Gilding, covering a surface in a layer of gold, has ensnared the human imagination for millennium. Traces of beaten gold have been found in weather-worn papyri of Old Kingdom Egypt, and in artifacts from cultures and civilizations as disparate as Ancient Rome to the “Far East.”
Since these early forays into gold plating, gilding has been used to decorate all manner of items from furnishings, signs, manuscripts, book covers, and the canvases of the finest paintings. In contemporary culture however, most associate gilding with the patinated frames and mirrors found in historic homes and museums.
But do we really see these gilded beauties? Unfortunately the answer is often no. Despite the very dear cost which these gilt creations can garner, in price, time, and labor, frames are often seen merely as a “finishing touch,” what John Peder Zane of the New York Times would dub“the Ginger Rogers” of art. It is only in the last two decades that these pieces have been elevated from a sort of artistic garnish to items requiring the same amount of craft as the paintings, drawings, and pastels which they house.
Like any craft, gilding requires the patience and labor of a skilled artisan. Water gilding, the technique most often utilized for frames, is made up of many intricate steps.
First a layer of glue is applied to the “bare-bones” of the frame (having been previously carved and sanded). Then several coats, sometimes more than a dozen, of gesso are applied, sanded, and polished. Gesso is a mixture of gypsum (also known as plaster of Paris), a rather chalky material, and animal glue (usually rabbit skin). Atop the gesso, several layers of bole (a reddish combination of clay and glue) are added and smoothed to create a perfectly even surface to apply the gold leaf. Each leaf can be up to 1/250,000th of an inch thick and are so light and feathery that the artisan must take great care not to let it simply fly away from their work surface. After these precious layers are added, the final step is to burnish the frame. This is done with an agate stone tool, or with the traditional tool which is tipped with a smoothed dog tooth. Passing the tool across the surface of the gold leaf leaves the frame with a truly brilliant shine.
A process like this means that these frames can be nearly as costly, if not more so, than the art they enclose. Recently, a frame by Eli Wilner & Co. for a Van Gogh took over 200 hours of labor and sold for $48,000. This same company constructed the 3,000 pound basewood piece which now frames the Met’s 21 feet by 12 feet Washington Crossing the Delaware . An undertaking that required 12,500 pieces of gold leaf, and cost upwards of 500,000 dollars.
The astronomical amount of labor, and the accompanying price tag, needed to complete one of these frames was true for earlier framers as well. When Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin and Child Enthroned was encased in a gilt frame the patron, Giovanni de’Bardi, paid both Botticelli and the framer the same exact commission.
A garnish? We think not!
Take a look at some of our favorite gilt frames here and our website!
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk