold leaf is laid onto a prepared surface of gesso and 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. ‘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. using a glue-based system. For the Short frame the oil gilding has a yellow underlayer, while beneath the water gilding is a grey 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. (clay) layer. On the Brozik frame there is a red bole layer beneath the water gilded parts.

The condition of both frames meant they were considered ‘undisplayable’ due to major losses of ornament at the corners and edges. For the Short frame only remnants of all four corner ornaments remained and nearly half the ornament at the ‘top edge’*The highest part of a frame profile, that is closest to the viewer. of the frame was missing (the top edge is the part of the main frame closest to the viewer). For the Brozik, there were significant missing areas of plaster ornament from the bottom of the frame, as well as a large part that had separated from the frame entirely. It was determined that the outer parts of both frames had been regilded during previous restorations, with the original gilded surfaces remaining only at the inner parts of the frames.

Before frame treatment, Henry Short, Fish, fruit and flowers, 1860, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the artist, 1861.

Detail of the Short frame revealing remnants of the original gilding.

Detail of the bottom corner of the Brozik frame showing loss and detachment of plaster ornament.


Before further restoration work could begin, flaking and loose parts were stabilised by carefully applying an appropriate adhesive to the areas. For the Brozik frame, large rusty nails were removed from the detached sections and replaced with custom-made stainless steel pins, in addition to adhesive.

Replacing ornaments

To create replacement ornaments we commonly use dental silicone to make an impression of a complete area. For the Brozik, impressions were taken from undamaged areas of the frame. No complete corner ornament existed on the Short frame, so an impression was taken from another frame made by Stevens in the NGV collection with the same corner ornament.

Unknown artist England, Mr Nash, (1760s), p.302.17-1, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of G. R. Nash, 1870. The corners on this W.R. Stevens frame were copied to allow the restoration of the Short frame.

Compo was used as the fill material for the Short frame and smaller areas on the Brozik frame. Compo has good working properties and is water-based with no fumes. Before compo is fully hardened it is easy to shape to fit an uneven old break edge, and it can also be softened and made pliable by gentle steaming to allow further manipulation. However, once fully dry compo may shrink around 5% in volume, which can cause misalignment of the decoration, especially for large fills. To alleviate these issues, for the Short frame, the large corner ornaments were created in three parts, whereas for the Brozik, a synthetic fill material with low shrinkage was used for the larger areas (see orange areas in photo).

Prior to adding the replacement sections on both frames, the break edges of the losses were sealed with a conservation grade*A term used to designate products that have undergone rigorous testing to ensure that they will remain stable and not affect surrounding materials in the long-term. adhesive to assist with future removal of the additions. The replacements were adhered in place with animal glue.

Detail of the Short frame showing replacement parts in compo.


The new fills were sealed and then gilded using gold leaf and a synthetic gilding technique. The benefit of using a non-traditional gilding system is the new gilding can be more easily removed without affecting the surrounding historic surfaces in the future. Likewise, the new varnish layers used to tone the bright gilding were carefully chosen for reversibility, in-line with conservation ethics.

Short frame corner detail showing replacement parts ingilded (upper) and toned (lower)

Detail of the bottom corner of the Brozik frame after treatment.


After many years in storage, the treatment of the frames allowed these important works in the NGV collection to be returned to display, allowing the public to enjoy them once again. Frames conservation at the NGV is approached in a similar way to the conservation of other historic artworks in the collection; informed by examination and testing, focusing on the preservation of the original materials, and honouring both the intentions of the artist and the historical significance of the frame.

Read more about frames at the NGV’s Centre for Frame Research