Understanding British Portraits

This week Knole had the great pleasure of hosting and being the focus of a Understanding British Portraits (UBP) seminar.  The UBP is an active network with free membership for professionals working with British portraits including curators, museum learning professionals, researchers, academics and conservators.  They aim to enhance the knowledge and understanding of portraits in all media in British collections, for the benefit of future research, exhibitions, interpretation, display and learning programmes.  They organise specialist events programme of seminars and private collection visits.

The seminar on Monday explored aspects of portraiture at Knole from the 16th century to today.  David Taylor, the National Trusts Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, chaired the day and the first paper of the day was delivered by Emma, Knole’s curator, ” ‘A Grand Repository’. An introduction to Knole and its collections”.

Seminar discussion, speakers, left to right:

Seminar discussion, speakers, left to right: Emma Slocombe, Anne French, Jacob Simon, Edward Town, Catherine Daunt and Melanie Caldwell. Chairman David Taylor stands on the right.

Click on the images below to read the paper abstracts:

Seminar paper abstracts

Paper abstracts continued.

Paper abstracts continued.

This blog is going to focus on the paper given by Jacob Simon. Jacob is formerly Chief Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, and now a part-time Research Fellow in a voluntary capacity. He is the author of ‘The Art of Picture Frames: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain’. Jacob has also written ‘A Guide to Picture Frames at Knole’. This guide was first produced on the occasion of a lecture by Jacob Simon at Knole on 12 November 1998. 

This is a comprehensive guide to the picture frames at Knole through the historic show rooms.  The paper includes a very useful section on techniques and materials, that I have repeated here:
“The story of the picture frame in England really begins in the 16th century. The earliest frames were made of oak, which remained popular for frame construction until the mid-17th century when supplanted by pine. These early frames were joined at the corners with a lap joint, with the frame sides overlapping at the corners, but by the early 18th century, the mitre joint had become universal, with the corners cut diagonally and joined by a key on the reverse side of the frame.

In the 16th century frames were usually painted or stained, but from the 17th century onwards many frames were gilt, that is covered in gold leaf, or finished in silver and lacquered for protection and to give the appearance of gold. The gold leaf was attached by an oil-based adhesive (‘oil gilt’) or by one which was water-activated (‘water gilt’). Water gilding was a more time-consuming process and required a special preparation of clay (the ‘bole’) which provided the firm, smooth foundation necessary for the gilding to be burnished, or polished.

Elaborately carved frames were time-consuming to make. It was cheaper to produce ornament by pressing a pliable material, such as papier-mâché or compo, in a mould, and then setting it on a wooden framework. Papier-mâché was first used in this way in the 17th century. It was, however, the introduction of compo, a composition of whiting, glue, resin and linseed oil, which drove out the carved frame. Compo became popular in the 1790s and dominated framemaking in the 19th century. It allowed for larger and more richly ornamented frames but its fragility proved a drawback.”

You can access the rest of Jacob’s paper via this link.

Below are the biographies of the other speakers of the day.  We hope to be blogging about some of the other papers presented too in the near future.
UBP Speaker bio
UBP speaker bio 2

Alex, Emily, Lucy, Melinda, Sarah and Zena


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