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Questions to a frame conservator

conservator examining a frame

Read more about the frame conservation| section on this website.

What is the oldest thing you have worked on?

The oldest item I have worked with is Christ Discovered in the Temple| by Simone Martini, which was painted in 1342. I was involved in designing a micro-clime box to house the wooden panel, then in fitting the painting into the box and designing and manufacturing a new display frame. The painting is currently on display at the Walker Art Gallery.

'Christ Discovered in the Temple' by Simone Martini 'Virgin and Child in Glory ' by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

What is the biggest thing you have worked on?

The biggest frame I have worked with is Virgin and Child in Glory| by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. I was involved in designing, manufacturing and the gilding of a new display frame to incorporate the original carved gilt frame for the painting that is currently on display at the Walker Art Gallery.

What are rabbit skin glue granules?

Rabbit skin glue granules are made from ground bones. They are used to make rabbit skin glue size (see below).

What is rabbit skin glue size?

Rabbit skin glue size is made from the rabbit skin glue granules and hot water. The mixture is heated until the granules have melted into the hot water (see below).

Rabbit skin glue granules Rabbit skin granules melted into hot water Whiting

What is whiting?

Whiting is a finely ground chalk (see above).

What is gesso?

Gesso is made from whiting heated with rabbit skin glue size. It is mixed together until it's like a consistency of single cream. The gesso acts as a cushion for the gold leaf to sit on, it also fills in the wood grain of the frame (see above).

What is bole?

Bole is made from coloured clay and is mixed with and the heated rabbit skin glue size. The bole comes in different colours. The main colours are yellow, red and black bole.

Wet red bole Rabbit skin granules melted into hot water to make rabbit skin glue size

Do you paint the gold on to the frame?

The gold is beaten out to a very thin sheet of metal and is put into a book between tissue paper. The book contains 25 leaves of gold. The gold leaf is laid and glued onto the frame by water or oil size. The gold in the photograph below is 23.5 carat and the size is 80mm x 80mm.

What is oil size?

Oil size is a type of vanish that is painted over the area on the frame to be gilded. The oil size comes in different drying times, 3 hour, 12 hour or 24 hour.

Gold leaf Oil size Gilders cushion, tip, gold and knife

How do you handle the gold?

The gold is placed onto a pad called a gilder's cushion then the gold is cut to size required using a gilders knife. The gold is then lifted from the cushion using a gilders tip.

What are the surface decorations of frames made from?

Most frames with decorations on are made using a composition compound. The composition (compo) is made from pearl glue, raw linseed oil, colophony (pine rosin) and whiting. The pearl glue, the raw linseed oil and the colophony are melted together. The whiting is introduced to the liquid and made into putty. The putty would be pressed into a wooden block mould and left to dry before removing.

Pearl glue Colophony Raw linseed oil Whiting Composite decorative element

How did you become a frame conservator?

From 1968 to 1972 I completed a four year apprenticeship as a cabinet joiner at Cammel Lairds Shipbuilders, Birkenhead. In 1976 I moved to the Walker Art Gallery as a joiner. After two years at the Walker Art Gallery I was appointed Foreman Joiner. At that point I started to take more interest in the frames from the collection. I was encouraged by my colleagues to attend different courses relating to gilding, applying surface decorations and other related disciplines. Over a number of years I have re-trained myself as a gilder and frame conservator. In 1986 I was asked to set up a frame conservation studio and was promoted to Head of Frame Conservation.

Read more in the Considering a career in conservation| pages of the Get involved section of the website.