What goes around: The art of framing
The right frame doesn’t just set off a painting to perfection, it can also increase its sale value…
In July 2007 a magnificent painting came up for auction in the Important Old Master and British Pictures Sale at Christie’s London. Raphael’s portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino (1492 – 1519) (below) had originally been commissioned to seal the duke’s betrothal to Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, a cousin of the French King François I. The sumptuous, billowing, strawberry-red sleeves of the coat, the fine fur collar with its delicate, individually delineated hairs and the richly patterned gold velvet costume had been painted both to enhance the duke’s physical stature and to advertise his wealth, with the discreetly held gold box in his right hand indicating his dynastic legacy. It was the most important Raphael to come to sale since 1892.
In the run-up to the auction, the painting was not on general view. Those who asked to see it were taken into a special viewing room, where the painting was set like a precious relic in a magnificent Renaissance gold frame, surrounded by a curtain. Here it glowed with vivid intensity, the lighting in the room enhancing the masterfully painted play of light over the red, silver and gold clothing, the gilded frame strengthening the contrasting effect of the green background, the black hat and Lorenzo’s dark eyes. The eye of the viewer was attuned to the exaggerated curves of the Duke’s costume by the lively sinuous pattern of scrolling vine and foliage carved on the frame’s frieze, which also echoed the leaf pattern on the duke’s torso.
For the many people who saw the painting in those circumstances, the impact of the experience will have been crucial in their appreciation of the picture’s value. Yet when the painting sold for an astonishing £18.5 million (well beyond the top estimate of £15 million), then a world auction record for Raphael, who thought about the frame? Who would have imagined that, far from the being the one the painting had always inhabited, the frame had been bought specially for the occasion of the sale from one of the world’s leading experts by Richard Knight, co-head of Old Master Paintings? For Paul Mitchell, the scholar and dealer who sold the frame, it was its union with one of the greatest Renaissance paintings ever to grace a contemporary saleroom, and not the Medici nuptials, that represented the perfect marriage.
Frames are the Cinderellas of the art world; they do a tremendous amount of work. They protect the artworks they support; they show off the qualities of a picture, drawing attention to its formal structure, its patterns and colours, enabling them to resonate fully with a viewer; they mould the response of the viewer to the work by suggesting the value we should attach to it; they accommodate a painting to its setting, acting as a liaison between the dream world of art and the decorative scheme of the museum, gallery or private home the work inhabits. They are partly furniture and partly sculpture. At their best, they are works of art, carved by the foremost sculptors of their day, and yet their own brilliance must also serve that of the paintings they encase. As Dr Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, puts it drily in his elegant guide, A Closer Look At Frames: ‘Frames are thus not a marginal consideration in the history of art.’
Extract from Christie’s website