COLLECTABLES / Decoration on the borders of art: In the Fifties, antique frames were burnt for their gold. Now they are as sought after as the paintings they surround, writes Madeleine Marsh

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MOST people can understand the appeal of having a Van Gogh on your wall - even if it is purely financial. But who in their right mind would display an empty frame? A new breed of art collector is doing just that. 'Wall to wall frames can look very impressive,' says John Davies, a framer and dealer with a shop in London's St James's. 'There is something very quirky about them. A frame without a picture leaves an awful lot to the imagination - they are like ideas.'

A few doors away in the same street, 300 empty frames are exhibited on the wall of Arnold Wiggins & Sons Ltd, one of the world's leading frame dealers, makers and restorers. Their wares range in price from pounds 5,000 to pounds 65,000; it is only recently, however, that frames have been valued so highly. In the Fifties, a horse and cart would come round the West End galleries collecting old gilt picture frames, to be burnt for the gold. In the Sixties, when severe Scandinavian was the decorative rage, wonderful 19th-century frames were often simply junked.

But in the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a change. 'People have become aware that it is ludicrous to spend millions on a picture and leave it with an embarrassing and inappropriate frame,' says Michael Gregory, director of Arnold Wiggins.

The National Gallery in London held its first seminar on frames as recently as 1980; this was followed by major exhibitions on the subject in Amsterdam, Chicago and New York. In 1989, Christie's began to hold picture-frame sales and in December of that year an English frame made a record price of pounds 33,000, doubling its auction estimate.

During the Sixties and Seventies, many museums dismissed gilded surrounds as, in the words of the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 'eye-catching fluff' - outdated and aesthetically damaging. Period frames on works by Cezanne and Van Gogh were replaced with simple narrow mouldings. Sir Kenneth Clark expressed his distress that these minimalist 'strips of wood' were making an appearance even in the galleries of the Royal Academy, comparing them sniffily to 'the man who attended an Academy banquet in a sports shirt and grey bags - sincere but inappropriate'.

Opinions still vary as to the principles of 'correct' framing. While the perfect frame is generally thought to be one that matches its picture in both style and date, it is also considered appropriate today to place the works of the modern masters - Picasso, Cezanne - in 17th-century Italian and Spanish frames which formerly contained Old Masters, thus implicitly underlining their stature. Certain anachronisms are quite acceptable. As James Bruce- Gardyne of Christie's explains, many of the Impressionists in the National Gallery are in French 18th-century frames. 'In many cases, these would be what the artists used, because these frames were extremely cheap and readily available. Quite often they will have lost their gilt, and will be covered in a creamy wash from having been left hanging outside the local junk shop.'

Perhaps because of this lack of a consistent philosophy of picture- framing, it still seems to be early days for the collectors' market; prices remain low in comparison with other decorative objects of a comparable age. At Christie's South Kensington, prices for 19th-century plaster frames can begin at pounds 50 or even lower. 'Frames are one of the last collectable items that haven't really hit the big time,' says John Davies.

As Nicholas Penny of the National Gallery admits, it is frame-dealers themselves - such as Paul Mitchell and Arnold Wiggins and Sons - who have triggered this new interest in antique frames. Wiggins are frame-dealers and makers to major art institutions across the world, supplying everyone from royalty down. With their stock of some 4,000 antique frames (one of the largest collections in existence), dating from the 15th century onwards, they can act as a decorative dating agency - fully computerised - uniting pictures and suitable frames.

It is a process that can take years of research, as an appropriate frame is hunted in collections across the world; or just a few minutes, when occasionally a picture will fit a frame from Wiggins' own stock, providing a perfect match not only in style and date but even in size.

The great joy, says director Michael Gregory, is making 'an ideal marriage'. On one satisfying occasion a frame from their collection was being tried on a portrait of a 17th-century English gentleman, which it fitted like Cinderella's slipper. Observing the process, someone from the gallery which owned the picture remarked that the identity of the sitter had just been discovered; they realised that this was the name inscribed on the frame's tablet along with that of the artist. They had stumbled on the original surround.

Although chance plays a part in such happy reunions, ultimately you make your own luck through serious research. Over the years, Wiggins Ltd has assembled a unique reference archive. Although such figures as Adam, Hogarth and Chippendale produced designs for frames, very little is known about frame-makers themselves. Before the 19th century, however magnificent or expensive a frame (and they could cost more than the painting they held), it was rarely signed, labelled, or stamped, making it difficult to identify individual craftsmen. Frames followed fashion and would be replaced when a picture changed hands or a room was redecorated. Some of the best 18th- century French frames in the National Gallery were made for Dutch 17th-century pictures and Christie's frame expert James Bruce-Gardyne estimates that only 2 per cent of Old Masters coming to auction retain their original frames.

Although the maker may remain anonymous, antique frames can provide an insight into the culture that produced them. As Bruce-Gardyne points out, 17th-century Spanish pictures were housed in poorly lit churches where their solid, brilliantly gilded frames with high-relief carving reflected the candlelight,

enabling a picture to command attention from a distance. In contrast, Dutch frames of the period - simple, square and ebonised - were designed for more domestic subjects in more homely settings, their dark and restrained style mirroring the plainer tastes of a Protestant nation.

Another attraction for collectors is the very high quality of craftsmanship in period frames. The manufacture of a carved gilt frame was an astonishingly laborious process involving three distinct skills. A joiner created the basic wooden structure, which was then worked by a carver. This bare frame was passed to a gilder, who covered it with seven or eight layers of gesso (plaster) and returned it to the carver, who would rework the carving and cut new shallow designs into the plaster. Next, the frame went back to the gilder, who, after further complicated procedures, applied the gold leaf.

Whether a frame has its original gilding is one of the most important elements determining its value. 'People have a habit of going over the frame with a damp rag and being amazed that the gold disappears,' sighs John Davies. Nineteenth-century craftsmen's manuals recommended cleaning with urine or gin but the current advice is: do not clean, just dust, and when restoration is required, go to a gilder.

Good antique frames, says Davies, can offer superlative craftsmanship in immaculate condition at a fraction of the price of a comparable piece of furniture. 'Look at those,' challenges Michael Gregory, pointing to a selection of fine 16th- and 17th-century frames adorning his walls. 'If you could find furniture of those dates with the original surface and gilding, it would be a miracle. Most furniture has been messed around with or regilded. Frames, because they were subsidiary to pictures, were often left untouched.'

'An antique mirror could set you back tens of thousands,' says James Bruce-Gardyne, 'whilst for two thousand you could buy an equally fine frame, say 17th-century Italian - a piece of sculpture, almost, that has never been altered or regilded - and then add a mirror. That is one reason why we get so many interior decorators at our sales.'

Other regular frame purchasers include art dealers, picture collectors and museums (the National Gallery is currently looking for a frame for its new Holbein). While a good frame can improve a picture both in terms of value and aesthetically, some enthusiasts also buy frames for their own sake, hanging them empty as independent works of art. These collectors tend to buy the more sculptural frames, harder to sell elsewhere because they are too overpowering for many paintings. 'A frame is like a good accompanist to a soloist - one doesn't want to overplay,' Michael Gregory says.

It is generally agreed that a great picture deserves a great frame. But it is ironic that, in one sense, the more successful the frame, the more invisible it is - indistinguishable from one's impression of a painting. Perhaps this is one reason why their study has been neglected. 'After all,' says James Bruce-Gardyne, 'you only really notice a frame round a picture when it is bad.'


Arnold Wiggins and Sons Ltd, 4 Bury St, St James's, London SW1 (071-925 0195).

Paul Mitchell Ltd, 99 New Bond St, London W1 (071-493 8732).

John Davies Framing Ltd, 8 Bury St, St James's, London SW1 (071- 930 7795).


Christie's, 8 King St, St James's,

London SW1 (071-839 9060).

Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Rd, London SW7 (071-581 7611).

Bonhams Montpelier Galleries, Montpelier St, London SW7 (071- 584 9161).

Other auction houses will also have occasional specialist sales.

(Photograph omitted)