30 Jan 2018

Cleaning and Restoration of a 19th Century Frame

Birmingham Museum Trust’s collection contains approximately eight hundred gilt picture frames.

One such frame belongs to Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s unfinished oil on canvas La Donna della Finestra, which was painted in 1881 and acquired by the museum in 1883.

La Donna Della Finestra by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The gilt wood and composition (a mouldable resin popularly used in place of carved wood or plaster for creating applied decoration) frame was recently condition assessed prior to the work being prepared for an outward loan.

The gilt surface of the frame was found to be dirty and dull/dark-coloured where dust/dirt had contacted the frame, and the layer of size (glue used as a protective coating for the gold) had discoloured. A number of sections of decorative moulding had been lost over time; Previous treatments had variously sought to replace these missing mouldings, or to in-paint areas of loss in order to make them less conspicuous.

It was decided that the visual appearance of the frame could be improved by cleaning the surface of the gilding, and by replacing missing moulded elements. The intent was not to make the frame appear as new and freshly gilded, but to have it retain its look of age and use, whilst removing disfiguring dirt and replacing lost decoration.

Before treatment: Areas of the corner of the frame requiring treatment

The surface of the frame was gently and carefully cleaned using solvents, applied on cotton wool swabs, taking care not to damage or accidentally remove the gilding in the process.

Edge of the frame before treatment

During treatment: The centre part of the frame cleaned and other parts untreated

During treatment: Half of the moulding has been cleaned and the other half is untreated

Several hundred very dirty swabs later, the result was a significant improvement in the appearance of the frame, with the gilding becoming far brighter.

Several hundred very dirty cotton swabs

When working with objects which have been in the museum’s collection for long periods of time, it is not uncommon to find that treatment has been carried out on them in the past. With the removal of the dirt and discolouration from the frame, some areas of previous restoration and repair became more visible than they had been previously. This run of replacement moulding – some of which appear to have been cast from plaster, and some of which appear to have been sculpted by hand - had been in-painted to match the colour of the frame when it was dirty.

Replacement moulding from previous treatment

In order to replace the various missing sections of moulding, an impression was first taken of a complete section using a soft impression material. This was rigidified by layering with wax.

Taking an impression of the moulding

Once set and hardened, the impression material was used as a mould, from which any number of new sections of decoration could be cast using resin mixed with metal powers.

During treatment: The new casts fitted in position

The casts were shaped to fit exactly in position, before being glued into place on the frame.

Finally, areas of the frame where the original gilding was significantly worn, as well as areas which had been replaced or overpainted during this and previous treatments were (re-)coloured to match the surrounding areas of gilding by coating with wax mixed with gold powders.

Corner of the frame after treatment

The frame is now prepared to once again be on display. 

Before it goes on loan, the current Perspex glazing will be replaced with low-reflect glass, and a bespoke travel crate will be made for the painting to ensure that it is fully protected during transport.

La Donna Della Finestra by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti after restoration