Sociology and the frame, or The painting’s pimp: a dissertation for the LSE

by The Frame Blog

 by Caleb Bissinger, 2018

Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910), Escaping criticism, 1874, in trompe l’oeil painted frame. Collection of the Banco de España, Madrid


This an essay about picture frames. No, that’s not quite right. It’s as much about frames as it is about the people who buy, sell, study, and make them. We hardly ever notice frames because they are ubiquitous. Chances are there’s a frame in the room with you right now. (There’s certainly one in the building.) Chances are you’ve grudged the hefty sum some framemaker charged you for his trouble. And chances are you wondered how on earth four sticks of wood and a single sheet of glass could cost so damn much. (Would you feel better if I told you that framemakers ply their wares for four billion dollars a year? [1]) When the minimalist composer Erik Satie died, his friends found a hundred umbrellas in his apartment, and they thought this was odd. But if your friends found a hundred frames at your place, they’d think, touchingly, that your life was full of mementos.

What is a frame, exactly? It is a boundary, a border, a margin; it is the picture’s remarkable and inconspicuous terminus. A frame is ordinarily made of wood – sometimes by hand and sometimes not – and it assists a painting by holding it up and by penning it in, as if an unframed picture were liable to break free. A frame is also part of the architecture, a piece of furniture; it is an invitation and a testament to craft. A frame is a command: look over here! A frame is a thing we fail to notice – there but not there, like unrequited love.

Art history textbooks crop out frames entirely.

The practice of putting a border around a picture is old, but the use of the word frame to describe that border is new—or newish, dating to the 1660s. Frame used to mean ‘the physical body’. Now we also use it figuratively to describe the contours of time or the limits of one’s understanding or mindset. I’d say to frame something, in both the literal and figurative sense, is to define it as an object; it may be limited or incomplete, but it stands on its own; it has a purpose. To paraphrase Emerson, we must take what is framed, for better or worse, at its portion.

Raphael (1483-1520), Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-15, frame 2nd quarter of the 17th century, Musée du Louvre

Within the sociology of art, there is a compact but lively segment devoted to the picture frame. It was Georg Simmel who, in 1902, validated the study of frames with a poignant little essay called, simply, ‘The Picture Frame’. There, he made a startling claim. If a work of art delights you, if it feels like a gift, it is because the work of art wears a frame. Simmel reckoned that the frame builds a boundary, and the boundary creates distance, and the distance shields the painting’s interior life from the blasphemy of the real world. ‘The qualities of the picture frame,’ Simmel wrote, ‘reveal themselves to be those of assisting and giving meaning to this inner unity of the picture’ [2]. He went on to say that the frame directs our gaze and, if it is hand-carved, gives us a taste of the ‘organic liveliness’ of human craft [3].

But how well do these suppositions hold up to empirical observation? I intend to answer that question in the following essay. Does Simmel’s gilding still gleam after a century of patination? I can tell you that I’ve met framemakers who live and breathe Simmel’s words (though they might not know it), and those who think that it’s bonkers to attribute so much meaning to a mere picture frame.

Was Simmel alone in giving the frame its beautiful due? No. Four decades later, José Ortega y Gasset wrote, in ‘Meditations on the Frame’, that ‘the indecisive nature of the boundaries between the artistic and the living disturbs our sense of aesthetic pleasure. … An isolator is needed. And that isolator is the frame’ [4]. This idea that the frame quarantines the artistic realm lived on in Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote that, ‘The framing of the picture isolates it, thus separating it from the world. … It achieves a sort of transition to a superior genre: it establishes the authority of the work’ [5].

Frederic Leighton (1830-96), The Garden of the Hesperides, 1891-92,  o/c, 66 ½ ins diam. (169 cm.), Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Together, these three men charted the course for sociological inquiry into the picture frame, and they were alike in their convictions. They believed that the frame was the necessary frontier between our world and the artistic dimension. They trusted it to enhance the picture within, as the flame anneals metal. And they took it for granted that the frame was worthy of scrutiny.

But, try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that their lofty proclamations are somehow petty. These three wise men (and they were inimitable, gracious, and wise) would rather reduce the frame to a sapless curio, a good lens through which to see the big stuff – reception aesthetics, the mystical vistas of fine art – than ask anything so banal as: Who made that frame? Why did she do it? What does the frame mean to her?[6]

Those, of course, are the questions I’m interested in here.

Anyway, I happen to think Simmel and Ortega y Gasset and Bourdieu didn’t approach the frame, at first, intending to say highfalutin things about it. I think they approached it for the same reason I did. Celebration. Les Back noted that ‘sociological thinking is required to provide a sensitivity to and respect for the uncelebrated’ [7]. And there’s not much we’ve celebrated less than the picture frame. Back would say that this is because sociologists are capable of profound insight but prone to great blindness. Before we can conquer, we must notice. And what sociologists have failed to notice about frames is that they are provocative historical agents, art world denizens, and – most thrillingly, at least to me – exemplars of craftsmanship.

A note on methods

 A 17th century German woodcarver, Hans Kühn Amb. 317b.2 ° Folio 174 recto (Mendel II), 1679, from Die Hausbücher der Nürnberger Zwölfbrüderstiftungen, Nuremberg City Library

Between January and July 2018, I conducted multiple interviews with half-a-dozen participants. I visited museums and galleries and studios and workshops. I met the man who makes frames for the Queen and a woman who makes frames for portraits of rodents. I befriended a consummate art historian, and I confessed my fears to one of the most accomplished woodcarvers at work today. I cherished digressions and gave in to curiosity. I have tried, here, to present characters.

There came a point at which the project felt flat to me. My interviews were sound and surprising, my theoretical resources ample. I’d confronted the frame head-on. But not hands-on. So I took a class in framemaking and put my mind to use. You could call this autoethnography, and I would agree. It was my way of producing ‘aesthetic and evocative thick descriptions of personal and interpersonal experience’ – a feat I accomplished by ‘discerning patterns of cultural experience and then describing those patterns using facets of storytelling’ [8]. Come to think of it, an autoethnographic mood pervades this entire dissertation. I have tried, throughout, to make my personal experience meaningful and my writing clear and value-bearing and humane.

One weirdly rainy day in Los Angeles, I took shelter in an arid shop. It was a big open boutique with concrete floors, white walls, raw wood rafters, and little for sale. I wandered around until the rain let up, and then I made for the door, which is when I noticed a tall stack of posters.

‘Are you giving these away?’ I asked the clerk.

‘Yeah,’ he said.

The posters, I knew, were by the artist Shepard Fairey. They resembled his iconic rendering of Barack Obama above the word HOPE, only here the patriot was a young woman in a hijab made from the American flag. ‘We the people,’ the poster said, ‘are greater than fear.’

This was on January 19, 2017, the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Frank Shepard Fairey (1970-), We, the people, 2017, The Amplifier Foundation

When I got the poster home, my girlfriend and I decided we should frame it. I said I’d run over to Ikea, but she said this deserved better. We visited our local framer, an amiably stoned man with lank gray hair. How, I wondered, had he found his trade. He helped us pick out a blue frame – ‘It makes the flag pop,’ he said – and a cream-coloured mount.

The poster was free. The frame cost a hundred bucks.

There are three reasons to buy a piece of art: because you love it, because it’s a sound investment, or because it will make your friends jealous. So wrote the venerable art dealer Michael Findlay [9]. Are these the same reasons to buy a frame? Surely, framing consecrates what you love, protects your investment, and holds it up for your friends to see. This is what I thought about while I waited for the call that our frame was ready.

And then it was, and we brought home our framed poster, and we hung it in the dining-room to show our guests what kind of people we were – committed, progressive, tasteful. We wanted to commemorate our resistance and preserve our seriousness. This was our investment in the cause. It was a little shallow, but it was also aspirational.

The Room of Small Landscapes, Ashmolean Museum

This essay is about that persistent desire to frame the objects we esteem. It’s about the interplay between frames and pictures. It’s about framemakers who toil in musty backrooms of museums or shops off the high street. It’s about their work, which is coolly technical and judiciously stylish, and what that work can tell us about the nature of craftsmanship.

I begin with the frame itself. Animated by Actor-Network Theory (ANT), I follow Bruno Latour’s dictum that to understand the ‘continuous intimacy [and] inveterate contiguity’ between people and objects, you must ‘artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, the state of crisis in which … [these objects] were born’ [10].

Having dispatched with history, I move on to make a provisional attempt at defining craftsmanship and situating framemaking within it, relying on Howard Becker and C. Wright Mills; I also begin to address issues of taste and value, and here my lodestar is Pierre Bourdieu [11].

In the next section, I show how hard it is to get the relationship between a picture and its frame right. To do this, I test Simmel’s speculation about ability of the frame to dictate the gaze, and I consider the problem of the gendered stereotype of craftsmanship. I then explain how the frame works as a status symbol, considering the power of the frame to confer authority on a painting (what Bourdieu called ‘museumification’ [12]). I check if ornament has some deeper significance, and touch on why it’s so hard to talk about literal frames without conjuring metaphorical ones [13].

Finally, I provide reflections on my experience of making actual frames, paying close attention to what Richard Sennett called ‘the relation between hand and head’ [14]. I also consider whether it is possible to situate framemaking within the post-Bourdieusian discourse of the cultural omnivore [15].

This essay takes its title from something Degas said: ‘The frame is the pimp of the painting’ [16]. What he meant is that the frame’s sole duty is to get the painting sold. But this seems disingenuous when you consider it was said by a man who spent the best years of his career endlessly sketching designs for picture frames. He must have known there is something steadying and radiant and compelling about the frame. And so I chose to call my dissertation The Painting’s Pimp not because I agree with Degas but because I intend to prove him wrong.

An art historian

 Lynn Roberts and I agreed to meet at the National Gallery Café. It was coming on six o’clock, fog gauzed the winter sky, and the street was full of giddy fugitives sprung from office captivity. I opened my notebook and tried to look sociological. Frames are not something we instinctively notice. Discuss. I turned the page. How does the framemaker place a painting in conversation with his skills as a craftsman? It was heady stuff. Satisfied, I looked up to see if Lynn had arrived. And that’s when I had a rather profound insight. One of the world’s few picture frame people was about to walk through the door, and I had no idea what she looked like.

We found each other in the blunt, protracted stares of nervous strangers. She was a slight woman whose trilling voice was caught between impatience and – when she spoke about the world’s disregard for frames – long-suffering gloom.

Lynn found frames at the Courtauld. She wasn’t about to write the three-millionth thesis on Monet. Frames, she thought – well, that would be rather good. She went to America, scuffled about in stock rooms, and filled shoe boxes with photographs. ‘I was supposed to write thirty thousand words,’ she recalled, ‘and it turned into forty-five’. Back in London, she met a fellow frame-enthusiast named Paul Mitchell who was writing the entry on frames for the Macmillan Dictionary of Art. He asked Lynn for help, and together, they wrote two door-stoppers: everything you always wanted to know about frames but were too afraid to ask (as well as a bunch of stuff you didn’t especially want to know but are better off knowing anyhow). Emboldened by the conviction of their expertise, Lynn and Paul concluded that the frame exists to protect the painting, fix it to the wall, and enrich its color; it is also there to rivet the onlooker, merge fine art and architecture, signal ownership, and keep the real world at bay [17].

Herman van Swanevelt (c.1600-55; attrib.), John the Baptist in a cave,

When I met Lynn, I hadn’t yet invented the game that I now play in idle moments, which is a shame because I would have liked to have asked her: what came first, the picture or the frame? The ancients smeared burnt-bone black pigment on the walls of their caves without a self-inflicted border [18]. But, then, what if the cave itself were the frame? For, ‘viewed from the dark interior of a cave’, wrote W. H. Bailey, ‘the exterior landscape is revealed as an isolated fragment, “framed” by the opening’ [19].

I like to dream back to the cave to remind myself there was once some undaunted individual who thought, Oh, this needs something to go around it. We’ve inherited her abiding desire. I want to get as close as I can to that moment because it is the inaugural innovation – a word which means ‘to make new’ – a moment that Latour esteems as one in which an object becomes ‘momentarily visible’ as a ‘mediator’ ensnared in social life [20] (2005:80).

To tell the truth, as Lynn and I got chatting, I was focused on keeping my bumpkinly nature under wraps – so ANT and material culture were far from my mind. But the funny thing is, I’d just read Bill Brown’s ‘Thing theory’ in which he wrote that ‘we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us)’ [21]. And I’d also read Richard Sennett’s book The craftsman in which he revises Brown’s premise to argue that we should care not only what objects disclose about us, but also what ‘the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves’ [22]. The frame, I’ve come to realize, does both. We make or look through it, and it reveals and reveals and reveals.

Lynn and I did not go back four thousand years. We did not discuss the frames around epic scenes on Greek vases. We skipped over the Christians who, in an era that forbade idol-worship, did it anyway, constructing elaborate wooden boxes with trick lids to hide paintings of holy heroes; these were the first real frames, by the way – built to keep a secret [23]. Over her beer and my tepid wine, Lynn and I talked about the Middle Ages, when worshipping pictures was no longer verboten and the manufacture of frames was a bustling trade.

It took a team of three to make a work of art: a carver to carve the frame, a gilder to gild it, and a painter to supply a pretty picture. The painter’s work came last, and he was paid around the same as the others. This hierarchy persisted into the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci was not commissioned to paint The Virgin of the rocks: he was ordered to make something pretty for a precious frame [24]. By the 1700s, to be a framemaker was to be relatively well-established; possibly even one whose name and patterns reached the Americas, Russia, parts of Asia [25]. At the Salon in Paris, so many paintings vied for attention that artists paid extra to show their work in frames with big, wide mouldings that took up more space [26].

Salomon de Bray of Haarlem (attrib.),  A framemaker’s workshop, 1646, pen-&-wash, British Museum

‘In England, at the end of the eighteenth century, there were about six hundred master carvers in London’, Lynn told me, pride in her voice. And then came the Industrial Revolution. Sawmills spat out pre-fabricated profiles. Instead of carvers, the workshops relied on comp – a soft resin mixed with gesso, which, after a template’s kiss, resembles intricate carving. In Birmingham, someone figured out how to make a gilded frame, quick and dirty, using papier-mâché. Georg Simmel loved ‘carved gilded frames’ because they ‘[do] not hide the slight irregularities of craftwork, which makes [their] organic liveliness superior to all the exactness of the machine’ [27]. That was over, to a large extent.

‘And then the Napoleonic Wars happened’, Lynn added. Materials were scarce, and, besides, no one had the money for a fancy new frame. ‘When the wars were over’, she said, ‘there were only about sixty master carvers left in the city’.

The burgeoning middle class hastened the framemaker’s fall. ‘They wanted to have similar sorts of interiors as the gentry,’ Lynn explained. ‘They wanted to have pictures hanging in their houses, and the way they could acquire them at reasonable prices was to set them in compo frames’. A house full of mass-produced frames was meant to suggest cultivation, but hearing Lynn describe it reminded me of what Bourdieu said about people who don’t have ‘the means to match their tastes: they surround themselves with “reproductions” … unavowed substitutes, which … are the tributes deprivation pays to possession’ [28]. We’ve all seen those tributes – the cheap frame which tries to look handmade; the cheap anything which tries to look rarified.

Lynn and I then got talking about the Impressionists, who were as committed to art as they were to agitating norms. Pissarro’s work was turned away from the Salon because his paintings were in white frames [29]. Whistler claimed he made his ‘as carefully as my pictures’ [30]. No Impressionist, however, cared more about frames than Degas. Once he went to a friend’s house for dinner and espied one of his paintings hanging on the wall in a wretched new frame. He yanked down the painting, broke off the frame, stuck the canvas under his arm, and left, calling behind him, ‘You can’t even trust your friends!’ [31].

Degas (1834-1917), Danceuse au repos, 1879, original frame. Photo: Jared Bark

Degas was rich, so he didn’t have to worry much. His colleagues could not afford to be so steadfast. They were not well-off, and were aware that nobody in France wanted their paintings. But the Impressionists did find favour, Lynn said, with the men who made the steel which forged the saw which killed the hand-carved frame; men with vast, sudden fortunes; men who lived in America. These industrialists, Lynn said, ‘had very modern ambitions, but they didn’t have a modern attitude to how they lived’. These men built palazzi and chateaux in Rhode Island and New York; they needed the furniture (and the frames) to match.[32]

Van Dyck (1599-1641), Henrietta Maria, c.1636-38, in Duveen frame, San Diego Museum of Art

In walked the era’s most fabulous art dealer, Sir Joseph Duveen. With his guidance, the American industrialists bought the Impressionists and also moved on to the Old Masters. And with their money, Duveen opened a bustling workshop in Paris to make classical frames. ‘Men were carving things by hand’, Lynn explained, ‘just as they had in the eighteenth century, turning out absolutely fabulous Louis XV-style frames that were put on, say, a Van Dyck or a Gainsborough (so they looked rather odd), and were sent off to America’.

In 1921, Duveen sailed from New York with H. E. Huntington, a gargantuan man who was heir to a locomotive fortune. At dinner one night, Huntington looked up and saw a painting on the wall of the ship’s dining room.

‘Who’s the boy in the blue suit?’ he asked.

It’s a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue boy, Duveen told him.

‘How much is it?’

Duveen said it belonged to the Duke of Westminster and was not for sale.

‘What do you think the price would be if it ever were sold?’

Duveen said six hundred thousand dollars. Huntington said he’d gladly pay that. What Duveen had failed to mention was that he knew the Duke was broke. A few weeks later, The blue boy was on its way to America, protected by three layers of wood, steel, and iron, beneath which it was cloaked in one of those odd Duveen frames [33]. But that frame has since been removed.

The framemaker of Wiggins & Sons

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), The blue boy, c. 1770, o/c, 178 x 112 cm., The Huntingdon Library, San Marino, in 20th century Duveen replica ‘Maratta’ frame

On a scalding day, down a narrow street in St. James’s, I met the man who replaced it.

Frames surrounded Michael Gregory. Frames on the wall, frames on his desk; shelves of frames, drawers full of them; frames nested in the corner or leaning together like revellers. As the director of Arnold Wiggins & Sons, Michael presides over the world’s largest collection of empty antique picture frames. He also holds the Royal Warrant to make new frames for the Queen. I asked if he’d ever had a frame test his limits as a craftsman. The closest, he said, was The blue boy.

Huntington willed his house, his art, his library, and his immaculate acreage to a museum, but the latter disliked the Duke of Westminster’s frame and put the painting into a Duveen replica of an 18th century ‘Carlo Maratta’ frame as a stop-gap. The blue boy hangs there today in a windowless gallery, surrounded by a dozen other portraits. When the museum hired Michael to fit The blue boy with a new frame, he had to find a way to make the painting stand out. This is not like the others, the frame had to say.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The blue boy, in replacement British Rococo frame

Michael found an English mid-18th century frame with bright gilding and bulbous ornament. He broke it apart, punched up the gilding, adapted the frame to fit The blue boy. ‘Now,’ said Michael, ‘it has that edge above the other pictures.’ A richly-gilded frame betokens the status of its owner; a frame which is not like the others betokens the status of the painting.

Michael joined Wiggins in 1980, having just graduated from the City & Guilds of London Art School. He started as a carver, soon took over the workshop, and, eventually, he had the keys to the place. He moved Wiggins forward by taking it back. If the company were to survive, it had to be one of the very few shops in town which made frames the old-fashioned way. ‘I wanted to produce things better, not cheaper,’ he recalled. ‘We carve by hand. We run mouldings by hand so they’re authentic, so they’ve got movement.’

I didn’t stop to ask what exactly he meant by movement. I figured it must be something similar to what Simmel meant when he promoted the ‘organic liveliness’ of hand-carved frames, those with the spirit and skilled imperfections of manual craft. Movement. Originality’s idiosyncratic flux. Some, like Howard Becker, will tell you that the craftsman ought to ‘make things … alike’ [34]. Leave eccentricity to the artist. Well, either Becker’s wrong or the framemaker’s a peculiar craftsman. Michael scoffs at sameness. He is the model of a sovereign maker who lives by his wits and instincts.

But it takes a hell of a long time to work up that confidence. We’re all familiar with the ten thousand-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and, of late, the subject of mighty speculation [35]. It proposes that after ten thousand hours of deliberate practice you are an expert. Richard Sennett relied on this axiom to make sense of how the craftsman gains control. He goes on to describe what he calls embedding, which is the ‘conversion of information and practices into tacit knowledge’ [36]. Equipped with tacit knowledge, the craftsman is nimble; he knows there’s more than one way to do something right. He can trust his instincts because he has worked them to the point of infallibility. He is, as one of my subjects would say, ‘a time-spent craftsman’.

Arnold Wiggins & Sons, St James’s, London

Making a frame – a great frame – by hand takes a long time. Michael points to a blueprint on the wall. Just making the drawing took him eighty hours. The frame? Months. It also costs a lot of money. The materials – fine wood, gold leaf – those aren’t expensive. ‘What’s expensive,’ Michael said, ‘is the person, the craftsmanship.’ A client will say: I don’t understand; Amazon can deliver tomorrow. Then they will offer to pay more to speed things along, not realizing that money can’t change material reality: glue must set and gilding must dry.

Mills said that craftsmen could not ‘formulate their credo without considering both the cultural and economic trends’ of the society in which they work [37]. Michael responded to economic trends – fewer people are buying Old Master paintings [38], so fewer people need Michael’s frames – by scaling-back and emphasizing the handprint of craft. The cultural trends were harder to brook.

Like heirlooms, frames ‘bear witness to the age and continuity of the lineage and so consecrate its social identity’, wrote Bourdieu [39]. As Michael put it, ‘Taste is ever-evolving. [And] if you’re not careful, you jettison things’ – destroying the lineage and debasing the social identity. When Jim Wiggins was alive, he’d come have a sandwich at his old shop. One day, Michael proudly showed him a plaster frame he’d bought in Paris.

‘Young Michael,’ Jim said, looking from sandwich to frame to protégé, ‘we all make mistakes. Get rid of it.’

Michael protested, ‘But we sell these!’

‘You do what? You sell them? We used to burn them.’

Michael once had a banker come to him with a painting. ‘It was in a reproduction frame,’ Michael remembers. ‘Cheap quality, too mean.’ The banker surveyed a few frame styles. At last, he said, ‘Well, this is the one.’ He was flabbergasted when he found out the price. Twenty thousand pounds. For a frame? ‘I don’t get it,’ he said. ‘This is just a better form of what’s on the picture already. Why do I have to do it?’

‘You don’t,’ said Michael. ‘If you can live with it in a bad frame, don’t spend the money.’

‘The problem is I can’t,’ the banker said.

We all have these moments of acquisitive destiny when we convince ourselves that some purchase will complete what we hadn’t realized was deficient and brighten our dingy, muted lives. We know it won’t – or won’t for long – but how we hope that it will: can the frame be defined, simply, as the last thing we want?

The National Gallery’s framemaker

In May, I followed Lynn through an unmarked door, down a grubby hall buzzing with fluorescence, and up to double doors that suggested, in their misplaced grandeur, something marvellous beyond. And there was: the National Gallery’s framemaking workshop. An arched case on the back wall held eighty-odd chisels, their blades slenderly fearsome and their well-handled handles smooth as sea glass. Ample frames lay on large, sturdy tables, and the room was redolent with the aroma of fresh lumber and sawdust, which is also the smell of possibility.

And then in walked Peter Schade, the head of the framing department, a six-footer, wearing a blue collared shirt and dark pants, and looking boyish and exuberant despite his raked gray hair. He was smiling the smile of a man who loves what he does. Born in East Germany, Peter moved to London in 1990 and learned to carve frames alongside Michael at Arnold Wiggins & Sons. Now, at the National Gallery, he makes new frames – better ones – for pictures in the collection, travelling the world buying broken and battered scraps that he may one day model into fresh and perfect forms. He is a matchmaker.

Peter’s office, a small room above the workshop, is a chamber of ideas. Leaning by his desk that day was a wooden frame made to look like marble. He was hoping to get it onto a portrait. The curator was dubious, however, reluctant to change the frame for fear it would blow back on her. She could defend the original frame because it was there before she was; with a new frame, she’d have to defend herself. But Peter is a patient man. Curators have disregarded frames since forever. So what’s a few more years?

Which is not to say there haven’t been triumphs. There have. On one of Peter’s recent expeditions, he came across a sixteenth-century Venetian frame with a blocky profile and four scallop-shell ornaments. He knew that it would be perfect for The death of Actaeon, one of the great Titians in the collection, which depicts Diana aiming a bow at Actaeon because he peeked while she was bathing. The frame needed a lot of work. Peter would have to break it apart, lengthen each side by extending the carving, and then tone and gild those new bits to match. Nothing he couldn’t handle, though. And he was smitten and committed.

Titian (c.1490-1576), The death of Actaeon, c.1559-75, o/c., 178.8 x 197.8 cm., National Gallery,  NG 6420, in Venetian frame

‘It gives the painting room to breathe,’ Peter had told Lynn, when he showed it to her. Moreover, it told the eyes where to go: there is now ‘a perspectival push into the painting’. And Lynn and Peter are both great believers in the frame’s ability to control your gaze. As Lynn said to me at one point, ‘If you follow a line [from the corner or centre ornaments] across the picture surface, you will find that where they meet they will highlight a particularly important area.’ A good frame ‘works geometrically to enhance the compositional lines of the painting’. Put the wrong painting in something too plain, and ‘immediately it loses something’.

Titian, The death of Actaeon, c.1559-75, in previous Victorian revival Louis XIV-style frame, National Gallery

It was all beginning to sound a bit farfetched to me, like when a stringy mystic tells you a crystal shard will heal what ails you. I brought a friend to the National Gallery, showed her a picture of the Titian in its old frame, and asked if she thought it sang a little bit louder now. Her answer was, emphatically, yes. It was hard to explain, but it did steer your gaze. How does it do that? We drew imaginary lines from the scalloped ornaments across the picture surface, and they met – my God – at the grip of Diana’s bow. We’d seen a minor miracle that proved Simmel was right – ‘the gaze [does] glide inwards’ from the frame’s ornaments; yes, it is ‘of the greatest importance that the design of the frame makes possible this continuous flowing of the gaze’ [40]. Peter had gotten this one right. His frame enhanced a masterpiece.

The independent framemaker

Ten miles away, in a potting shed in Chiswick, so close to the Thames I could smell the river’s breath, I saw another framemaker get it right, too.

Sprightly, deliberate Julia Korner lives in a house which she inherited from her father, who was an Arctic explorer. But it is her mother whom she credits for her love of art. ‘My mother was a tinker, so we were in and out of antique shops,’ Julia told me. ‘By that, I mean junk shops, because we genuinely had no money. But my mother just loved going to the market where she could find a little piece with a soul and magic all of its own.’

For a time, Julia ran the frame sale at an auction house. ‘They were kind enough to tell me, in January 1986, that because I’d recently got married and because I was a woman, I had no future in the company.’ She trained as a carver and gilder and went to work for herself. Now, in addition to her work with frames, she conserves paintings across the board, from Medieval altarpieces in tempera to works from the 21st century, from the gilded interiors of churches to polychrome sculpture.

Julia Korner

Julia fed me lunch and sat me in her yellow front room to confabulate. Then she took me down to her basement, where frames hung from the pipes. She rummaged through the debris before heading upstairs and out back where she was going to replace the frame on a painting a friend had brought to her. The painting depicted an alarmingly lifelike pair of guinea pigs feasting on a piece of lettuce. Julia slid off the old frame (‘it’s not wide enough, it doesn’t taper the eye enough, and it doesn’t give it enough depth’), and slid on the new one she’d built (gessoed, gilded, and tarnished to look ancient).

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘You hear them squeak.’

‘Yes, you do,’ she cackled. ‘God, what fun.’ And you know what? She was right. It was fun. It wasn’t The blue boy or a Titian. But it didn’t matter. The fun was a form of satisfaction, and that satisfaction came from seeing a job well done. I was getting closer to an animating truth about frames, which is that they are, at root, exemplars of craftsmanship.

Of course, you’d know what I thought then. You can’t spend hours with a woman like Julia, or see a bravura performance like what she did with the guinea pigs, and not chafe at the senseless gendering of craftsmanship. I thought about the hideous sexism Julia faced at the auction house and how, in response, she sought out a room of her own in which to make frames. In her mind, framemaking’s not allied with the cowboy craftsman but with ‘women’s work’. She takes professional inspiration, so she told me, from her mother’s example: ‘Everything we did in this house was about repair and make good, and nurturing things back. If you’re repairing sheets, you’d probably cut down the sheet to use the same stronger bit from the outside edge. And so [framemaking] is about keeping the integrity and the beauty and the life – that blossom of youth [that is] the original timbre of the painting.’

Domestic chores and expert craft converge in that motherly word, nurturing. Little difference Julia sees between a fine frame, a work of art, and worn-out sheets. Diligent skill blesses them all.

 We have a lamentable tendency, don’t we, to denigrate the crafts we associate with women – knitting, crochet, parenting – as somehow insubstantial. Meanwhile, we esteem supposedly masculine trades. Sennett argues that thanks to ‘the gendering of skill that produced the word craftsman … domestic crafts and craftsmen seem different in character’ – which is to say, lesser – ‘than labour now outside the home’ [41]. But not to Julia. She doesn’t go at framemaking with machismo: she attributes its craftwork legitimacy to the qualities it shares with domestic labour.

The framemaker at the Wallace Collection

Frames in the Wallace Collection lecture theatre

Around the time that I met Julia, I also met Jon Slight, the frame man at the Wallace Collection, behind Oxford Street. He took me down to the museum’s basement, and there, in the lecture hall, several dozen frames hung empty on the walls. Just as it’s unusual to see a naked mannequin, we rarely see empty picture frames[42]; and yet, as Ortega y Gasset commented, it is only when a frame is empty, when it is ‘bereft of a painting’ and ‘out of a job’, that we see it clearly [43]. Those empty frames at the Wallace were magnificent—every shade of gold, every manner of ornament (globular, pinched, high- and low-relief). They didn’t strike me as art. They struck me as promises. The void in each was not a void: it was anticipation.

I’d wanted to meet Jon because he was young and because he’s a genuine craftsman. I wanted to see if he’d confirm my hunch that framing’s an unusually durable craft – maybe not as vivacious as it once was, but chugging along admirably after a few thousand years. Jon’s studio is on the top floor of the museum, and, when I arrived, he was in the middle of gilding the hulking carcass of a frame. Flecks of gold leaf clung to his eyebrows. I had this theory – or Richard Sennett had this theory, and I’d borrowed it – that craft is anonymous [44]. (You don’t look at a bookshelf and ask, ‘Who made this?’ On the contrary, we only consider the craftsman when something goes wrong. When the bookshelf collapses, you want to know ‘What idiot made this?’). The craftsman is not interested in the declarative glory of the artist. And nowhere is this more apparent than in framemaking. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the one thing a frame should never do is draw attention to itself.

Much of Jon’s work involves inconspicuously repairing and restoring frames. And so I asked him if staying anonymous ever hurt his pride. And his answer surprised me. He said he leaves a message. ‘From six foot away, you look at something on a wall or in a gallery: it should integrate; it should look in harmony; you shouldn’t be able to spot the repairs,’ he said. ‘From six inches – up close – you can see them.’

This is not a form of boasting. Against Luckács and the crippling estrangement of the assembly line [45], against Marx and the alienation of commodity fetishism, here we see craftsmanship as the manifestation of oneself through one’s work. The philosopher Matthew Crawford called craft the antidote to ‘the poignant longing for responsibility’ which takes hold when ‘the experience of individual agency has become elusive’ [46]. This line of thinking goes back to C. Wright Mills, who noted that the craftsman owns what he makes ‘psychologically in the sense that he knows what goes into it by way of skill, sweat, and material’ [47]. I think this is what Jon meant when he told me he became a framemaker to satisfy ‘a very human instinct to be working with your hands’. The instinct is to abate alienation by securing psychological ownership.

I’ve known it. A few years ago, I took a woodworking class at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had a desk job then. I was a suit-wearer and utterly dissatisfied. And the class was full of others just like me. We were hesitant, lopsided craftsmen, but what pleasure we took in honing our senses. I built a table that was diminutive and unvarnished, yet smooth and plumb. And when I’d brought it home and stared at it long enough, I decided to quit my job.

On my way out, I asked Jon, ‘Do you ever get bored with frames?’

‘Oh, hell yeah,’ he said. ‘I’m sick to death of them.’

I couldn’t blame him. No job or craft is endlessly engaging. To be sure, there’s not a soul on earth who wouldn’t get bored with frames. Or so I thought until I met Jon’s mentor.

The teacher and National Trust framemaker

Gerry Alabone’s first words put me at ease: ‘It sounds a bit like your interest in frames is as a proxy for some part of society. That’s exactly why I’m interested in frames.’

It’s what he said after that made me nervous: ‘Frames, whilst you can lazily say they relate to a painting, [are] actually a great visual burden on the painting. They’ve got much more to do with the history of their display [and] of their perceived status than they have [with] the aesthetic.’

Apsley House. Photo: English Heritage

We were at Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington, a setting Gerry picked to prove his point – namely, that everything I knew about frames was wrong. He gestured to the Van Dyke above the mantel. ‘One could say, if you’re being kindly, “It’s a lovely design”. But you might also say, “It’s an absolute monstrosity.’” ’ He paused. ‘My interest in frames is their sheer perversity.’

For Gerry, the frame has a practical purpose and a social one. Practically, it satisfies our ‘natural desire to have architectural spaces bordered, because we find a lack of demarcation unsettling’. Socially, it broadcasts status. Apsley House, Gerry observed, is not a place for appreciating art. ‘It is about showing how many pictures the Duke of Wellington had. The frames are worn as a badge, a livery, for the collection.’

Here, in case you’re wondering, are Gerry’s badges. He was the head of framing at the Tate for more than a decade. Now, he works for the National Trust and teaches framemaking at City & Guilds. When he has time on his hands, which isn’t often, he might write an essay on framing or make a frame for a Turner. Gerry knows an incredible amount about frames, and, because of this, he finds them amusing.

Cherubs; frame of Mytens, James I, Knole, National Trust

‘What makes a work of art a work of art and not a mundane thing?’ [48] That question bopped around in my head at Apsley House. Everywhere I looked, there was another ornate frame around some imponderable painting. Bourdieu’s answer was that a work of art becomes a work of art ‘in a social universe that confers upon it the status of a candidate for aesthetic appreciation’ [49]. I wondered what rôle the frame plays in that social exaltation. If Latour’s right and objects are the ‘real centre of the social world’ [50], then surely the frame is an arbiter of good taste. Late in life, Bourdieu wrote a pithy essay on the picture frame in which he held that ‘it consecrates what it frames as worthy of being looked at. In a sense, framing is a process of museumification: it is the same act of consecration as when something is placed inside a museum’ [51]. After thirty years of stewing, Bourdieu had concluded that the material object (the frame) had the same power as the cultural institution (the museum) to transform the ordinary into art.

Here’s how that shift from looking at the frame as an aesthetic object (as Lynn does) to a social one (as Gerry does) works in practice. There are a lot of theories about why frames are so often gilded in gold. Lynn will tell you that one reason is because in hot, sunny places, like Italy, they built their churches with small windows and dark interiors. What little light that came inside was helped by reflection from the frame onto the painting. (This, she says, is also one of the reasons that museums patinate their frames. Modern lights make pure gold blinding.) Gerry, on the other hand, will tell you that’s a nice myth. (‘Frames are bright, but they don’t deflect light onto the painting in a helpful way. They’re just a visual marker, like a shiny doorknob helps you find your way out of a room.’) But what if gilding has another purpose? What if it’s part of the consecration process? – shiny, precious, blaring metal makes you think: this is important and, oh, what it must have cost.

After Gerry and I had talked about frames for a while, he said something that made me wary of my endeavour: ‘People have written a lot about frames. And I don’t think anybody’s really nailed it.’ Indeed, for all that’s been written about the frame qua frame, think of what’s out there about the frame as a metaphor.

Frame of mind, frame of reference. Frame of a house or car. Timeframes, chances in bowling. Framework, which can be wrought iron, theoretical, or the leafy, languid branches of a tree. In medicine, picture frame theory names the migration of healthy cells into the confines of a wound. In cinema, frame rate names the number of images that appear, one after another, in the rapid-fire imitation of pure motion. In fiction, a frame narrative is one that holds stories within stories. In semiotics, a frame is a focusing device. A frame can be a scheme or an order, a contrivance or a projection.

François Jacobs (1832-87), Le bel enfant, Private collection

Frames pervade sociology as well. Erving Goffman defined a frame as ‘the definitions of a situation … built up in accordance with principles of organization which govern events – at least social ones – and our subjective involvement in them’ [52]. He acknowledged that his use of the word frame came from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who believed that frames were ‘added by human beings to physical pictures because these human beings operate more easily in a universe in which some of their psychological characteristics are externalized’ [53]. What he meant is that we like frames because they show us what to look at, what to pay attention to, what is meaningful on a meaningless wall. Michel Callon, one of ANT’s guiding lights, once argued for a theory of economics which moves past externalities to address frames inside which actors (their past experiences and present strategies) interact [54].

Latour said sociologists are especially good at ruining art. They explain it to nothingness, blathering about hidden ‘social factors’. Better, he says, to ‘go with the flow’ [55]. So back to Gerry, back to the princely confection of Apsley House, back to picture frames plain and simple.

I enjoyed Gerry’s company. I admired his erudition and the defiant brio of his judgment—higgledy-piggledy, mind-bendingly awful. I felt, in his presence as I often had with my subjects: embarrassed by my plodding questions, discouraged when I struggled to explain my dissertation succinctly, bashful at my threadbare knowledge of art, and coyly unwilling to admit it. But also something profound, something akin to how I felt, years ago, when I watched hours of curling on television. It’s an ungainly, preposterous sport, yet I was transfixed. It is astonishing to watch people do what they love and be the best at it. That is how I felt in the obsolete world of framemaking.

And that is how I felt padding around with Gerry, right up until he said something – mentioned someone – and sent my research hurtling in a new direction. ‘Derrida,’ he said, conspiratorially, ‘talked at some length about picture frames as a metaphor.’

Musée du Louvre, 1947. Photo: Pierre Jahan

The bulk of Derrida’s labyrinthian opining on frames appeared in a chapter called ‘Parergon’ in his book The truth in painting (1987). The title arose from Kant, who used parergon – Greek for ‘outside the work’ – to describe draperies, colonnades, and picture frames. The frame, in Kant’s view, only exists to announce that the pure aesthetic realm of painting transcends meagre reality. Derrida took a different approach. He argued that the frame is neither of the work nor outside it; rather, it is the frame that makes the difference between the outside and the inside seem natural, as opposed to artificial [56]. You might mistake the frame for part of the wall just as, from a different angle, you might mistake it for part of the painting. It is liminal, ineluctable. As Gerry understands it, ‘the frame was the most important part of what was at stake because whilst it was subordinate to both what was inside and outside of it, the fact that it needed to be there was the most important part of the dialogue.’ It needed to be there. That’s it! I’d followed Simmel and Ortega y Gasset and Bourdieu. I’d tried to explain the frame’s reason for being by showing that it’s a gaze director, an aesthetic enhancer, and a status symbol. Never had I stopped to consider this simple, potent truth: the frame needs to be there.

David Teniers the Younger (1610-90), The picture gallery of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, 1660s, montage of details, Staatsgalerie im Neuen Schloss Schleißheim

I hold the brain-weariness I felt after marching through Derrida directly responsible for what happened next. I returned all my library books and signed up to take a framemaking class.

 Maker, former, contriver, schemer[57]

On a soft summer day in July, on the fourth floor of CityLit, I sat around a worktable with ten aspiring framemakers. Polychrome drippings of a thousand vanished arts-&-crafts projects speckled the tabletop. Gray-green cabinets lined one wall, and there were pieces of cantankerous machinery stationed around the room, as stoic as stalagmites. I felt in myself, and gleaned from the others, a novice’s nervous expectancy.

Our teacher, Gareth, sat at the head of the table. Before him were many half-frame joints, those V-shapes you see hanging on the wall in a frame shop. Tortoiseshell glasses rested on his bald pate. He had on work boots, jean shorts, a black apron, and a wrinkled plaid shirt, the placket between its buttons squinched to reveal a sliver of chest. We went around the room and told why we were there. My classmates included a husband who wanted to frame his wife’s artwork, a woman who needed something to do with the mess of loose-leaf art she inherited from her dad, a sandy-haired businessman on gardening leave, a librarian-turned-photographer, a thrift shop collector, and a woman who’d come to the considered conclusion that Ikea frames just don’t cut it.

When it got to me, I said, ‘I’m a graduate student at the LSE, and I’m writing my dissertation about framemakers and what they can teach us about human craft, and I figured I should actually learn how to make a frame.’ There was indulgent laughter.

Then Gareth spoke for a while. ‘When you’re framing a piece of work,’ he said, ‘you are continuing the artistic practice.’ He told us about his career. He is a fixer who takes on the projects other framemakers are afraid of. He has a wife and kids; they take nice holidays; he is, by every outward appearance, doing well for himself. Custom framemaking, you may be surprised to learn (or maybe not, if you’ve ever paid a small fortune for a frame) is a lucrative trade, four billion dollars a year [58]. The average frame store has just one or two employees yet brings in two hundred thousand dollars a year [59].

As Gareth described the frames we’d learn to make – your classic box frame, with glass or Perspex, an air gap (for protection), mount board, picture, backing, voilà – a female student with a French accent and an orthopaedic boot said, ‘It’s like make-up. It changes the whole character of the painting.’

Next, we went around and presented the pieces we were going to frame. The anti-Ikea woman had a caricature of Marilyn Monroe snapping a selfie in the bathroom mirror while JFK, smiling greedily, stood behind her. She wanted a white frame with a pink mount, and immediately the rest of us, gently bidden to offer suggestions, erupted with strong opinions. The procedure carried on from one student to the next. Some stood their ground when they didn’t agree with a classmate’s suggestion. Others acquiesced. (No, you’re right. That does look nice.) Finally, it was my turn. I produced a postcard of a photograph by Andreas Gursky. It depicted a jagged swimming pool and scattered bathers. Gursky’s work is massive, and I thought it was comical at such a small scale. Also, it was the only artsy thing I had lying around. I said that I wanted a walnut frame and maroon mat. They talked me out of it.

A few more students presented their work, ending with Claudette, the French woman with the walking cast, who showed us a still life cut from a catalogue. ‘It has to be gorgeous, wonderful, wow,’ she said.

Everything was worthy of a frame. We were omnivores, that post-Bourdieusian notion, coined by Peterson and Kern, which disputed Bourdieu’s stay-in-your-lane attitude and celebrated the omnivore who delights in art and culture up and down the snob scale [60].

Then we broke for lunch.

The next day, I learned what the cantankerous machine was for. It was called a guillotine. You fed a length of wood beneath a pair of angled blades, which you moved up and down with a foot pedal. But the blades, sharp as they were, couldn’t cut cleanly through the wood on one go. You had to nibble at it, using a hand lever to slide the blade forward and back while you stomped your foot to make the blade move up and down. Slide the lever, stomp the pedal; revoke the lever, lift your foot.

In The Craftsman, Sennett speaks at length about rhythm. It combines ‘stress on a beat’ and ‘the speed of an action’ [61]. The craftsman’s sense of rhythm extends from head to hand. As I stepped up to the guillotine, I found I was surprisingly agile. The two men behind me nodded enviously. Gareth watched and said, ‘You’ve done that before.’

‘No, first time,’ I insisted, which was true.

I was proud. Framemaking did require craft’s rhythm, and I had it. I carried the fresh cut sides of my frame back to my workspace, and only then, as I laid them together on the table, did I realize I’d cut every one to the wrong length. I returned to the guillotine and recut my mouldings – the right length this time, but arhythmically. I glued these together, fastened them with a thin metal pin fired from another foot-powered machine, set them to dry in a heavy vice grip, and went to lunch.

Colin, the librarian-turned-photographer, never came back. I’d seen him struggle with the guillotine, nosing the blade in too deep and thrusting all his weight down on the pedal until the machine teetered and there was the whimper of splintering wood. He left behind a frame, glued together and braced to dry. When Gareth took the brace off, the joints broke apart like a soggy graham cracker. And that was the end of Colin.

That afternoon, I massaged wood filler into the joins of my frame; then I sanded and varnished it and started another, this one out of ash, which was harder to cut. Frames were coming together all around me. Frames painted white or red, varnished frames, or waxed. Gareth circled the room. We were all tentative; we only sort of understood how the tools worked. ‘Language struggles with depicting physical action,’ wrote Sennett, ‘and nowhere is this struggle more evident than in language that tells us what to do’ [62]. Instead, Gareth would pick up one of our inexpert frames and drill a perfect hole for the supporting dowel, or he’d flip down his glasses and show you how, with tremulous dabs of a rag, you could mottle a too-thick layer of varnish. Matthew Crawford contends that the only way to learn a trade is to latch onto a mentor: ‘The progressive character of revelation energizes your efforts to become competent’ [63]. I marvelled at what Gareth did quickly and without measurement. Fine craftsmanship is patient emulation.

The next day we learned how to cut Perspex. You score it with a blunt blade, which emits a noise like a bee batting a window. Then you line up the cut with the edge of the table and push until the plastic snaps and warbles. Twice, I cut the Perspex too large for my frame, and another time I cracked the sheet into smithereens. But then I got it right. It fitted. And under Gareth’s patient tutelage, I cut a piece of mountboard, floated my postcard on a double layer of foam core, sealed the back, and installed a taut hanging string. The frame I’d made was nothing like what Michael or Peter, Julia or Jon or Gerry are capable of. Still, I felt a great and true sense of satisfaction. I had known, if only for a moment, the craftsman’s rhythm, as if I were a kite caught briefly in an inspiriting gust.


 At the end of the class, Claudette came over to ask me a question. She was holding her frame, which was gilded and painted bright red, like a candy wrapper. It broke the cardinal rule. It drew attention to itself.

‘Excuse me for being ignorant,’ she said, ‘but why are you studying art at the London School of Economics?’

‘Actually,’ I said, ‘I’m studying sociology.’

She frowned. ‘What does that have to do with frames?’

I was used to this question, though answering it never got easier. ‘Because, you, see there are more frames in the world than we can count – frames around paintings and family photos and who knows what else – and because they’re not scarce or sacred, you never stop to think that someone had to make all those frames.’

‘The frame tells you something about life?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I said.


Of course, there are things left unsaid. Though my class at CityLit was an essential exception, I’ve mostly studied framemaking from rarefied heights. This essay might have benefited from additional encounters with ordinary framemakers, like the lank-haired man who made that frame for me in California. I have used the word picture throughout, but I never fully considered all that it entails (painting, snapshot, doodle) or all the frameable items it excludes (diploma, memorabilia, TV screen). The frame is ten thousand years old and hard to frame in ten thousand words.

I have tried to render the people I met as characters, set them in conversation, and open the door – just a crack – on the craft world behind the art world. Craftsmanship, as Michael Gregory told me with a sigh, is no longer ‘there, in the fabric of society’. We covet handicraft – artisanal this, bespoke that – but we slight the craftsman. A better sociologist might say this is due to capitalism’s commodification of time, accelerated by Fordism; due to planned obsolescence and the fickle consumer. But I know little about those things, so my aim here has been more modest. Will you greet frames when you enter a room? Will you ask if they belong and take solace in their presence as a sign that someone cared? Will you notice frames now? OK, then.

Adolphe Vasseur (1836-1907), Interior of the Palace of Fine Arts Lille, 1883


Caleb Bissinger took a master’s degree in Culture and Society at the London School of Economics. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a writer and podcast producer.



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[1] Elizabeth Segran, ‘Framebridge just teamed up with Target to bring custom framing to a ton more people’, Fast Company, 16 October 2017. Retrieved 1 August 2018

[2] Georg Simmel, ‘The picture frame: An aesthetic study’, Theory, Culture and Society, vol.11, [1902] 1994, p.12

[3] Ibid., p.14

[4] José Ortega y Gasset, ‘Meditations on the frame’, Perspecta, vol. 26, 1, [1943] 1990, pp.185–90 (transl. Andrea L. Bell). There’s a mild debate over how to classify Ortega y Gasset’s work. Some argue he was a philosopher. Others contend he was just an essayist. I side with Enzo Rutigliano and Elisabetta Tomazzolli in ‘Ortega y Gasset sociologist’, Quaderni di Sociologia, vol. 47, 1, 2008, pp. 97–109,  who declared that: ‘Ortega y Gasset can be considered for all practical purposes as a sociologist’ (p. 97)

[5] Pierre Bourdieu, Manet: a symbolic revolution, 2017, Cambridge, p. 208 (transl. Peter Collier and Margaret Rigaud-Drayton.)

[6] ‘Reception aesthetics’ is a term I’ve borrowed from literary theory. It presumes that artworks are possibilities to which viewers give meaning (see M.H. Abrams & Gregory Harpham, A glossary of literary terms, 9th ed, 2009,  Boston, MA). It’s as Marcel Duchamp said: the viewer makes the art.

[7] Les Back, The art of listening, 2007, London, p. 166

[8] Carolyn Ellis, Tony Adams & Arthur Bochner, ‘Autoethnography: an overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, (12) 1, 2011,  p. 8

[9] Michael Findlay, The value of art, 2012, New York

[10] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the social, 2005, OUP, pp. 81-82

[11] Howard Becker, Art worlds, 1982, University of California Press; C. Wright Mills, White collar: The American middle classes, [1951] 1969, OUP; and Pierre Bourdieu, 2017, op.cit.; Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, 1984, Harvard University Press (transl. Richard Nice); The rules of art, 1996, Cambridge

[12] Bourdieu, ibid., 2017

[13] See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, [1972] 2000, University of Chicago Press; Erving Goffman, Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience, 1998, Northeastern University Press, Boston; Michel Callon, 1998, ‘An essay on framing and overflowing: Economic externalities revisited by sociology’, The Sociological Review, vol. 46, 1, pp. 244–69

[14] Richard Sennett, The craftsman, 2008, London, p. 9

[15] Richard Peterson & Roger Kern, ‘Changing highbrow taste: from snob to omnivore’, American Sociological Review, 1996, vol.61, 5, pp. 900-07

[16] Paul Duro, ed., The rhetoric of the frame: essays on the boundaries of the artwork, 1996a, Cambridge University Press, v

[17] Mitchell, Paul and Lynn Roberts, A History of European Picture Frames, 1996, London

[18] Bente Kiilerich, ‘Savedoff, frames, and parergonality’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,  2001, vol. 59, 3, pp. 320-23

[19] W.H. Bailey, Defining edges: A new look at picture frames, 2002, New York, p. 12

[20] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the social, 2005, OUP, p. 80

[21] Bill Brown, ‘Thing theory’, Critical Inquiry , 2001, vol. 28, 1, p.4

[22] Sennett, op.cit., p. 8

[23] Bailey, op. cit.

[24] Barbara Savedoff, ‘Frames’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1999, vol. 57, 3, pp. 345-56

[25] Bailey, op. cit.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Simmel, op. cit., pp. 13-14

[28] Bourdieu, 1984, op.cit., p. 287

[29] Mitchell & Roberts, op. cit.

[30] Quoted Savedoff, op. cit., p. 349

[31] Ibid.

[32] One interesting thing about frames is that we tend to care more about their style than their age. A new frame can be made to look old. An old frame can be put round a new picture. The frame seems solid, but it is transient and fugitive. Hilde Zaloscer (1974) wrote: ‘Although the frame remains materially the same, its purport and intellectual status—its ‘iconography’ so to speak—changes in every epoch’ (quoted by Christine Traber, in ‘In perfect harmony?: Escaping the frame in the early 20th century’, In perfect harmony: picture + frame 1850–1920, ed. Eva Mendgen, 1995, Amsterdam, pp. 221-47)

[33] S.N. Behrman, ‘The days of Duveen: The blue boy and two Lavinias’, The New Yorker, 27 October 1951, pp. 38-63.

[34] Howard Becker, Art Worlds, 1982, University of California Press, p. 279

[35] Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, & Frederick Oswald, ‘Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis’, Psychological Science, 2014, vol. 25, 8, pp. 1608–18

[36] Sennett, op. cit., p. 50

[37] Mills, op. cit., p. 174

[38] Rachel Pownall, TEFAF Art Market Report 2017, 2017, The European Fine Art Foundation, The Netherlands

[39] Bourdieu, op.cit., 1984, p. 77

[40] Simmel, op. cit., p. 12

[41] Sennett, op. cit, p. 23

[42] The Wallace’s gallery of empties reminded of a picture I’d seen of the Louvre during WWII when all that hung there were empty frames. Across Europe, frames were discarded and pictures sent into hiding. The Nazis destroyed the frames of the art they stole, and displayed works by so-called degenerates unframed, as if to say that a painting without a frame was lesser and crude, the dirty work of a dirty mind (Lynn Nichols, The Rape of Europa, 1995, New York)

[43] Ortega y Gasset, op. cit., p.188

[44] Sennett, op. cit.

[45] Georg Luckács, History and class consciousness: Studies in Marxist dialectics, [1922] 1976, (transl. Rodney Livingstone), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

[46] Matthew Crawford,  Shop class as soul craft: An inquiry into the value of work, 2009, New York, p. 8. Talbot Brewer, in his reading of Marx, argued that carpentry is the least alienating form of work because even if the product is ‘torn away’ from its maker, the maker still understands the ‘culturally specific significance’ of what he’s made (cited by Crawford).

[47] C. Wright Mills, [1951] 1969, op. cit., p. 221

[48] Bourdieu, 1996, op.cit., p. 290

[49] Ibid., p. 287

[50] Latour, op. cit., p. 238

[51] Bourdieu, 2017, op. cit., p. 208

[52] Goffman, op. cit., pp. 10-11

[53] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind, [1972] 2000, The University of Chicago Press, p. 187

[54] Michel Callon, ‘An essay on framing and overflowing: Economic externalities revisited by sociology’, The Sociological Review, 1998, vol. 46, 1, 244–69

[55] Latour, op. cit., p. 237

[56] Jacques Derrida, The truth in painting, 1987 (transl. Geoff Bennington & Ian McLeod), University of Chicago Press, p. 45

[57] Samuel Johnson’s definition of a ‘framer’.

[58] Segran, op. cit.

[59] Jay Goltz, ‘Are trade shows a waste of time?’, New York Times, 25 February 2018 (retrieved 1 August 2018 (

[60] Richard Peterson & Roger Kern, ‘Changing highbrow taste: from snob to omnivore’, 1996,  American Sociological Review, vol. 61, 5, pp. 900–07

[61] Sennett, op. cit., p. 172

[62] Ibid., p.179

[63] Crawford, op. cit., p. 206