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An eye for gilt frames

A painting has to be particularly inept to allow the eye to wander completely off the canvas to the frame. And the ubiquitous gilt frame has become so much of a clich'e that we scarcely ``read'' it at all. Yet anyone who has commissioned a frame from a good maker will have found that picture framing is an art in itself - an art that receives little appreciation, for generally the most successful frames are the least noticeable.

It is well worth keeping an eye open for good antique-carved wood picture frames, perhaps now doing duty to inferior paintings, or having been turned into mirrors. These have now acquired a value of their own as the cost of reproducing them mounts.

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The history of picture framing is a study which has hardly begun. In Britain, little attention had been paid to the subject until London's National Gallery held a seminar on the subject in 1980.

Earlier this year what was probably the first exhibition of designs for frames was held by Arnold Wiggins & Sons Ltd., framers by appointment to H.M. The Queen. Ever since artists ceased to paint directly onto walls and took to painting on portable canvases, frames have been considered crucial to the finished effect - that is, until this century, when many ``moderns'' decided to abandon them altogether.

Changes in style have frequently been brought about by architects, who designed frames to harmonize with details of interior decoration. But the actual makers have been shrouded in obscurity until very recent researches have begun to rediscover them. Apart from specialist frame makers, it is now known that some of the leading cabinet makers such as Thomas Chippendale, John Linnell, and Ince and Mayhew supplied frames to leading architects of the day.

Many 19th-century frames were made of a moulded composition. When gilded they can be difficult to distinguish, but are much less valuable. The fine point of a knife, gently pressed into an inconspicuous area at the back of a frame, will reveal soft wood or hard composition.

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