The Art of Framing

Vu Cao Dam (Vietnamese, 1908-2000) Le Cavalier 1978, oil on canvas, 99 x 79.5cm | Sold for $118,750

A visit to the Louvre last year provided me with – and this will be no surprise to anyone – a visual overload. Amongst that, I was struck by a double-sided painting housed within the most lavish gilt frame and mounted on a similarly extravagant base. It was Daniele da Volterra’s David and Goliath, and you simply could not miss it, placed central to one of the long corridors. It challenged the accepted notion that the frame is the mere functional necessity, the very poor cousin, to the artist’s work. 

This idea, and the history of frames, has been pursued by all sorts of researchers and academics. I’ve always wanted to write on frames, and our recent sale of Vu Cao Dam’s Le Cavalier jolted me into action. Its exquisitely painted frame, original to the work and by the artist no less, tied it inextricably to the painting’s completeness, its originality. Olivia Fuller, our Head of Art, agreed. This was one of those rare examples where the artist’s hand, and mind, had extended beyond the canvas and into its housing, its frame! The act itself by the artist is as good as padlocking the frame to the work for eternity. That at least would have been the intention and should also remain the goal of every owner of the work who wants to ensure that optimal value is maintained via a respect for this originality. Yes, the work could be swapped out, but if it were to be, it would unquestionably alter its status. 

Why am I telling you all this? Because frames can harbour value in often less obvious, and rather simple ways. At the most basic level, they serve to protect the work from damage. We forget that the first function of the frame throughout history – grand and heavy religious commissions aside – was to protect artwork from falling or being dropped, and to make it easier to transport. Then, the frame’s purpose extends to the need to define the work on the wall and concentrate the gaze of the viewer. As the frame becomes more elaborate and imposing, its subtle competition with the canvas is driven by other intents.

William Delafield Cook (1936-2015) Louis XV Chinoiserie Commode, 1988 | Leonard Joel Collection

With portraits, it certainly seeks to make clear that the sitter is important, and with all other works, that the subject matter is important. In other ways, the frame’s artistry and complexity is not driven by ego or impact. Often it is that framers sometimes become artisans through their own passion. They decide that a frame can be more than just wood, gilt, or painted, and can speak with the painting, harmonise with it, and perhaps enhance it. 

Just such an example is William Delafield Cook’s work Louis XV Chinoiserie Commode with a beautifully enhanced frame to reflect the detail of the commode. If you’ll allow me to move this conversation into the auction world, I remember vividly the late Graham Joel often exclaiming from the rostrum during the sale of a work, “the frame’s worth more than that!” 

While the refrain lacked nuance, it certainly reminds me that so often we overlook the effort and artistry invested into these surrounds. Art specialists always look at the back of a painting for signposts of its history and ownership, but rarely do we dwell on the frame. Granted, a simple contemporary floating box mount doesn’t warrant contemplation, but when a frame does present complexity, I urge you to explore that, however brief that journey may be.

JOHN ALBRECHT / Chairman & Head of /Important Collections

Banner Image: Daniele da Volterra (1509–1566)  David and Goliath, Musée du Louvre / Alamy

October 2023