Period paintings look better in period frames, but finding that frame can prove tricky! Dating a portrait and researching its history is a great place to start, occasionally I use curators or historians, and when I do their help proves invaluable. For inspiration I visit exhibitions, fairs or museums to view a wide range of frames, from all periods, and in all sizes. I try not to get hung up on 'style' choices (colour, material finish etc) making sensitivity to period my major consideration.
Now the demand for frames is rising, they are celebrated as works of art in their own right. Infact the price of frames from the 17th through 19th centuries have escalated in the last decade. The most expensive and hardest to find are the simple, hand-carved 17th-century frames that curators covet. So my main concern, is often.....can I bring this project in on budget?
Until last month, late at night and scrolling square - eyed, my heart skipped a beat! Had I finally spotted a picture frame that was a work of art? Located at an auction house in Antibes, and listed simply as 'Antique Mirror - Italian' I had1 It was in fact the holy grail of frames: A Mid-Late 17th English Auricular Sunderland Frame Carved Gilded Top Cartouche, Bottom Grotesque Mask and Serrated Sight Edge (see image below)
A phone line was booked for the next day, but as I watched the auction live online a nightmare unfolded. The lot came...the lot went, all sans call and sans contact. With my heart in my mouth I dialled the auction house, somehow I was connected mid-auction, no-one had bid... the beauty could infact be mine.
The Sunderland is an extraordinary and uniquely British frame style that went out of fashion in the 1680s as more regular or architectural patterns came to dominate. It takes its name from Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, many of whose pictures at Althorp are framed in the style. Fashionable from the 1660s to the 1680s, the auricular, means literally 'of the ear', so this particular frame style is a riotous celebration of fantastic, fleshy, and organic ornament. Just look at the distinctive carving, with a cartouche at the top and mask at the bottom, and also at the way the serrated inner sight edge, breaks into the painted area.
Like most art dealers I realised that removing the looking glass would return it to its former use. I also knew that it would make a perfect marriage with a particularly fine 17th century portrait from the same period, it would also release it from a rather dull painted wooden frame (see below)
The same weekend I found myself at Ham House in Richmond. With very few decorative changes made over the last three hundred years, it really is deserving of its reputation as a Sleeping Beauty. Infact each time I visit this 17th century treasure trove on the banks of the River Thames it serves up more paintings, furniture and textiles. On this visit in The Long Gallery I was thrilled to see the finest fleet of Sunderland frames.
The portraits in The Long Gallery really are slices of history, so I did my best to identify the twenty three (count them) sitters. Yes it was no mean feat, but now I have put names to faces then with a little research and reading I can bring them further to life. These portraits may be highly decorative, but they become much more engaging when personal stories begin to unravel! The house itself is said to be one of the most haunted in Britain, with some visitors having reported the smell of sweet Virginia pipe tobacco that the Duke used to smoke after dinner. Spooks aside here are a handful of riotous frames that spoke to me just as much as their sitters. Enjoy!
If you happen to be searching for a similar period frame yourself, then why not try:
Daggett Gallery, 225 Kensington Church Street, London W8 7LX Tel +44 (0) 207 229 2248
The Lacy Gallery, 203 Westbourbe Grove, London W11 2SB Tel +44 (0) 2072299105
Nick Cox, Period Portraits, June 2018.