Three exhibitions are currently on show in London that are putting frames in the picture. At the National Portrait Gallery The Art of the Picture Frame traces the development of portrait framing in Britain over the past 500 years. Two more intimate exhibitions are at Paul Mitchell in New Bond Street, a European complement to that at the NPG (part sponsored by Mitchell) entitled Frameworks, and at Arnold Wiggins & Sons in St James called simply A Hang of English Frames 1620-1920.
Though frames define so many boundaries of our everyday life, we often take very little notice of them. "In the frame", "you've been framed"; we are on colloquial terms with the message, and the medium is all around us: the proscenium arch of a theatre, the rectangle of a television / film screen or camera lens (through which life is fictionalised, imitated or documented), a window, door or spectacles (through which different perspectives are seen). Picture frames may have edged to the periphery of the public mind because in books, on postcards or posters, paintings are mainly documented or reproduced without them. There are a million reproductions of the Mona Lisa, but how many with her frame on?
The autonomy of the European frame arose during the Renaissance, an age of humanism and growing commercialism. Paintings had previously been the icons, frescoes, altarpieces and devotional panels of fixed ecclesiastical abode, formed as one with their surround; their main function one of providing a focus for reverence. It was their emergence as objects of patronage and commercial value that meant they had to be framed - protected as movable items and enhanced as purchaseable ones - items of reverence in a predominantly sacred world becoming objects of value and prestige in an increasingly secular one.
A purchased painting changes hands, the new possessor often putting their own frame upon it like a proof of ownership. Very few paintings have remained within their original surround. Only a generation ago, "Burner" Bagnell, a London scrap merchant, would come round the galleries with his son Horace collecting discarded frames in order to burn them for the gold in their gilding (an economy the Nazis also undertook during the war).
Over the past 10 years, however, major international exhibitions on the art, structure, techniques and significance of frames have been held in Chicago, New York, Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris and now London. In 1989, Christies began to hold regular frame auctions: a rare frame is now often worth more than the painting it surrounds. The art of the margin is not only regaining identity but might even be in line for its own generic, like an art-critical knighthood: Peripheral Art.
Or peripheral architecture. Frames can be seen as architectural form in miniature and have changed accordingly with its fashions, in harmony with interiors, door and window surrounds: like ornamental bridges between the pictorial space they surround and the architectural space that surrounds them. They have often taken their names from leading architects of their day: the boldly baroque Sansovino, named after the 16th-century Italian architect (and popular here during the 17th century); the neoclassical Palladian (after Palladio); and Kent after William Kent who, in the 1720s, designed new frames for the portraits and old masters in Kensington Palace to match his new interiors.
Today, in the National Gallery's new Sainsbury Wing, it appears that frame has dictated architecture, with the lintels and arches of the galleries providing perfectly balanced perspectives to the old frames surrounding masterpieces by Della Francesca, Raphael and Cima. On the other hand, Botticini's Assumption of the Virgin was recently removed from its existing 19th-century gilt frame (considered unsuitable for the spot where it was to be hung, at the top of the stone steps leading up to the first floor) and given a new surround designed to echo the shape of the stairway's steel handrail (although it is still traditionally gilded).
From well before the Renaissance, right through to the end of the 19th century, gilding has been predominant, not only, as Poussin remarked, because it "unites very sweetly with the colours without clashing". On the Continent, especially an early Catholic Continent, it might direct the focus of the pious to a picture even if hung in the darkest shadows of a church. In London, at the Royal Academy annual exhibitions (which began in 1768), it guaranteed the attention of a blossoming art market, the pictures crowded together, frame to frame, almost hidden by a wall of gold. By the time Percy Fitzgerald was writing in the Art Journal of 1886 that the gold suggested "an abstract boundary or zone between the vulgar surrounding world and the sort of spiritual life of Art", he was on dangerous ground. For, as the century drew to a close, the vulgarity had encroached upon the frames themselves - their overgilt elaborations threatening to upstage the very pictures they were meant to set off. So much "eye-catching fluff", as one former director of New York's Museum of Modern Art once put it.
The inevitable reaction had to come: the simple white frames of the Impressionists and the experiments of the 20th century - from Surrealist iconoclasm to, ultimately, no frame at all. The naked canvas. In the words of Gertrude Stein, "the need that a picture exist in its frame, remain in its frame was over". Picasso's famous portrait of Stein was left intentionally unframed in 1906, though found framed in her studio two years later. Stein may have theorised in print but in practice she did according to her taste, and exercised her owner's prerogative to change her mind as easily as her portrait's frame. But is it only owners for whom frames are a matter of taste or is it true of artists too (always excepting cave painters and graffiti artists, of course, whose "canvases" are as broad as they are long)? Possibly. William Morris, for example, wrote in 1891 that a picture should have a "definite, harmonious conscious beauty. It ought to be ornamental. It ought to be possible for it to be part of a beautiful whole in a room, or church, or hall". It was more a matter of necessity to Van Gogh, for whom a painting was not really finished until it was framed, before which it was still "in the raw". Maybe more a matter of ego for John Bratby, who gave instructions not to frame his canvases - any "encroachment upon the periphery of the picture-surface" impairing "the artist's pristine visual conception".
It is more a gentle game of iconography for Humphrey Ocean, who likes to surround his portraits with references: AJ Ayer (the logical positivist) in a white frame for purity of thought (in the NPG); the soccer player Daniel McGrain (at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) with football studs around, like a modern-day Trophy frame. For Howard Hodgkin, currently enjoying a retrospective at the Hayward, and a painter whose brilliant fields of coloured emotion are self-framing, it is a very personal matter: "My pictures often include a frame which I paint on as part of the painting. I sometimes go to immense lengths to, as it were, fortify them before they leave the studio. The more evanescent the emotion I want to convey, the thicker the panel, the heavier the framing, the more elaborate the border, so that this delicate thing will remain protected and intact."
For today's curators, framing is also as much a matter of taste as of honouring historical authenticity or maintaining visual coherence within a gallery. At the Wallace Collection, Frans Hals's Laughing Cavalier bobs almost alone amid a sea of 19th-century gilt, reclothed by a previous curator in a more "authentic" dark ripple frame. But recently, the collection's Rembrandt Titus has been returned to its late-Victorian party frock, having spent several years isolated from the crowd in a simple black number. Taste dictates that in one gallery old Renaissance masters are being shorn of their frames and strung up on bare walls, while in another they're being married to the best possible partner, as if by some earnest, art- historical dating agency. The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto may have had the last word: it recently acquired a collection of frames alonen
`The Art of the Picture Frame', National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (0171-306 0055) to 9 Feb 1997; `Frameworks', Paul Mitchell, 90 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-493 8732) to 8 Feb 1997; `A Hang of English Frames', Arnold Wiggins, Bury St, London SW1 (0171-925 0195) to 20 Dec