Carving & gilding a British Rococo frame

…the stages in producing a faithful replica of the 18th century frame on a Gainsborough portrait


Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Thomas Linley the Elder, late 1760s, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

We think of the Rococo style – paintings, furniture, boiseries, and picture frames – as a confection of curves and extravagant asymmetry, flyaway scrolls and delicate floweriness.  Britain never seemed to accept this frivolous and flighty movement with quite the wholeheartedness of, for example, France; possibly because it had an entrenched Classical tradition, revealed in the numbers of Palladian villas which were built during the 18th century.  The Palladian style is also known as ‘Kentian’ after the architect and designer, William Kent: a style which began in the 1720s and merged almost seamlessly into the late 18th century trend for the NeoClassical, leaving little room for the Rococo to root itself too deeply.

Furnishings and objets d’art in the Rococo taste were more popular and more attainable than large-scale buildings; and there are several interiors where frilly Rococo boiseries or stuccowork have been layered onto the geometric classicism of a Palladian structure (Farnborough Hall in Warwickshire, for example).  Rococo frames were also very popular, especially for portraiture; they echoed the curves of the human figure, the curls of wigs and female ringlets, and the swoops and ebullitions of 18th century costume (Hogarth, George Arnold and his daughter Frances Arnold, 1738-40, Fitzwilliam Museum).  However, during the 1760s and later a reaction began to percolate through Britain against the more flamboyant forms of the Rococo, which meant that NeoClassicism was adopted quickly and enthusiastically.  The frame of Gainsborough’s Thomas Linley the Elder is a transitional design, picking up the restraint and linear structure of a straight-sided Louis XV-style frame, and looking forward to NeoClassical patterns.

Gainsborough detail

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Thomas Linley the Elder, detail of frame

The swirling, organic ornament which characterizes the Rococo has been compacted here in the cartouches at the corners of the frame: two scrolling raffle leaves support a deeply fluted shell, and trail small floral sprigs down the main ogee moulding.  Otherwise the structure is a pared-down version of Rococo from which a stronger, more masculine form emerges, composed in straight lines and carrying three orders of decorative moulding: a leaf-tip back edge, a gadrooned top edge, and an acanthus leaf sight edge.  There is also a small sanded frieze next to the sight edge.  Minus the corner cartouches, this arrangement has elements in common with 18th century classicizing patterns – a ‘Carlo Maratta’, or a NeoClassical hollow frame.  It is very appropriate for male portraits of the 1760s-70s, where costume and colouring are in retreat from the extravagances of the mid-third of the century, and wigs are straightening out from the poodle clumps of the 1740s.

In 1996, when two frame exhibitions were put on in London – The Art of the Picture Frame at the National Portrait Gallery and Frameworks by Paul Mitchell Ltd – this painting by Gainsborough in its straight-sided Rococo frame was one of the works borrowed for the latter, to illustrate a stage in the complex choreography of frame styles through Europe in the 18th century.  It was shown alongside different nationalities and earlier forms of Rococo, such as the Italian swept frame of the late 1740s on Francesca de Mura’s Portrait of Count James Joseph O’Mahoney.

De Mura sm

Francesca de Mura, Portrait of Count James Joseph O’Mahoney, Lieutenant-General in the Neapolitan Service, Knight of St Januarius, c.1748, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Here, the swirl of the multi-scrolling rails with their pierced and engraved corners & centres and small demi-centres suits the billowing cloak and rather theatrical pose of the Count.  This is not the full-blown flamboyance of le genre pittoresque, however: this is the Italian Rococo – not so emphatically Baroque & sculptural as the French version, not so like shallowly-carved broderie anglais as the British, not so narrow in the rails and vast in the cartouche area as Scandinavian and German – but light, delicately ornamented, restrained.  In this respect the portrait and frame together make an interesting comparison with the Gainsborough and its frame: two men, painted twenty years apart, both in neutral earthy colours, a soldier and a musician; both set in what may well be the original Rococo frame in each case – frames which are appropriate for their subjects, similar in several features of their structure and lacking the operatic drama of many Rococo patterns.

The frame of the De Mura is still the richer and more resplendent of the two, and may even have been designed by De Mura himself; he certainly produced drawings of frames (De Mura, Portrait of a nobleman in a trophy frame, pen-&-ink, Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York).  It is covered all over with decorative punchwork, like lace; a characteristically Italian practice. The British frame is, as it were, more of an everyday design: costly, labour-intensive carving has been reduced by the choice of a straight-sided style, with the main part of the decoration confined to the corner cartouches.

Brit Carving model 2

British Rococo straight-sided frame with gadrooned top rail & corner cartouches, courtesy of Paul Mitchell Ltd.

Because of this everyday quality, and because its design breaks so easily into discrete quarters, this frame was an ideal pattern to reproduce for the Frameworks exhibition, as an example of how such an object would have been (and still is) executed.

Bottom left hand corner

British Rococo frame: bottom left-hand corner

The manufacturing process moves around the frame from the bottom left-hand corner.  The overall structure is made of pine, which became ubiquitous in Britain during the 18th century as it was soft, easy to carve and to obtain, rapidly-growing and prolific.  Earlier, from the 14th to the 16th century, frames were more frequently made of oak, which had also been very easily available at that time in Britain; since the styles then generally had little decorative carving, the relative hardness of oak was not a problem, and it was seen as hard-wearing and suitable for the stone and panelled interiors where it would hang, and had an attractive grain.  When carved decoration was required, limewood was often chosen, as it was as soft as pine, pale, close-textured, and also fairly easily obtainable.  Oak became less frequently used for frames as greater demands were made for it from the British navy, and also because it was much harder to carve.  Limewood enjoyed a huge boost in its use with the school of Grinling Gibbons in the 17th century, where carvers required a wood which could be transformed into fantasies of fruit, flowers, birds, lobsters and ears of corn, deeply undercut and reduced to the thinnest of slivers.  However, pine was the cheapest option, growing in use and popularity throughout the history of framing in Britain; often providing the base for frames veneered in other, more attractive woods, and capable of being easily laminated to give the requisite depth for high relief carving.

Bottom right hand corner

British Rococo frame: bottom right-hand corner

When the carcass of the frame has been cut to size by the joiner, and the design roughed out, the decorative elements can be carved.  Here, the corner cartouche with its raffle leaves, shell and trailing floral sprigs can be seen emerging from the wood; the mouldings along the separate limbs being carved in profile and then decorated with the appropriate motif.

Top right hand corner

British Rococo frame: top right-hand corner

The carving is brought to a high level of finish, and layers of gesso or whiting are then applied.  Gesso is made from extremely fine powdered chalk or gypsum, mixed with a size made from rabbitskin glue.  The resulting mixture is like a clay slip, but brilliantly white; it dries to an enamel-like finish which can be sanded and polished to give a surface as smooth as ivory, and can also be recut to sharpen the carving, and to add details such as leaf veins and surface texture.  Sand is added on top of the gesso in the small flat frieze next to the sight moulding; this gives a strong granular texture, and acts as a foil to the smoothness of the main ogee moulding.  Other things with greater heft than sand have been applied to frames in the past, in an effort to provide interest and variety: seashells have been glued on and over-gilded, and at least one large 19th century frame has had coffee beans stuck to its frieze.

Top left hand corner 2

British Rococo frame: top left-hand corner

The gesso and sand are then painted with yellow ochre as an underlayer for the gold leaf.  During the 19th century, the sides of a frame perpendicular to the wall surface might also sometimes be painted thickly with ochre and left, as a economizing substitute for gold leaf in an area which didn’t matter so much.  Whistler, for instance, asks for this to be done when he is ordering frames from Paris via his friend George Lucas. Gainsborough’s frame, however, is gilded on the sides as well.  Those parts of it which will be burnished to a shine are covered with a dark red gilder’s bole – a type of fine clay, which also comes in brown and a dark slate blue, enabling the eventual tint of the gold to be very subtly altered, from warmer to cooler.  The bole is sized, and gold leaf applied to the damp surface, to which it clings with a sort of magnetic attraction – a gentle breath will guide the leaves of gold around the contours and into the interstices of the carving.  When it’s dried, the gold can be burnished with a smooth piece of agate; this is very apparent in the top corner, where the burnished surfaces stand out darkly against the matte yellow areas.

Left hand side

British Rococo frame: left-hand side

The left-hand side of the frame shows three stages of the gilding, in which the brilliant sheen of the burnished gold has been taken back by glazing with films of size and pigment in order to give the effect of the patina of age. This is done to suit the ageing of the picture, and to avoid the frame appearing to leap from the wall in a crude sunburst of shiny gold.  And there is the frame! – produced in exactly the same manner as in the 18th century, all by hand, but costing a lot more proportionately in terms of labour than it would have done then.  A hand-carved antique frame is like a master sculpture: the product of knowledge, skill, and hours of work, just like the painting.  The perfect frame design, beautifully executed, forms a marriage with the picture so that there are no longer two objects but one complete work of art.


I am grateful to Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum for permission to publish images of their works, and especially to Paul Mitchell for the photos of the replica frame.