Paul Levi: Picture framer-maker and dealer expert in traditional techniques

Wednesday 31 December 2008 01:00

Paul Levi played a pivotal role in the transformation of picture framing in the decades following the Second World War.

He was taught by the gifted Czech-born picture framer F.A. Pollak, who, along with the art historian Johannes Wilde and the collector Count Antoine Seilern, encouraged him to study antique frames and the techniques that had been used to produce them. Until his retirement in 1996, Levi made a wide range of frames faithfully based on historic models for public and private clients, including for many of the greatest art collections of Europe and North America.

Paul Levi was born in Leipzig in 1919, the only son of the mathematician Friedrich Levi. His family left Germany in 1935 when his father, who was of Jewish ancestry, was barred from teaching. Friedrich emigrated to India with his wife and one of his daughters. Paul's other sister, Charlotte, went to the United States to join her mother's cousin, the physicist and later Nobel laureate Hans Bethe.

Separated from his family, the 16-year-old Levi was sent to England and Blundell's School in Devon. There he developed a great interest in carving and architecture, and won a BBC Listener schools' prize for sculpture. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Levi, as a German national, was interned on the Isle of Man. There he became friendly with other "enemy aliens," including Johannes Wilde, later deputy director of the Courtauld Institute, the future chemistry laureate Max Perutz and the mathematician Hermann Bondi. Subsequently he was sent to Canada.

Many of the internees in both locations developed quasi-university environments in the camps and, although small comfort, Levi found the lectures intellectually very stimulating. The main language was, not surprisingly, German, and this reinforced Levi's cultural heritage after two years at an English public school. In 1941 he was brought back from Canada and put to work as an agricultural labourer in East Anglia.

Soon after the end of the war he met the artist and frame-maker F.A. Pollak, and from around 1948, began collecting examples of antiqu e frames. A week spent in Holland in 1949 with a Courtauld Institute group was a revelation. He recognised that 16th-century Dutch frames could be dated precisely from the profiles of their mouldings when compared to a sequence of fixed points provided by dated paintings retaining their original frames. This systematic approach was to provide the bedrock for Levi's subsequent career, and in 1950 he set up his own workshop.

Levi also dealt in antique frames, because some clients preferred original frames adapted for their pictures. Consequently his collection was constantly evolving. Even today, when superb colour photography is routinely available, any frame-maker wishing to create top quality picture frames in historic styles must have access to real examples of the finest quality.

The intellectual approach adopted by Levi was one based on connoisseurship, at a time when the Modern movement increasingly dominated public museums and galleries. Franco Albini's decision, in 1950-51, to strip the frames from the Old Master paintings exhibited in the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa and display them naked against white walls represented the triumph of a very different aesthetic. Collectors such as Antoine Seilern and Sir Brinsley Ford adhered to traditional values, and employed Levi regularly, but few public collections followed their examples before the late 1970s.

The reframing of Dutch 17th-century paintings into black ripple moulding frames is becoming commonplace today; it was Levi who first reconstructed the machine required to cut those ripple mouldings. One of Levi's greatest successes was not achieved until after his retirement, and then in collaboration with a former protégé, William Adair, in Washington. Levi had, in 1967, purchased a huge Italian polyptych frame dating from c1490; in 1992 he sent it to Adair in that hope that he might be able to find the paintings it once contained and reunite them.

Eventually, research revealed that the frame, purchased in 1884, was deaccessioned by the V&A in 1967, that it once contained 11 paintings by Filippo Mazzola, and that they had formed an altarpiece in the church of S Maria delle Grazie at Cortemaggiore in Italy. Due to Levi's recognition of the outstanding quality of the orphan components when seen dissembled in London, and the researches of Adair, the reassembled polyptych is now back in Cortemaggiore. Levi's role and generosity in donating it were recognised by the Italian state in 2003 when he was awarded the rank of Cavaliere.

Peter Cannon-Brookes

Paul Levi, picture framer and dealer: born Leipzig, Germany 22 August 1919; married 1951 Paula Fuchs (three sons, two daughters); died Reading, Berkshire 5 August 2008.

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