The ideal craftsman: the Danish court gilder Peder Christian Damborg (1801-65)

by The Frame Blog

Frames: state of the art was published in 2008 to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. The guiding spirit behind both was Henrik Bjerre; he is generously allowing The Frame Blog to republish essays from the book, which will appear as an occasional series. The fourth essay in the series is by Jannie Henriette Linnemann, who considers the career of a 19th century Danish gilder, and transcribes extracts from his 1822 manuscript on gilding.

Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann (1819-81), the court gilder and frame-maker Peder Christian Damborg (1801-65), 1853, dimensions unknown, Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto

‘The art of gilding on wood is really very simple: it is based on accuracy and cleanliness in working, and on proceeding as simply as possible from the very beginning. By using artificial and elaborate methods, what could have been achieved well by simpler means will often be spoilt. Many gilders have the incorrect idea that it is quite impossible to produce a good finish without employing an infinite number of ingredients, combined in every imaginable way, and they make their preparations in such secrecy that they do not even let their apprentices know about them, but only teach the basic techniques necessary for them to complete their work. This means that the apprentices become nothing more than jobbing workers who only rarely consider their craft and the reason that a task is done one way and not another…

In this short note I will give brief instructions (as far as it is within my power)  for the easiest, most durable way of carrying out good and permanent gilding. As the process can only be learned by practice, I will spend more time on describing the preparation, and on different responses to the season or other factors, which it might be useful for young beginners to know – those, for example, who have already acquired some practical experience but who, because they lack theoretical knowledge, are unable to carry out any work without help.’ [1]

This is the Danish craftsman, Peder Christian Damborg, in the introduction to his manuscript written in Bremen in the year 1822, ‘Beschreibung der Holzvergoldung nebst mehreren anderen in diesem Fache gehörenden Arbeiten von Damborg’ (A description of gilding on wood, together with other associated arts ), after his travels in search of knowledge and experience [2].

Damborg’s youth

Peder Christian Damborg was born in Copenhagen on 30 May 30 1801 [3].  His father was Haagen Petersen Damborg (c.1768-1848), a cobbler and a bell ringer at Vartov Church, and his mother Anne Cathrine Bæhr (born c.1779). Damborg was a pupil at Trinitatis Church School, and, according to a reference from his teacher Mørk in 1814, ‘he was characterized by morality and diligence’. When he was only 16, he left Denmark to work as a gilder in Hanover, Vienna and Bremen. He worked his way from town to town in the German Burscher manner, which was traditional amongst apprentice craftsmen, who travelled abroad to improve their art by working for different masters. By 1824 he was back in Copenhagen, where he submitted examples of his work to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to great praise. The Academy’s written response, dated 26 May  1824 and signed by the director, the architect Christian Frederik Hansen (1756-1845), is as follows:

‘The gilder, Peder Damborg, has submitted specimens of ornament finished with gilding in gold and metal leaf to the Academy for assessment; these specimens are, not only with respect to gilding but also to exactitude and taste, so well executed and of so fine an effect, that the Academy hereby with hand and seal bears witness to his ability.’

These specimens were kept in the School of the Technical Company for many years and confirm the justice of the Academy’s praise.

Changes in frame-making

Damborg appears to have been accorded an unusual degree of respect for his abilities in the German and Austrian workshops where he worked, from the beginning of his years as a travelling apprentice. This is confirmed not only by the ceremonious reception he was given when revisiting his old colleagues and employers, to refresh his skills, but also by a note on the last pages of his manuscript:

‘This was written at the request of colleagues during my stay in Germany, although of no further importance because of the changed state of the craft.
Copenhagen, 1835 – Damborg’

His addition makes it clear that Damborg was aware of how the practice of framemaking had altered. The early 1800s were a watershed for the craft: industrialization and a decline in the demand for hand-carved frames meant that the basis for their creation gradually withered away in the course of the 19th century. Frames were now decorated with applied, moulded ornament instead of being carved in wood, and Damborg recognized that the methods he had grown up with were no longer in keeping with the times.

Three examples of Damborg’s picture frames (elevation and section); from an article by E. Hannover in Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri, 1893, with examples of completed Damborg frames. Photos: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto

Pattern books  for craftsmen and reference books on gilding and varnishes had been produced since the 18th century, helping to enhance the production of frames as an independent craft. In Germany, where the publishing of printed textbooks was advanced, catalogues were available for workshops with designs and also descriptions of framemaking. Damborg probably used such sources as the model for his own 86-page manuscript, which he wrote when only 21, at the end of his formative journey as a craftsman [4]. This manuscript later formed the foundation of the gilding and framemaking business which he started immediately on his return.

The court gilder

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853), Frederik VI of Denmark, 1820, o/c, 18 x 14 ½ ins (46 x 37 cm.), Sotheby’s, London, 19 January 2016, Lot 176; presented by the king to José Maria O’Neill in 1839, this is almost certainly in one of Damborg’s frames

On 31 May 1825 Damborg was appointed court gilder by Frederik VI, although still only 24, and was entrusted with all the gilding in the new Palace of Christiansborg: thrones, pier glasses, tables, consoles, curtain poles, candelabra, etc. Christianborg had been designed by the architect Christian Frederik Hansen, the same director of the Royal Danish Academy who had passed the samples of Damborg’s work, and who must have been instrumental in his appointment. The gilding was carried out under the supervision of Gustav Friedrich Hetsch (1788-1854), another architect.

Damborg was also responsible for framing the work of a great many contemporary artists. Many of these paintings, now in a number of different museums including the Statens Museum for Kunst, retain their original frames, which bear witness to his skill. Nothing left his workshop without having passed his inspection, and he made it a point of honour to produce meticulous and perfect craftsmanship of the finest quality. He selected his materials carefully, since the ground for his gilding had to be the best – in terms of the carved wood, the gold leaf, etc. – all of the highest quality: whilst his working procedure was detailed, slow and thorough. His frames still have a fine sheen on the gilding.

The Palace of Christiansborg

H.G.F. Holm, The Palace of Christiansborg, 1827, coloured etching

The task that Damborg had been given at the Palace of Christiansborg was so vast that in November 1828 he had to employ three gilders from Berlin to help him; he also had to hire a man just to transport the gilded objects from his workshop to the castle. The gilding of the interior of the palace was a very costly affair, especially in view of the price of gold at that time. Huge quantities of gold leaf were used, reflecting the light and giving lustre to the interior. His gilding, combined with carved ornament and réparure, or the recutting of detail in the gesso underlayer, gave the furnishings of the castle the illusion of being cast from solid gold. This picture of his work there emerges from a contemporary inventory of the castle, and the meticulous accounts which Damborg himself left. He mentions in his accounts, for example, items such as the thrones of the King and Queen, where 965 rix-dollars, or rigsdaler, were paid for the gilding [5]. The enormous looking-glass frames in the throne room, as well as the ornamental frames for four history paintings by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, were also included in his contract. As well as these, the palace inventory mentions gilded wallpaper borders, a number of pier glasses with consoles, tables, chairs, stools, pedestals, candelabra, door frames, curtain poles, and much more beside [6]. In fulfilling this multifarious commission, Damborg worked as a designer, technician, gilder, bronzer and varnisher.

Further examples of Damborg’s picture frames (elevation and section); from an article by E. Hannover in Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri, 1893

Unfortunately all Damborg’s gilding for the palace was destroyed in the fire there in 1884. A number of picture frames which he had finished over later years for the royal picture gallery were also lost; the canvases were cut out of the frames so that they could be rescued from the burning building.

Damborg’s clients

In spite of the numerous commissions which Damborg carried out for the court of Frederik VI, not only at the Palace of Christiansborg, but also the Amalienborg, Frederiksberg Castle, Bernstorff Palace and Sorgenfri Castle, he also took on a large number from private citizens. In order to  manage all this additional work, as well as the decoration of the royal palaces, he employed three to four journeymen in his business.

His accounts book for 1833-43 contains references to work executed for practically the whole of the Danish aristocracy, as well as the most notable artists and collectors of the period. Among the former were Count Blücher of Altona, Baron Breton, Count Danneskiold- Samsøe, Count Friis, Count Holck, Baroness Holstein, Baron Juel, Count Knuth, Baron Løvenskjold, Count Moltke of Bregentved, Count Rantzau, Baron Scheel-Plessen and many more, whilst amongst the artists who employed him were the painter and lithographer Emilius Bærentzen, the architect Gottlieb Bindesbøll, the scene painter Christian Ferdinand Christensen, the medallist Christen Christensen, as well as C.W. Eckersberg, Heinrich Eddelin, F.M.E. Fabritius de Tengnagel, Louis Gurlit, Constantin Hansen, J.L. Jensen, Christen Købke, J.C. Lund, Thorald Læssøe, J.P. Møller, Wilhelm Marstrand, Martinus Rørbye, Frederik Sødring and the Norwegian painter J.C. Dahl.

There were also many scholars and collectors, including J.C. Spengler, the Keeper of The Royal Kunstkammer, and the archaeologist Peter Oluf Brøndsted. In later account books, even more artists’ names appear: amongst them J.V. Gertner, Johan Th. Lundbye, Ernst Meyer, Adam Müller, P.C. Skovgaard, Jørgen Sonne and Bertel Thorvaldsen. Later again come Carl Bloch, Janus la Cour, Christen Dalsgaard, C.A. Kølle, Gotfred Rump, H. Siegumfeldt, Frederik Vermehren and many more. Besides being his customers, they were also his friends. Damborg was their equal in abilities and taste, and if an artist was suffering monetary problems, he would take a painting in settlement of a bill. These paintings stayed on the walls of his home in Store Strandstræde; he did not sell them [7].

Damborg’s portrait

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1819-81), Peder Christian Damborg (1801-65), 1853, Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1819-81) was a contemporary of Damborg’s, and her 1853 portrait gives a good impression of him. It’s bust-length, set in one of his own ornamental frames – a simple rectilinear gilt frame with an oval sight and decorative spandrels. He regards the viewer with a melancholy gaze; his modest appearance emphasizing his pensive expression. There are no loud garments with gold buttons, pocket watch and silk lapels, but simple everyday clothes; he’s not finely arrayed but dressed as the craftsman he is, wearing a smoking hat with a tassel, according to the fashion of the day. He frowns slightly, and his mouth is soft and a little perplexed. He has a long thinnish nose, and his high, wide forehead gives the impression of wisdom and intelligence. This is not a face which has the gloss of good living, and in fact he had the reputation of leading a modest and temperate life. He looks delicate and almost boyish, with his narrow shoulders, and he is apparently fairly slight. Altogether he gives the impression of life being a serious business, and he certainly doesn’t radiate vitality, dynamism or energy. What with his commitment to his craft, his positions on various boards and committees, and his own workshop, he might have been expected to affect a proud bearing; but instead he looks overworked and tired; perhaps, too, he didn’t enjoy the process of having his portrait painted – a busy man, who could ill afford the time to sit for Baumann. Perhaps he also preferred not to spend time on social events, but would generally be found at home, in his workshop. It was, however, said of him that he was nearly always ready to help others, and that he was a methodical man, calm and patient.

Damborg sat, as noted, on a number of boards and was a member of many societies. Among his many positions, he was principal of the Reiersenske School of Drawing from 1825; in 1840 he became a member of the committee for the investigation of the Guilds and Corporations Department in Copenhagen in 1840 [8]; and in 1842 moderator for the award of ‘The gilders’ masterpieces’. In 1844 he was on the board of the Technical School; and between 1846-48 he was chairman of the exhibition committee and on the board of the Industrial Society of Copenhagen, where he was also superintendent for some years. In 1850 he became co-director of the trade guild, and the same year he was elected to the city council, to which he was re-elected twice and remained until his death in 1865. In 1864 he sent in his resignation as poor-law inspector. He had had the latter job for 28 years, demonstrating his awareness of the less fortunate, and possibly impelled by his own childhood in straitened circumstances.

Collaboration with Gustav Friedrich Hetsch

As far as is known, Damborg never received any drawing instruction himself, either at the Academy or any other school of art, even though he was appointed principal of the Reiersenske School of Drawing as early as 1824. It seems evident, however, that he had a natural and fresh approach to drawing – perhaps because as a young man he copied things that he found interesting. Gustav Hetsch was a frequent guest in his workshop and came to have great influence on him. Hetsch himself had been educated as an architect in Paris, under Charles Percier and Louis Hippolyte Lebas, and the art of drawing was close to his heart; so much so that, in 1853, he published Om Tegnekunsten, betragtet som Dannelsesmidde, (On the art of drawing as a formative influence). He attached great importance to the teaching of draughtsmanship as a personal skill, connected with individual spiritual development, and he was partly responsible for a number of teaching reforms at the Academy during the 1830s, where he improved the obligatory drawing courses for craftsmen. Hetsch also planned the drawing courses at the Technical Institute, founded in 1843, in his capacity as director of teaching. He can be seen, together with the art historian N.L. Høyen (1798-1870), as a leader of his period with regard to taste and style.

Peder Damborg, pier glass with matching console, drawing, 1824, Archive of the Guild of Cabinetmakers, Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen

Hetsch and Damborg had a long and fruitful collaboration. Hetsch, who was also the son- in-law of the architect Christian Hansen, and responsible for the interior decoration of the Palace of Christiansborg, exerted a great influence over Damborg during their work together on the palace furnishings. A drawing of a pier glass with a console by Damborg may have been intended for one of Christiansborg’s many rooms, and in this case, as in so many others, Hetsch may very well have inspired its design. It is also quite possible that it was Hetsch who opened the way for Damborg’s various positions on boards and in public offices.

Damborg’s workshop

The first time Damborg’s name appears in the Copenhagen directory is in 1826: ‘P. Chr. Damborg, Royal Court Gilder, 11, Gothersgade’ runs the entry [9]. In 1828 he was still living in the same street, but in 1830 he moved to 105, St. Strandstræde; the building has since been demolished. He is now registered as ‘Royal Court Gilder and Framemaker’. There was only one court gilder at a time, but there were several royal suppliers.

The fact that he moved quite often prior to 1830 was due to his success, which caused a continual expansion of his workshop; but he remained at 105, St. Strandstræde until his death at the end of 1865. His wife survived him until 1895, also moving a number of times, but she managed to continue his business for a while.

Contemporary moulding and gilding techniques

Damborg’s clients had great faith in his sense of style and taste. His frames were well-made from good materials, with finely-executed ornament and gilding. He put great importance on meticulous planning, the grading of his leaf gold by quality, and a strict adherence to the application of the different layers. He was of course a master of gilding, allowing design and ornament to be perfectly  displayed. He did not overdo the use of applied (compo) decoration either; his frames were mainly of solid wood. As regards the gilding, the relationship of matt and burnished surfaces was vital, just as the alternation between reddish and yellow ochre bole gave varying colour tones and play in the gold. Damborg used all the different shades of bole, from a deep blue-black, through reds and ochres to white. All these factors fed into the craftsmanship characteristic of his frames, and his mastery of these techniques explains why, today, his frames are still sought after.

Machine for pressing ornament with rolls of prepared compo; frame workshop of F.G. Conzen, Düsseldorf. Photo: Jannie Henriette Linnemann

Before Damborg’s time, most frames were carved in wood and then covered with gesso and gilded. But about the year 1800, labour-intensive hand-carved wooden decoration was replaced by composition or ‘compo’, the most important constituents of which were gesso and rabbitskin glue with the addition of linseed oil. The oil prevented the mass breaking during the working process; it functioned as a softening  and binding agent. The material was pressed while warm into moulds which were carved in reverse with every type of ornament. During the cooling process, the compo hardened in these moulds, and the motifs and lengths of ornament were then taken out and fixed to the frame with more rabbitskin glue. There was great demand for frames in bas-relief, for which composition was particularly well- suited [10].

Drum from an ornament moulding machine, with textured acanthus leaf decorations;
F.G. Conzen, Düsseldorf. Photo: Jannie Henriette Linnemann

Part of the success of compo ornament lay in its ability to provide a decorative and affordable alternative for the middle and lower-middle classes, who were less wealthy and could not pay for expensive hand-carved frames. Pressed and applied ornament  was far cheaper, and became at first a supplement and then all but replaced  hand-carved frames, the clients for which were the elite. At first framemakers tried to imitate wood carving in compo, but gradually, as the craft matured, other possibilities arose, and a new idiom was developed. Damborg saw the possibilities in the process; he had the ability to produce original and attractive frames with compo decoration, and to develop this new branch of framemaking (this aspect of his work can be compared with Josiah Wedgwood’s earlier struggle to give the lower middle classes in England a cheaper alternative to porcelain, in the form of ‘creamware’ – a finer, thinner and more lustrous version of earthenware). Decorative compo frames turned out to be much more successful in the decades after 1800 than was originally envisaged, especially in Denmark, which was undergoing a period of economic recession.

Wilhelm Bendz (1804-32), The Raffenberg Family, 1830,  o/c, 17.6 x 15.6 ins (44.9 x 39.7 cm.), Statens Museum for Kunst, in a hollow bay leaf-&-bud frame with rais-de-coeur at the sight edge, as in Damborg’s design, below, with a plainer design on the drawing hanging at the right of the painting

  Moulded compo decoration was particularly well-suited to the style of the Empire period, with its delicate classical borders, wreaths and architectural ornament. It was ideal for friezes of palmettes, egg-and-dart or astragal-&-bead mouldings, but could also reproduce more complex motifs – swans, anthemia, acanthus leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Damborg used all three contemporary gilding techniques for finishing his frames: water gilding, which can be burnished to a high lustre; oil gilding, which is more robust and has a matt surface; and silver-leaf gilding, where a gold-coloured lacquer is usually applied over the silver. These first two techniques enhance each other and create an animated play of light over the surfaces of the frame. Damborg’s manuscript is reproduced, below, with his descriptions of the gilding process.

Empire and Restauration styles (c. 1800-30)

Wilhelm Bendz (1804-32), The Waagepetersen Family, 1830, o/c, 99.5 x 88.5 cm., Statens Museum for Kunst, in a Greek corner ogee frame; within the painting pictures in similar frames hang in an Empire interior with two earlier oval portraits in Louis XVI frames

The most attractive of Damborg’s frames are the most simple: embellished just with an egg-&-dart or astragal-&-bead moulding, on the Empire profiles which were also used by Hetsch and his German colleague, the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). However, Schinkel preferred a more Greek-oriented classicism for his great frame project for the galleries of Berlin, from 1823-30 [11].

Bastiano Mainardi (c.1460-1513), Madonna & Child with John the Baptist and three angels, Gemälgalerie, Berlin, in Schinkel frame with matching paterae in the spandrels

Schinkel’s frames had a difference of style from Damborg’s, even though they employed the same type of ornament. As an architect, he regarded the design of a frame in a more academic way; he had a scholar’s knowledge of classical Greek motifs, and his frames were more mannered and perhaps more pretentious than those of the craftsman. Schinkel had a love of embellishment which is alien to Damborg’s approach, and his use of ornament could almost overpower the frame, even entering into competition with the painting. Schinkel’s frames were also frequently an element in the overall interior design of his buildings, and were, in conception, close to stylistic perfection, whereas Damborg’s frames were more modest in their expression. Damborg seems to have felt that the frame should be subordinate to the painting, with less ornament and busy-ness: probably because he understood the viewpoint of his client, the artist, as well as that of the craftsman involved in the work.

Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), Ideal view of the Acropolis and Areopagus, 1846, o/c, 102.8 x 147.7 cm., Neue Pinakothek, Munich

Schinkel’s contemporary, Leo von Klenze (court architect for Ludwig II of Bavaria), also modernized and standardized all the picture frames in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, from 1830-36, as Schinkel had done in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, diffusing the fashion for the enriched Empire frame.   

The period between 1820 and 1860 was one of the high points of Danish framemaking  and gilding, and Denmark became a model for its new styles and methods of production. Damborg followed the contemporary currents; he was not prejudiced against innovative technology, developing  new frame patterns and mouldings, and annotating his drawings in several places ‘invenit’, establishing his own claim to these designs. He must have benefitted from his annual trips abroad, finding direct inspiration from them.

Drawing of five ornamental friezes from Greek antiquity revived in Empire style frames, furniture and architecture; inscribed ‘31 de Marts 1816’, ink & pencil, 37.2 x 48.9 cm., Archive of the Guild of Cabinetmakers, Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo: Pernille Klemp

Symmetry and linear forms were basic elements of the Empire style; and the moulded compo frame offered a flexible range of variations on the basic theme. This included different profiles and widths of the rail, which could be ornamented with pearls, astragal-&-bead, a fluted scotia, dentils, Greek fret, ovolo chain and stopped-channel fluting, amongst other motifs.

Bronze was said to be the favourite material of Empire, but Damborg only used it under gilding. Bronze work was not particularly common in Denmark at the start of the 19th century, as this was an impoverished period for the country due to the Napoleonic Wars and the state bankruptcy of 1813.

Different styles and types of frames

Damborg frame: NeoClassical scotia pattern with rais-de-coeur, Statens Museum for Kunst.
Photo: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto

What characterises frames from the Neoclassical period (from the 1760s to the early 19th century) are their simple, clean lines; cooler tones for gilding, over a light grey or bluish bole; and, from the 1790s, relatively shallow relief decoration.

Damborg frame: an offshoot of the ‘Greek corner’ pattern, Statens Museum for Kunst.
Photo: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto

This morphed, in the 1830s, into a version of the French Greek corner frame, with plain rails and decorative scrollwork corners. Like Schinkel and von Klenze, Damborg worked almost exclusively with gilded frames, but, following a current trend, he also used Empire motifs cast in zinc and other metals to apply to his frames. These were both cheaper and cleaner in their form than compo ornaments.

‘Silvered’ frames were another variation, which became fashionable from the 1860s; they were either treated on the back and sight edges with a light-coloured gilding, or else black or yellow bole was used beneath silver leaf.

Damborg lace-ground frame, Statens Museum for Kunst.
Photo: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto

The 1840s brought the Rococo revival frame, which was popular amongst the middle classes, reintroducing more curvaceous lines and projecting corners. This style also produced the lace-ground frame, where a plain convex or ogee rail was covered with a layer of fine fabric netting, which was then gilded over. The texture created in this way was comparable in the effect it aimed for (if not in skill and craftsmanship) to the cross-hatched or diapered réparure of the 18th century. Sanding, another 18th century technique, also created variety in the texture of areas on the frame. Damborg seems to have supplied frames in all these varying styles and techniques.

Contemporary gilders

Damborg, as court gilder, was the pre-eminent framemaker of his time, but there were many framemakers and gilders in the country, due to the 19th century increase in the demand for frames. One was L.A. Bjørn, gilder and undertaker, at 123, Brolæggerstræde, whose frames are good enough to be mistaken for Damborg’s: maybe he was apprenticed to Damborg?

Another name associated with antique frames of good quality construction and gilding is that of C.O.A. Schieltved (1829-1891), the son of O.B. Schieltved, also a gilder. He was apprenticed as a gilder, figure maker and moulder at Den Kongelige Porcelænsfabrik (the Royal porcelain factory), and was admitted to the Danish Royal Academy in 1845, where Gustav Hetsch was his teacher. The framemaker’s and gilder’s trades are ancient, culminating in Denmark with the work of Damborg and his contemporaries, which forms one element in the Danish Golden Age of art.


Damborg acquired good technical knowledge during his early training in Germany and Austria, developing it to a high level of skill, and marrying with it an ability to identify and produce the appropriate frame for a particular of art. He was also generally restrained in his choice of ornamentation, mouldings, gilding etc., and in the style of his frames, subordinating them to the work of art; he also understood how to integrate them with contemporary interiors and furnishings (as in his collaboration with Hetsch at Christiansborg). At the Palace of Christiansborg he formed part of a team with Christian Hansen and Hetsch.

His manuscript reveals his theories as to restraint in ornament, and techniques such as how to enhance the gilding with areas of matt and burnish, and by the choice of bole. These refinements of his craft influenced his successors, and his frames were well-known. He was part of the flourishing artistic milieu of the Golden Age and  accepted on an equal footing with contemporary artists.

Damborg’s manuscript

Damborg’s manuscript – ‘A description of gilding on wood, together with other associated arts by Damborg, Bremen, 1822’ [12] – is kept in the library of the Design Museum, Copenhagen. It describes in great detail the many technical and theoretical elements of gilding, and is divided into twelve chapters.

The first two chapters deal with gilding on wood, over a size and gesso ground, and gilding on an oil ground. Damborg writes as follows [13]:

‘On soaking with size:

Soaking with size is carried out to saturate the wood and ensure that the ground does not flake off; without this sizing, the wood will absorb the glue in the gesso ground, causing the gesso to dry out and crumble away.

The process must be repeated twice, with very hot size, and, if the wood is open-grained or cross-cut, three times. It is of paramount importance that the size dries thoroughly before applying the ground, because the wood expands due to the moisture in the size and must dry again before the gesso is applied. If it is left  to dry later, the ground, which has no elasticity, will peel off. Many gilders do not think ahead, and are mystified when the ground falls off. However, this may also be due to the wood being too oily or not dry enough, or having been felled at the wrong season when the sap was still up. With the latter sort of wood, the durability of the gilding cannot be guaranteed. It may also be due to the seasoning being hurried, so that the wood does not have sufficient time to dry. One needs to be very careful in this matter: most clients will neither understand nor believe it, and consequently regard it as the gilder’s fault if the work flakes off.

For the size, take 1 pound of horn glue to approx. 4 quarts of water [1 quart = 1.145 litres]; in summer on very hot days a little less. Adjustments must also be made for the quality of the glue: obviously, more water can be added to good glue than to poor. As pine wood is the most usual wood for gilding, in which there are often sappy areas, note that these must be carefully cut out, or they will break through later. Sometimes there are also knots which must be covered with fine linen to make the ground durable on them; this can also be done with respect to joins.

On the ground:

Size of the same strength as above can be employed to lay the ground. Then, without stirring, add enough finely powdered gesso until it piles up above the surface of the size. Stir it well and squeeze it through a sieve, so that lumps and impurities remain behind. As chalk from Champagne and Bologna are not available in these northern parts, Danish or English chalk can be used; and, as these are very friable and lean, it is advisable to add some drops of olive oil to give the ground greater consistency. But the oil must be added when the ground is very hot, otherwise it will not mix and will cause problems. For large areas of burnish, the ground can be kept more compact so that more can be applied; contrariwise, for smaller decorations it must be finer and thinner to facilitate repairs.

An experienced craftsman will handle carved ornament so carefully that not even the finest contours lose their sharpness. When preparing the ground, it is advisable not heat up the whole of the mixture each time, as the water evaporates on repeated reheating and the ground becomes increasingly thick and hard; so only a small amount should be heated in a little pan. For the first layer, the ground may be thinned down with size quite a lot, and it must be applied very hot so that it can combine well with the size in solution. For subsequent layers it should only be lukewarm and no hotter, otherwise it will dissolve the lower layer and loosen it from the wood. When preparing large areas of ground for gilding, it should be applied it eight or nine times, pausing between each layer, except for the last. With smaller areas, fewer layers are needed; however, this must be left to the craftsman’s discretion. When the surface has been given one layer of ground, it is filed off lightly with a wooden file so that the fine wooden nap that has risen during the process disappears and does not reappear on sanding. If there are any holes, these are filled with a putty of made of size and chalk.

Damborg’s manuscript – ‘A description of gilding on wood, together with other associated arts by Damborg, Bremen, 1822’

On repairs:

Only little can be said under this heading, because repairing is a skill which can only really be acquired through practice. This much is certain, however, that in repairing an object that has lost the gilding back to the ground, it must be brought back to its former state; and first and foremost the contours which are no longer smooth and clean must be given their proper definition and sharpness again. And frames and other pieces by the cabinetmaker with ornamental mouldings must be treated before polishing, so that all the areas in question regain their original form; above all, avoid the mistake of making straight pieces rounded to improve the sheen of the gilding, or of transforming convex mouldings to hollows to facilitate the gilding. Sometimes embellishments may be carved in the gesso; a description of this cannot, however, be given.

On polishing:

It is necessary during the polishing process to take care that the gesso ground is not abraded on the gilded sections, or that water does not lie too long in one place, so that it dissolves the ground.

Pumice, sandstone or horsetail are usually employed for this job. Sometimes wood and linen are also used, but this is only really possible on carved areas. Choose the most solid piece of pumice, because pumice with an open texture has a great many holes in which there are loose bits which may hinder the polishing. And if sandstone is employed, it must be dipped in boiling size after it has been cut into an appropriate shape, so that it does not leave grains of sand behind during the polishing. After everything has been smoothed down sufficiently, it is given one more polish with wet horsetail, and – before the bole is applied – one more with dry horsetail to make it all as smooth as can be.

On applying bole:

Armenian red bole

Two sorts of bole are used: red and yellow. The yellow is used for matt, the red for burnished gilding. The latter is prepared in the following fashion. Take:

Armenian bole (a red clay)…         ¾ pound

White clay (pipe clay)…                 ¼ pound
Water lead (= molybdenum)…      ½ measure (1 measure = 15.288 gm)

Raw wax…                                       3 quarts (1 quart = 1.145 litres)

Deer tallow…                                   3 quarts

Venetian soap…                              ½ measure

The two kinds of clay are powdered, and then the water lead is finely ground with water and dried. The soap is boiled in water and sieved through a piece of linen so that impurities remain behind. Wax and tallow are melted together in a clay pot. The powdered ingredients and the water lead are added and stirred until there is no more wax or tallow visible; then the soap solution is poured in and the mixture is allowed to stand on a low fire for 5-10 minutes, stirring continuously, so that everything is well mixed. Then take the bole off the fire and stir it together with lukewarm water, pour it into a pan and cover it well so that it is protected against dust or other impurities.

Pot with bole heating; in the workshop of F.C. Conzen, Düsseldorf.
Photo: Jannie Henriette Linnemann

Note:  Not all well-water can be used for bole, as some of it contains traces of saltpetre, and is therefore very hard and consequently unsuitable for this purpose. In this case, the saltpetre must be removed by boiling, or rainwater or river water should be used instead.

Unless the water lead is of excellent quality, it will contain some sulphur; this is extracted over charcoal.

Yellow bole

Yellow bole is prepared in a similar fashion, as described above. The constituent parts are :

Dutch ochre…                                1 pound
Pipe clay…                                      ¼ pound
Red chalk (red ochre)…                3 quarts (1 quart = 1.145 litres)

Raw wax…                                       1 measure (= 15.288 gm)
Deer tallow…                                   1 measure
Venetian soap…                              ½  measure

If red chalk is used to make red bole, it must be sublimated, but this is not necessary for yellow bole.

The bole is once again finely ground with water, and diluted with as much glue or size (made from horn clippings or parchment shavings) as necessary, so that it can be laid on properly. It is not easy to describe the strength of the size, as this depends on the weather and the different nature of the work. Thus, for example, on dry, hot days the size must be made stronger than on wet, cold days, and similarly it must be stronger for a weak gesso ground. However, this knowledge can only ne acquired through repeated practice. About 2 pounds of water to 1 measure of horn glue generally makes a gesso ground of suitable strength.

Before applying the bole, the object must be carefully cleaned of all dust; the ground must then be slaked: i.e. lukewarm size should be poured onto it, so that any fine dust which cannot be brushed away is firmly anchored, and the bole is provided with a surface to which it can grip firmly. Then the whole thing should be painted with two layers of yellow bole, and the parts to be burnished with two or three layers of red bole.  Afterwards – when it is dry – it should be rubbed all over with a clean brush or woollen cloth, so that the gold can lie more evenly. The areas to be matt are brushed with bole size and spirits, so that not only does the gold adhere more evenly, but there will be fewer repairs to make in the leaf; however, care must be taken not to make the size too strong, otherwise the position of the leaves of gold and the joins between them will be too visible. The greatest cleanliness must be observed in this process. Large matt areas must be painted with bole again, so that the settling of the gold will be less noticeable. Some gilders also polish the bole with a gilder’s agate, but this method is not very advisable, as it is impossible to remove the sheen completely afterwards.

A carver’s & gilder’s workshop, engraved illustration, 1858

When differentiating between burnished and matt gold, the gilder’s taste must be respected; of course, it is arbitrary, but there are many instances where a rule may be made. For example, the skin or hair of figures should never be burnished, and this should only be very sparingly done on their garments. Nor should every leaf in a piece of foliage be burnished. Many gilders do not understand how burnishing can be misused, so they give a sheen to the eyes, ears and tail of a lion – and even the claws, and right up the haunches. Such workers are nothing but inferior craftsmen who are satisfied if only they can give their gilding a shine. They do not consider that the object is to be improved by gilding, and the work of the carver must not be crippled and disfigured in this way.

Nor should burnished hollows or bases be enriched with decoration; this is not the least attractive, but also renders the play of the mouldings indiscernible. Least of all should such over-enrichment highlighted with burnished gilding be found on picture frames, since this will not only be disadvantageous for the painting, but it will confuse the eye of the viewer and disturb him in his meditations. If picture frames are to have an appropriate effect, the largest areas must remain matt, especially those which are nearest the painting, so that the whole work may have a tranquil and harmonious appearance. Neither should all areas of the frame should be embellished.

A page in Peder Christian Damborg, Profilbog over Rammer, an album of original drawings of picture frame profiles; no date, Library of the Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo: Pernille Klemp

On gilding:

Gilding demands practical ability more than any theory; it cannot really be learnt from a written description, but only through frequent practice. The most important requirement of all is to lay the gold leaf on very evenly, without much overlapping; not only will gold be saved in this way, but the edges of the leaves will be less visible in matt gilding. Nor should too large an area be moistened at once with spirits, or the bole may be dissolved.

When large areas are to be gilded, the object must be tilted a little so that the spirits can run off more easily; if spirits remain lying on the surface – or if they run back under the gold – the gold would be contaminated and become patchy, especially if the bole has become a little too strong. In this situation, some water should be added to the spirits, thus diluting and weakening the bole. If, on the other hand, the bole has become too weak, the best solution is to wash it off again with a soft sponge and lukewarm water, and reapply it; since, even if the layer of bole is covered with a weak size, or if size is added to the spirits used to moisten the bole, the gilding will not be so successful. Such aids are only to be used in the last resort, if there is a great need for haste.

Gilding in the workshops of the Royal Collection Trust

The areas to be burnished are gilded first, and then burnished so that the matt areas are not harmed in the latter process. After this, the matt areas are gilded. Pure matt gilding is without any argument one of the most difficult tasks for a gilder, and few can boast of being able to do it well. If large surfaces need to be gilded in matt gold – wide hollows, for instance – the gold leaves must be cut very precisely and laid on smoothly, so that they do not overlap each other too much, since this is where the joins will be particularly visible. If a leaf should loosen, it should not be repaired at once but left to dry, and then swept off with a soft brush so that all the loose bits are removed. The small pieces of leaf employed to repair it should – as far as possible – not be cut larger than the hole to be covered, otherwise it will be very visible. When the area is dry again, it must be rubbed over once more with cotton (thoroughly clean cotton, so that there is nothing in it that can cause scratches in the gold). After that it must be covered with pure size and spirits, going ‘with the grain’, which means that the overlapping gold must not be rubbed up and prevented from lying flat, which would be very visible.

On matt gilding and contouring:

Pietro Andrea Mattiolo, Commentarii in VI. libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei De medica materia, 1674, Sorbus domestica (rowan berries)

The parts that are to be matt gilded are covered in a mattifying layer, to improve the finish and  colour. For this process, take: gamboge, rowan berries and a little white cream of tartar (cremor tartari or potassium tartrate). The gamboge is dissolved in spirits, as is the cream of tartar, and the rowan berries are boiled in spirits, until they do not give off any more red colouring. All these ingredients are then mixed together, until the desired colour is attained, and then filtered through a piece of linen, and reserved until needed. This is simple and good recipe. Many gilders are great adherents of eggs for mattifying; however I do not find this particularly practicable…

Damborg Régence revival-style frame, Statens Museum for Kunst.
Photo: Riccardo Buccarella, SMK-foto [12] (page 136-137)


Jannie Henriette Linnemann

MAA in Architecture; graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (School of Architecture); studied under Professor Dan Sterup-Hansen, at the School of Graphic Art, and under Professor Poul Gernes at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (School of Sculpture), Charlottenborg; MA, Royal College of Art, London; BA in History of Art at the University of Copenhagen. Taught at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (School of Architecture) and the Danish College of Design. Employed from 1999 at Bruun Rasmussen’s, auctioneers; consultant at Statens Museum for Kunst, Jørgen Rubow Centre (registration of picture frames in the Museum); running own school of art: drawing, watercolour techniques, oil techniques, colour theory, history of art etc., from 1994



Wilhelm von Bode & Herman Voss, Katalog der Ausstellung antiker Rahmen im Künstlerhaus, 1929, Berlin

Peder Christian Damborg, Beschreibungder Holzvergoldung nebst mehreren anderen in diesem Fache gehö– renden Arbeiten, handwritten manuscript dated Bremen, 1822

Peder Christian Damborg, Profilbog over Rammer, an album of original drawings of picture frame profiles; no date

Dansk Biografisk Leksikon, vol. 6, 1980, Gyldendal

Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen, Guldalderdrømmen, dansk nyklassicistisk møbelkunst 1790-1850, 2002, Forlaget Rhodos

Emil Hannover on Damborg in Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri, 1893, pp. 117-128

Angela Hückel, ‘Vergoldungstechniken und Ornamentapplikationen. Deutsche Gemälde- rahmen im 19 Jahrhundert’, Restauro, Callwey, 1990, Munich, vol. 2, pp. 96-104

Carl. Foredrag Møller on Damborg, published in Glarmester Tidende, 1923, no. 4-5

Erik Brønniche-Lange, ‘Gamle rammer’, Politikens samlerserie, 1955, Jeg er samler, 409-17

Bettina von Roenne, exh cat. Ein Architekt rahmt Bilder, Karl Friedrich Schinkel und die Berliner Gemäldegalerie, 4 May-31 July 2007

Beate Federspiel, questions about mediaeval gesso grounds, historical painting techniques, material and studio practice, University of Leiden, 26-29 June 1995, The Getty Conservation Institute

Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts, A history of European picture frames, 1996, London


[1] Beskrivelse af træforgyldningen samt flere andre til dette fag hørende arbejder af Damborg, Bremen, 1822. Translated by Mogens Møller from P.C. Damborg’s manuscript, November 1969, pp. 1-30, p. 1

[2] ‘Beschreibung der Holzver- goldung nebst mehreren anderen in diesem Fache gehörenden Arbeiten von Damborg’, Bremen, 1822, p. 1

[3] See Emil Hannover’s article, ‘En gammel dansk Haandværker: P.C. Damborg’ in Tidsskrift for Kunstindustri, Copenhagen, 1893, pp. 117-28, p. 118. This article forms, to a large extent, the basis of this essay; where other sources are employed, they are specifically credited. Particular thanks are due to Jens Heinet Knudsen, MA, for her helpful comments.

[4] Angela Hückel, ‘Vergoldungstechniken und Ornamentapplikationen. Deutsche Gemälde- rahmen im 19 Jahrhundert’, Restauro, 1990, Munich, vol. 2, pp. 96-104

[5] The riksdaler was the currency used before the krone, which was introduced in 1875

[6] Emil Hannover, op. cit., p. 121

[7] From information given to Emil Hannover by Damborg’s widow, and which forms the basis of his article (ibid.), written when Damborg’s manuscript was donated to the Design Museum Denmark, in about 1893

[8] From Carl Møller, ‘En gammel dansk Haandværker’, Glarmester Tidende, 1923, p. 7. Carl Møller builds almost entirely on Hannover’s article.

[9] Ibid., pp. 6-7

[10] Angela Hückel, ‘Vergoldungstechniken und Ornamentapplikationen. Deutsche Gemäl- derahmen im 19 Jahrhundert’, Restauro, 1990, Muncih, vol. 2, pp. 96-104

[11] Bettina  von Roenne, Ein Architekt rahmt Bilder
Karl Friedrich Schinkel und die Berliner Gemäldegalerie
, exhibition catalogue, 2007

[12] Damborg’s manuscript was translated into Danish by Mogens Møller (November, 1969, pp. 1- 30); library of the Design Museum Denmark, Copenhagen

[13] Ibid; chapters 1 -2, pp. 1-9