The Edge of Art: an interview with Ben Henriques

Ben Henriques is uncompromisingly a representational painter, who imbues the smallest fragment of a moment, embodied in a minimal still life, with a sense of significance.  He studied Fine Art at the University of Newcastle, has featured three times in the BP Awards, and has exhibited in London, Scotland and Germany since 1992. An exhibition of his work runs at Jonathan Cooper, London, from 6-28 March 2020 (details below).

Ben Henriques, Rhode, o/c, 11.02 x 12.6 ins (28 x 32 cm.)

The Frame Blog: A notable feature of any hanging of your work is the variety of the frames.  They differ from each other in profile, proportion to the painting, and finish, and each one seems chosen very specifically to harmonize with or complement the colour and composition of the particular picture. When did you start paying such attention to the framing of your work?

Ben Henriques, Side table in a blue interior, o/c, 31.89 x 35.83 ins (81 x 91 cm.)

Ben Henriques, Tulip in a white jar, o/c, 13.78 x 12.2 ins (35 x 31 cm.)

Ben Henriques:  Thank you, yes – tailoring the frame for each particular work is my aim. I’ve always painted pictures for the home rather than the museum, office or warehouse, and from my first show in 1992 in Glasgow onwards, art dealers have always wanted the pictures to be framed. It’s a lot of extra work, but that’s fine.

 FB: Were you alerted to the difference that the right frame could make by a particular artist’s work, or by a tutor or mentor?

Sophie MacPherson (b.1957), Rowing boat on the shingle, 1988, 25 x 30 ½ ins (63.5 x 77.5 cm.), Christie’s South Ken, 29 November 2011, Lot 619

BH:  Generally speaking, no, probably not. Though early on I did admire a little-known artist called Sophie MacPherson. She was a bit older, she had been to Camberwell and did flat, well-designed paintings of Scottish boats and buoys. Her frames were well chosen – simple, flat and dry. They were under-stated and a little Puritan, but they suited the subjects.

 FB: Do you always notice the frames on paintings of different periods – Renaissance, Baroque, NeoClassical – if you are in a museum?  – and would you ever use an antique frame with a lot of carved ornament, or do you prefer to limit the decorative aspect solely to the finish? I’ve seen a contemporary artist using a Baroque Florentine leaf frame (all swoops and swirls and opulent gilding) for an avant-garde portrait; do you think that such a clash of styles may nudge the spectator into seeing the painting more clearly, perhaps?

 BH:  In terms of the great periods you mention — I think one only notices the frame when something is dramatically wrong. And for me that is usually a technical thing, rather than historical — for example, something too charmless, too mechanical.

As for Baroque frames on modern paintings – if you mean as in the contemporary fashion for kitsch, where an opulent frame is used on a minimal image: Craigie Aitchison did this.  However, I have a Liberace side to my character, and it certainly needs to be held in check – voluptuous yet minimal.


Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009), Alan McNaught with a bird, 1970, 12 x 11 ins (30.5 x 27.9 cm.), and reverse, Piano Nobile, London 

Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009), title & location unknown, in replica 18th Spanish-style cushion frame, black-painted with gilded punchwork acanthus corners and punched back and sight edges

In fact Craigie Aitchison used all sorts of profiles, from all kinds of places. Perhaps an expert would be able to identify the date of the work by the style of the frame, I don’t know. He used austere flat plate frames with no edge mouldings in the 70s, revival Spanish cushion and reverse profiles in the 80s, and Netherlandish-style ripple mouldings; some of these are  eclectic and some almost kitsch. There was a great show of his work in all these varied frames put on recently by the London art dealer, Piano Nobile.

Euan Uglow (1932-2000), Daisy triptych, 1991, o/c on panel, each 10 ¾ x 6 ¼ ins (27.3 x 15.9 cm.),  Piano Nobile

FB: Do you sometimes consciously adopt the type of frame used by artists you admire, such as Euan Uglow, for instance?

Euan Uglow (1932-2000), Curled nude on a stool, 1982, o/c, 77.7 x 100 cm.,  Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull

Ben Henriques, Blue square, o/c, 8.66 x 17.32 ins (22 x 44 cm.)

 BH:  Yes, of course, though I try to do it sparingly. I like the way a Uglow frame separates the painting from its surroundings, like a broad, flat, sandy beach separates the land from the sea.

 FB: Many contemporary artists leave their canvases completely unframed, or protected merely by battens fixed to the sides, and if they use frames at all they seem to choose the blandest and most unadventurously commercial moulding to be found on the High Street. Why are you taking what must be such an expensively different path?

 BH:  I should think that a lot of painters would like to use better frames — but it’s expensive, risky and time-consuming.

Poster for Never apart: Frames & paintings by the artists of Die Brücke: an exhibition at Die Brücke Museum in Berlin (to15 March 2020) and then at Buchheim Museum (28 March-5 July)

FB: There’s an exhibition on at the moment in Berlin, on the early 20th century artists of Die Brücke – Nolde, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff and Erch Heckel, amongst others – where every single work is in its original frame.   I don’t know whether you may have seen the exhibition itself, or whether you may have read about it, but what do you think of the designs of the frames? They mark a sharp turning-away from the sort of frames Victorian artists were designing for their work in the later 19th century, in their rough use of ornament and colour, and their suggestion of primitive art – although even here there are correspondences, like the Pre-Raphaelites’ use of gilded oak. Your work seems to possess something of the same energy and the same sense of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the unity of painting and frame – as the artists of Die Brücke.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Dorfecke (Village corner), & detail, 1910, o/c, 76.5 x 84.5 cm., & detail, Brücke Museum, Berlin

BH: Interesting. They seem to have chosen the same ones I would have too for their promo page. Perhaps in the more extreme ones the frames take over – too Wagnerian for my taste! I can understand the impulse — cutting new ground and amplifying the drama. Nevertheless I hope it is possible to find new uses of conventions and to achieve an integrity between frame and painting (without having to bowl the full toss).

 FB: Do you make your own frames, or do you find them second-hand? Or is there a framemaker you always use, who has a sympathy for the way you work?

Ben Henriques, Duck, o/c, 21.85 x 17.91 ins (55.5 x 45.5 cm.)

BH: I make them. Before the 2007 crash Giaccherini Fine Frames off Oxford Street made them. It was a treat to go there – one could  hand over the canvas and know that nine times out of ten great choices would be made. Beautiful broad profiles would be turned out by Malarkey in Wembley, and the final textures and colours were usually good. Plus one would sometimes be fed a Lucian anecdote on framing. Before that a framer in Battersea made them — he had worked with Victor Pasmore. So it was a privilege to have frames made by both companies.

 FB: I know that you’ve experimented with gilding: do you finish all your frames yourself? Is this something which needs to be done, to meld the setting as closely as possible to the painting it is to hold?

Ben Henriques, Little yellow, o/c, 17.91 x 17.72 ins (45.5 x 45 cm.), and detail of frame

BH: It makes sense if the same hand makes the whole object, frame included. It’s a lot of work, and it would be very nice to have someone else do it. But water-gilding with real gold is expensive. So presuming that an artist has a feeling for materials and good hands, there’s no barrier. In my own case, I picked up the gilder’s cushion only fairly recently. My father died when I was a little boy. He left a few tubes of Windsor & Newton oil colours – Prussian Blue and Oxide of Chromium – a long thin mahl stick, a strange object that took years to work out what it was — a gilder’s cushion and an oddly-shaped steel knife. My nine-year-old big brother inherited the shirts and became a banker. So I suppose the magic of gilding was going to happen.

Ben Henriques, Green apples, o/c, 16 x 21.18 ins (40.5 x 53.8 cm.), and detail of frame

 FB: You seem to use various techniques in the finish – even scratching into the surface of the frame. Would you like to learn more of the methods framemakers used in the past, or do you think that this would cause a disjunction with a very 21st century style of painting?

BH: I don’t see the problem with using old techniques in contemporary settings.

 Ben Henriques, Blue flowersCorryvreckanMidnight quince; different solutions to framing

FB: The type of frame and the finish make a huge difference as to how the painting is seen, affecting even the space within the composition, emphasizing spatial recession or a flatter decorative feel. Just taking the three works above at random – because they happen to be displayed online together – this is very evident: if not from a different hand, or a different mind, each of the three varies from the others in quite radical ways, and the frames seem to play an important part in enhancing these differences.

Ben Henriques, Huddle, o/c, 23.82 x 21.85 ins (60.5 x 55.5 cm.)

BH: Yes, you’re right there – the spatial dynamic is key. In this current show I’ve designed a few of the paintings with a specific frame in mind; not in the sense of having a frame knocking around that one needs a painting for, but deliberately designing a painting with a specific and yet unmade frame in mind. Huddle is an example of this. I wanted the frame to unite the top and bottom halves of the painting, and therefore isolate the dark burnt black background.

Johannes Itten (1888-1967)

Johannes Itten’s theories spring to mind. Though I’m suspicious of theories; I prefer the broad vision, a sort of perfect precision, not that of disjointed details. Hard to pin down.

FB: I’ve noticed the odd antique gilded frame on your work. Are these fortuitous discoveries, or searched out? – and do you paint the canvas for the frame, or only ever frame something that’s already finished? If you want to buy second-hand frames, where do you go to get them, and what sort of frame would you (ideally) choose?

 BH: Very, very occasionally I’ve come across a frame in a shop. There was one in David Lacey’s shop on Westbourne Grove — a small, very beautiful decorated French gilded frame with great proportions, and it was just about affordable. David may have shown mercy over the price. It sat in the studio for a few years and ended up with a picture of a big, fresh Hebridean onion painted on a piece of Cumbrian Slate — so a Hebridean onion rather than a French one. It was all very fortuitous and now it’s in America, I think.

Ben Henriques, Rhode, o/c, 11.02 x 12.6 ins (28 x 32 cm.), and detail of frame

 FB: Do you think that artists generally are becoming more aware of the potential of a frame designed specifically to display one particular painting? During the second half of the 20th century the death of the frame seemed fairly imminent, but it hasn’t been excised, and in the work of painters like yourself [1] there seems to be a definite resurgence in the idea of the whole work of art, something like the unity of painting and frame for the artists of Die Brücke.

 BH:  Are you asking if I can call this a trend? – hard to say. There are times when the frame-less picture looks great – raw, unpretentious and minimal – yet at other times a picture requires a border if it isn’t to be dazzled by its wall. Take a dark portrait on a brilliant white wall (obviously this is extreme) – but without a mediating frame the painting is difficult to see. So in the end I think the art of framemaking will survive – as will the art of painting.

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With thanks to Ben Henriques for his time, and for all the images.

His exhibition, Recent paintings, runs at Jonathan Cooper, 20 Park Walk, London SW10 OAQ

6th – 28th March 2020

Mon-Fri: 10 am – 6.30 pm
Sat: 11 am – 4pm

Tel.: +44 (0)20 7351 0410

Email: jonathancooper.co.uk

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[1] For example, Mark Alexander, Robert Dukes, Peter Goodfellow, and Holly Lane

Ben Henriques, The artist at work in his studio, o/c, 38 1/8 x 48 1/8 ins (96.8 x 122.2 cm.), Christie’s, South Ken, 26 March 2013, Lot 314