Framing a Benjamin Williams Leader Landscape

Just finished framing this spectacular 1875 Alpine landscape oil painting by British artist Benjamin Williams Leader (1831 – 1923), titled “The Wetterhorn from Rosenlaui.” At 72″ x 60″ it has a powerful presence (see last photo for scale). Commissioned by a Member of Parliament, John Derby Allcroft, the year it was painted it was displayed at the Royal Academy, where Leader’s work was shown in every summer exhibition from 1854 through 1922.

We made a 6″ wide stained quartersawn white oak compound frame with a chamfered mortise-and-tenon flat and gilt oak liner. The chamfer has carved points that articulate the corners with a detail that also picks up a form pervasive in the painting.

Corner detail

Below is the painting in its old Victorian makeshift frame—a conventional 19th century exhibition frame heavy on compo (molded plaster-like material meant to pass itself off as carving).

Clearly influenced by John Ruskin’s pleas to painters to go to nature, to see her both truly and reverently—and sharing with Ruskin a passion for the Swiss Alps—Leader contributed in his way to the great project of re-framing art, led by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. I wonder if, while breaking with convention on the canvas itself, he followed the Pre-Raphaelites, Whistler and others to make his ideals real in the form of the picture frame itself. If so, I hope our efforts would have met with his approval.

This is the third Leader we’ve had the privilege of framing. Another is on my site, here.

View this Leader in the Portfolio…

The painting with Eric Johnson next to it to give a sense of scale (Eric’s over 6′ tall).

Re-framing Thaddeus Welch

Thaddeus Welch (1844-1919) was one of the great historic California landscape painters. This classic bucolic hillside scene by Welch came in recently, the customer looking to free it from a typical period compo frame which he rightly judged to be pretentious and unsuitable to the rustic spirit of the painting.

Before

Here it is in its new quartersawn white oak frame in a dark stain matching the shadows and sympathetic with the forms of the hills, with simple fine beading to pick up the delicate line work in the painting (especially the trees)—and much more suitable to the spirit of nature that so moved Welch.

After

Re-framing a Sydney Yard Watercolor

A follow-up to the last entry, here’s a wonderful example of a watercolor by one of California’s premiere early watercolorists, Sydney Janis Yard (1855-1909). This is a frame we’ve used before, for other, similar California watercolors — by Percy Grey — but this job offers the re-framing aspect to the story.
Before

The “before” shot demonstrates the typical conventional contemporary framing approach for this type of piece. The silk mat and curly-cue gold frame seem intended for nothing but projecting an air of sophistication around the painting. The glaring white mat contrasts so much with the deep shadowy tones of the painting that it actually interferes with the eye’s ability to adjust to the light the artist captures so effectively. In so doing, it spoils the painting. The incongruous framing not only fails to serve the painting itself, but creates a harsh divide between the painting and its surroundings. The gold frame may not look too bad in the photo above, but is a production compo molding nailed together. One corner was already broken. The frame didn’t hold up to scrutiny — or to life (see detail below)!

Corner of old frame

What the painting needed instead was a dark frame, quiet and soft in profile, with just a halo of gold to highlight it on the wall while continuing and sustaining the spirit of the picture into the architectural realm.

After

Titled “Under the Oaks,” the painting’s rustic spirit — completely ignored by the previous framing —  and of course the oak trees Yard painted called unquestionably for an oak frame. (The protective aspect of the oak frame is another level of meaning for a depiction of oak trees sheltering a shepherd.) This is a simple 2-3/4″ wide scoop in our Century Series (No. 308.2) around a 3/4″ ogee liner oil gilded with 23 kt leaf. We stained the scoop a burnt umber (our Medieval Oak stain) matching the shadows — the frame being a shadow effect around the painting, to draw your eye to the lighter painting. Two fine reeds at the sight edge of the dark molding echo some of the fine details in the painting. A closer view of the frame:

No. 308.2 (“Michigan”) — 2-3/4″ with 3/4″ gilt oak ogee liner

Taking the time to craft the frame well with splined closed corners (finished after joining) and attention to finishing off every detail actually has an aesthetic effect, a sense of caring made tangible, not conveyed by digital photos.

The piece is framed archivally by using a hidden, or “gasket,” mat under the liner. It’s purpose is to separate the picture from the glazing (in this case u.v.-filtering acrylic). The rabbet is lined with a metal tape to isolate the acids in the wood from the watercolor paper.

Thank you to Montgomery Gallery, where this beautiful painting is available.

Re-framing Hanson Puthuff

The landscape paintings of Hanson Puthoff (1875-1972) made a major contribution to California’s rich heritage of landscape painting. Unfortunately, his pieces did not always find their way into frames that do them justice. Here’s one example we had the honor of re-framing this week, taking it out of a machine-made, gold painted compo setting and putting it in a handcrafted, carved quartersawn oak frame. Here it is before and after:

 A well-made, simple home. A 3″ bevel profile (canvas is 11-1/2″ x 15″) with a 45 degree carved chamfer sight edge. Close-ups:

Here’s a profile view of the frame:

Re-framing a New—and Much Larger—Rosa Bonheur

Last year we re-framed a couple of paintings of stags, both by premiere nineteenth century French wildlife painter Rosa Bonheur, which I blogged about here. We just did another one, and at 48″ x 36″ it’s considerably bigger than the first two. First, here it is in the compo exhibition frame that we were to replace:

And here it is now:

Given the log house setting it’s going in, our solution leans more to the rustic than it might have considering the highly formal (I generally use the term in reference to form, not sophistication and refinement) treatment of the subject matter. But having the frame come out of the same appreciation of the beauty of nature and handcraft that the painting does—especially in contrast to the original frame—more than makes up for whatever formal refinement we left out of the profile. (For a more formal profile on a similar painting, see the earlier entry on re-framing Bonheur stags, here.) I stand by it as a far more sympathetic setting than was the old frame, and far more successful at the primary job of a frame, which is to help us see the picture. Any rejection of pretentiousness and false luxury in art is a step in the right direction! Taking a picture from an exhibitionist presentation to one in harmony and sympathy with the picture is fulfilling one of my favorite William Morris phrases: “for beauty’s sake and not for show.”

This is a compound frame with a mortise-and-tenon flat, a carved cap-molding and carved and gilt liner. After that wonderful reward of the framer—the moment when you finish fitting the picture and turn over the completed piece to see it—Trevor and I were struck by how the highlights were enhanced. Is it the gilt liner, the darker frame, or the combination? Beyond that, I can’t add anything that I didn’t say in the previous Bonheur re-framing example.

Here’s a corner detail:

Trevor Davis gets credit for making it. Here’s the proud craftsman—giving you a sense of the scale of the piece, too.

From Gold to Oak—II: 19th Century British Still Life

This is another re-framing job that we did maybe a year ago. It’s a still life, oil on canvas, by 19th century British painter Edward Liddell. Here’s how it was framed when it came in:

And how it looked after we re-framed it in stained quartersawn white oak to be more in sympathy with its rustic spirit:
Here’s the profile, fairly flat over all, but refined and with beads all keyed to the highly formal and finely drawn painting:

From Gold to Oak—I: Re-Framing Rosa Bonheur Stags

The theme of this post, replacing gilt frames with dark wood frames, has since been greatly expanded upon on a page created a couple years later, “Fixing ‘A Very Prevalent Error: The Cabinetmaker’s Answer to the Gold Frame Convention,” here.

Have you ever looked at a painting and realized that you were fighting to see past the frame, that the frame was actually inhibiting you from seeing the painting? Maybe you’ve held your hands up to one eye and used them to block out the frame. That was very much my reaction—and I suspect the reaction of the customer who brought it to me—when I first laid eyes on this sweet little oil by the great French painter Rosa Bonheur. The elaborate, swirly gold frame was so imperious, showy and unsympathetic to everything about the picture—the subject, palette, line work, forms and, above all, the rustic spirit—that it actually felt laborious to really study and appreciate the painting itself. (The owner was also seeking a frame that would be more suitable to the painting’s destination in a log home.) At just a little over 8″ x 6″, it was being eaten alive by some past owner’s or dealer’s insecurities (it didn’t help that a makeshift gold colored liner had been used to make the painting fit a 10″ x 8″ frame). The poor creature appears inexplicably displaced to some Parisian bank manager’s parlor, and seems to stare at us as if to say, “What the heck am I doing here?”

Relief finally came when I removed the work from its setting and could enjoy this stately fellow whom Mademoiselle Bonheur had distinguished so skillfully. Seeing past the significance of the painting and refusing to be awed by the signature in order to appreciate the work itself, I could craft no better solution than this plain and simple 2-5/8″ wide flattened scoop with a single bead at the sight edge. At last, we can see the painting without effort, and the stag is in his natural habitat, warily watching us as intruders of his home.

A larger Bonheur of similar subject matter came in about a year later, with a similarly overbearing frame. Damaged in transit, the composition—or “compo”—breaking off demonstrates the dubious

service of frames like this as protectors of paintings, not to mention the debased character of compo as fake carving. At 22″ x 18″, this canvas called for a larger and stronger frame, although with the same approach to line and form which we’d taken with framing the earlier painting.

The suitably rustic spirit of the quartersawn white oak frame molded to harmonize in line and form with this quiet but accomplished work, a dark stain to lead the eye to the lighter painting (the eye goes to light; frames are generally more successful when they’re darker than the picture), and a touch of pale gold leaf on oak at the sight edge to echo the painting’s contrasts and lend a note of honor to this noble beast all contribute to a setting that sustains and expands the spirit of this fine work and allows us at last to see and admire the painting.