Looking at Antique Picture Frames

Antique picture frames have a language all their own. The surfaces, the shape of the sticks, the joints that hold them in place—all these elements work together to reveal the secrets of these oft neglected caretakers of art.  For twenty-five years I have been immersed in the world of period frames: spending hours on the road looking for frames at antique shops, auctions, and shows, which I display on my website at http://www.marywebster.com.  When I go to art galleries with friends, they tease me that I spend more time looking at the frames than what’s inside them.   But frames are artworks too, I say.  I have my favorites hanging empty on my walls, one inside the other, frames framing frames.

The frames that I know best are not museum masterpieces.  They are Early Nineteenth Century painted frames made for school girl art and simple gilded surrounds that once protected the work of itinerant New England portrait painters.  They are the countless frames made for photographs and chromo-lithographs, revolutionary new technologies that appeared in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, democratizing image-making—walnut frames with rustic carving and rippled frames with gilded surfaces that glistened in gas-lit Victorian parlors.  They are miniatures that complemented early silhouettes and likenesses painted on ivory, and quarter-sawed oak frames that satisfied the back-to-basics aesthetic that the Arts and Crafts Movement espoused at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.   They are, in fact, the very sort of frames that you too may discover on the wall at your favorite antique emporium or inherit from your grandmother.

In all these years I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to know, but my long experience has given me valuable lessons in how to look at period frames.  I’d like to share that knowledge with you on this blog.

Surface, profile, nails, glass, hanging devices—we’ll examine each of these essential elements in turn.  Words, of course, cannot replace decades of holding the heft of the wood in your hands or running your fingers across a pristine gilded surface.  Nor are they a substitute for learning from your mistakes.  But the more knowledgeable you are about what to look for in period frame, the less likely you are to be disappointed when you unwrap the purchase you couldn’t resist on eBay.  Over the years I’ve assembled a kind of mental checklist.  I’d like to help you create one of your own.

Those of you who have visited my website know how interested I am in the history of frames.  I get many, many emails asking me to identify the style and date of a frame that has been in your family for generations or one that you picked up a garage sale.  Clearly you have an interest in learning more about frames.  I look forward to carrying on that conversation here.

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