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Framing Conservation

Formal gathering
Credit

An unloved beloved element of museum collections, the frame mirrors the evolution of fashion, styles and museology; charts the history of economics, society, politics, religion and design. As it captures the eye and the light, one might notice that it too is an object of admiration and praise.

The frame protects the art it houses and, in this role, inevitably suffers damage caused by unsafe handling or shipping methods. Nevertheless, its raison d’être is to shine the spotlight on the artwork.

At the Museum, we seek to situate works in their era. The frame highlighting the object serves as a reference. To create or recreate a given historical context, there are three possible options: restore the historical frame, create a copy of the original frame or upcycle a disused frame (recovery and finishing). The chosen strategy will depend on budget, time and the moldings and frames we have in stock.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon

To assert his influence, Napoleon offered portraits of himself to his representatives. The portraits in ceremonial guard were set off by gilded wood frames, sumptuously adorned with typical symbols of empirical style: bees, bay leaves, and blossoms of honeysuckle, lotus and lily. Crowned by an imposing eagle overlooking the viewer, our work’s frame affirms the importance of the illustrious figure to the Empire.

In preparation for the exhibition Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace (2018), the frame needed to be restored to its original appearance. In fact, since its creation in the early 19th century, several generations of rather inadequate interventions had caused it to lose its lustre, therefore undermining its grandiloquent mission.

Before proceeding with the treatment, we conducted a preliminary probe, which led us to uncover more than 10 layers of accumulated materials – paint, lacquers, bronze paint, gesso, bole and several coats of gilding. It also revealed that the original surface was characterized by variegations in sheen. This effect was created by the juxtaposition of gilding with gold size (in the pearls, heart-leaves and inverted cavetto molding) and burnished water gilding (twists of the bay tree branches, eagle, floral ornaments, bees and flat surfaces). The restoration effort, which took the better part of over three months’ work, enabled us to clean, smooth out and clear the heavily laden surfaces to then recreate a satisfactory gilding that did justice to the carved reliefs and the complexity of gilding of that age.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The successive layers of restorations (some poorly executed) occluded the refined surface and ornaments.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The ornaments were scraped and filed down, and the flat surfaces were smoothed out. Note the white gesso (surface preparation prior to gilding).

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The reworked surfaces were then coated with a base layer (coloured clay and rabbitskin glue).

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The gilding of the leaves was applied to the prepared surfaces: gold size in some places, and water gilding in others.

BUST-LENGTH PORTRAIT OF NAPOLEON IN CEREMONIAL ROBES

The intense shine was removed from the new gold leaf, which was dyed to give it a more aged look.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The refined definition of the plumage was buried under the accumulated layers of varied materials used in past interventions.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The eagle’s feet before removal of the accumulated materials.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

A detail on the feet shows the refinement (right) revealed after removal of the excess material (left).

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

Scraping and cleaning of excess layers reveal a more delicate and nuanced sculpture.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

Losses were filled in and prepared with a new base layer.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

A new layer of gold leaf is applied to the prepared areas. The newly applied gold is very bright and shiny.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

A slight stressing and delicate patina effectively blend the new finish in with the natural aging of the original.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

Surface detail after integration treatment

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The eagle after treatment was completed

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The hollowed out circumference needed to be touched up to improve the clarity of the ornaments. Here, the prepared surface was coated with a base layer before applying the gold leaf.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

A bee during regilding

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

Bees before and after regilding

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The surface of the torso with its patina blending treatment.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

The layers of interventions reveal four (three, excluding the original gold coat) successive treatments, some of poor quality. Note how the accumulation of materials affected the crispness of the heart lines.

Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes

We found following layers laid over the original gilding. In chronological order: a second coat of gold leaf applied to the gold size, shellac, patina, red ochre paint (of undetermined nature), bronze paint (bronze powder mixed with linseed oil), gesso, bole, shellac, another layer of gold leaf applied to the gold size, and patina.

Formal gathering

This Chippendale-style Chinese frame was made in the 18th century, in the time of King George III, for the flourishing market of middle-class English collectors. These art lovers were as avid for this style of frame (prized by aristocrats) as they were for the highly fashionable Chinese art itself. To meet a growing demand for less expensive imitation luxury items, Chinese craftsmen worked quickly with affordable materials.

The frame enclosing our mirror was in fairly good condition when we acquired it, but its stability was compromised by a wide and deep fissure that cut across nearly the entire length of the upper portion. Despite a previous restoration, the crack was quite visible and was weakening the structure. Among other things, an excess of glossy glue had spilled over the fissure, spoiling the surface’s otherwise smooth and delicate appearance. Other flaws were noted, such as a loss of ornaments and the detachment of assemblages. We therefore needed to reinforce the weakened areas, ensure the integrity of the ornaments and make the surfaces uniform before exhibiting the work.

Visitors can now admire the painted mirror and its restored frame in the Asian art galleries of the Stephan Crétier and Stéphany Maillery Wing for the Arts of One World.

Formal gathering

Long, deep fissures cut across nearly the entire upper portion. Previously, they had been filled in with araldite. An excess of glue had spilled over the cracks, covering the gilding with a thick, glossy material.

Formal gathering

The old adhesive was removed and replaced with wood inserts and injections of acrylic glue.

Formal gathering

After the repairs, the surface of the fissures was filled in with pigmented wax and then finished with gold leaf.

Formal gathering

The wood assemblages were becoming detached in places, weakened by years of handling and shipment.

Formal gathering

Adhesive was injected into the openings. The ornaments were then held in place with clamps to secure them firmly.

Formal gathering

The fissure after regilding and patination.

Formal gathering

Another example of reinforcement and filling of a large crack using wood inserts and injections of glue.

Formal gathering

Gold leaf filling and patinated finishing.

Formal gathering

Note the coloured wax filling, which imitates the original bole.

Formal gathering

The filling is gold leaf. It was dyed to blend in with the rest of the frame.

Formal gathering

The upper fissure extended the entire thickness of the wood and needed to be reinforced. Insertions of wood and wood putty solidified the structure.

Formal gathering

In order to reinforce the cracks, natural glue was pasted onto strips of linen, which were then laid over the areas that were filled with wood.

Formal gathering

A base layer (animal glue and clay) was applied over the repairs to blend the treatments in with the rest of the frame.

A few examples of works restored

Conference - Frame and Framing in Canada History and Functions

The first academic conference on framing in Canada took place in October 2014. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts invited sixteen people (restorers, curators and scholars, as well as a framer and a gallerist) to share their experiences and expertise in this field.

Conference participants
Credit

The Conservation Department section on this site is funded by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec as part of the implementation of Measure 41 of Quebec’s Digital Culture Plan and by the Ville de Montréal under the Entente sur le développement culturel de Montréal.

Ville de Montréal
Gouvernement du Québec
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