Frames: a love story

The Yale Center for British Art is leading the fight to put frames back in the foreground of artistic discussion.

In late December, the British Art Center added nearly 100 historic frames to its online collections database. According to Matthew Hargraves, associate curator and head of Collections Information and Access, the move online is part of an effort to generate more interest in frames within the museum itself and foster greater research in the decorative arts around the world.

“Hopefully when people visit the museum, they will spend some time looking at the frame and thinking of the frame as its own sort of object,” Hargraves said.

Though the British Art Center was aware it possessed a large collection of historic frames — close to 2,000 — Hargraves said Director Amy Meyers GRD ’85 chose to re-evaluate the collection three years ago. She approached frame dealer and scholar Paul Mitchell in 2009 to survey the British Art Center’s frame collection. While Mitchell had surveyed collections for internal use at other museums, Hargraves said the British Art Center intended to make its “hidden decorative arts collection” available in an online format from the start.

Mitchell has visited the British Art Center several times a year since then to document the frames, returning to his London offices to provide the British Art Center data on its collection, including analysis of style, approximate date of creation and nationality of the maker. This information, along with often several photographs of the frames themselves, is available in the online catalogue.

“We treat [the frames] as independent objects worthy of study in their own right,” Hargraves said.

While the British Art Center currently displays 94 frames on the database that Mitchell has deemed to be exceptional examples of their types, Hargraves said the museum aims to increase that number by 200 to 300 by March. At that time, users will be able to easily link from information on the frame to a descrition of the painting and vice versa. Hargraves said he also hopes to write a glossary to make the language of framing — full of obscure words like “cartouche” and “fronton” — more accessible.

Hargraves believes the British Art Center is one of the first galleries with an online frame database. There are similar, albeit smaller, online collections of frames at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia and the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. The Louvre aims to join them, Hargraves said, publishing its collection online this March.

According to history of art professor Edward Cooke Jr. ’77, there has been a revival in scholarly frame interest within the last 15 years. Earlier in the 20th century, frames and their craftsmen were not considered important, and often art photographers cropped their photographs to exclude frames.

“Art historians haven’t paid much attention to frames,” Hargraves said. “In the last decade, there has been a greater understanding that artists were aware that the way their art was framed would affect the way it would be received and perceived.”

Hargraves said that large numbers of frames available for study worldwide would allow researchers to establish patterns between frames and examine the historical network between artists and frame makers.

Users will be able download images for scholarly purposes without paying a fee or asking permission of the British Art Center, Cassandra Albinson, associate curator of Paintings and Sculptures said.

“If people from around the world are able to study [the frames], it will draw attention to this database of knowledge,” said history of art professor Tim Barringer. “It is a useful resource for collectors, dealers and curators the world over.”

Barringer said the British Art Center’s collection has a particularly high number of original frames, which are helpful in examining the artist’s original intention.

Frames also reveal something about paintings’ subsequent owners: Throughout the years, frames may be “repurposed, reshaped and recycled,” Hargraves said.

“Frames are a very underestimated part of a work of art,” history of art professor Alexander Nemerov GRD ’92 said. “They represent nothing less than the symbolic and real border between the painting and the rest of the world.”

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