The Conservation of Poedua – Part 8

If you have been following Mel and Katherine’s Poedua treatment blogs you may be surprised to read another’s voice on this one – a voice from the edge as it were. I’m Matthew O’Reilly, Framer of Paintings here at Te Papa. My previous blogs were quite some time ago now. Katherine and Mel have needed to take a short break from Poedua, so in order to keep the rhythm going I shall begin my contribution to the Poedua story (always intended) now. My first post on this subject presents a provisional view on the origins of the beautiful frame.

As will be plain from the accompanying photos a lot of remedial effort will be required for the frame to present the painting as befits its role; the conservation will be the subject of later posts. This post summarises the preliminary process.

From the time I first sighted Poedua in her frame the ensemble that they made excited me instinctively and aesthetically. The frame, like the painting, gives one a strong whiff of the Neo-classical period, with its strict rhythms of transverse elements of motif bounded with clarity by bright stepped bands, and gives its matching to the painting a special sense of period authenticity and authority; the aesthetics of its form and scale a sense of rightness as a means of carrying the painting and its subject forward through time. It helps to place her in history as well as any but the most clearly documented original framing: together they admirably represent the junction of the Enlightenment impulse that took Cook to the Pacific, the contemporary currency of Neo-classical style, and the incipient Romanticism symbolised by Webber’s subject.

Image of Poedua in its frame immediately after it arrived at Te Papa. Photograph taken by Michael Hall. © Te Papa.

Image of Poedua in its frame immediately after it arrived at Te Papa. Photograph taken by Michael Hall. © Te Papa.

The frame and its relationship to the painting. A hunt for clues.

In assessing treatment options for picture frames it is important that all possible evidence is gathered about their provenance as distinct from that about the paintings they contain, so that the best quality treatment decisions can be made — especially concerning appearance. Whether they mean to or not, picture frames play a critical role in representing context, which consequently makes them very important in the isolating milieu of the museum. It is very important that they serve their paintings well in this respect.

I am due to start on this frame’s treatment soon. As that proceeds more facts that go to a greater clarity about the frame’s relationship to the painting may or may not emerge, and curatorial research into the historical life of the painting may yet throw some light on just when it arrived on the painting.

To sum up the evidence so far gleaned from observation of the frame, research of available literature, and some opinions from colleagues across the globe, it is possible for me to say for sure only that the frame fits within the general period of the painting and has an aesthetic correspondence that resonates sympathetically with it, connecting it well to the period when the painting was made.

Yet Poedua is not the first painting this frame has protected and presented. It may have been put on Poedua when the painting was made, and could be ten or fifteen years older than the painting; or it may have arrived on it after its arrival in France. So far, I have been unable to determine clearly whether the frame is English or French, but it is likely to be one of these. And despite the sense of rightness, clear evidence about the conjunction of the frame and painting is not yet there.

The painting is known to have spent much of its life in France. Perhaps too much can be made of the frame’s French stylistic inheritance as evidence, even as it obliquely interprets the painting’s historical journey so well. I can’t claim to be able to pinpoint from the evidence of the frame itself where and when it was made but think there is enough evidence to support its continued pairing with the painting.

This is not to say that this is necessarily this painting’s first and only framing, but is to say that it could be, and we at Te Papa will treat it as if it were so. There follows a summary of the clues that the examination of frame has yielded so far to support the frame’s authenticity to the general period from which the painting comes, even if it was not the painting’s first frame. I do hope that time and further research will tell a more detailed story.

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A reminder here: the painting was made in London in 1785 or very close to it.

1. Style. The profile consists of two main components rising from the picture surface, the inner and larger in scale being a scotia or cove (C-curve) carved in relief with transverse motifs; and the outer and upper one, smaller in scale and ogee (S-curve) in form embellished with transverse carving in relief. This doubling effect of two layers of transverse motif separated by plain bands of gilding is the most striking element of this design of frame which would tend to limit the probability of its production to perhaps 1770 at earliest and 1810 at latest. The origin of the style lies in France, but its uptake into England was very quick and some more teasing out of the motifs themselves and how the carver has treated them is required to come to a strong opinion as to which country it comes from.

2. Materials and techniques. The frame is hand-carved and gilded onto red clay and gesso. Hand-carving means the relief ornamentation is cut out of the wood of the carcase of the frame members, and is not an enrichment made from plaster work and applied to the carcase. In statistical terms this fact increases the likelihood of an earlier rather than later dating, and is more likely to put it in the eighteenth century than the nineteenth. The thinness of the gesso layer of the original surfaces and lack of surface texturing may suggest an English origin. Against this however the use of some hard wood in the carcase seems to dispute this conclusion, and lean it towards France.

Upper left corner detail at the back showing cut-down mitre with remnant of original key plus later key across mitre. Photograph taken by Matthew O'Reilly. © Te Papa.

Upper left corner detail at the back showing cut-down mitre with remnant of original key plus later key across mitre; compare with upper right corner image. Photograph taken by Matthew O'Reilly. © Te Papa.

3. Historical alterations. There have been two clear interventions on this frame since it was first made. One of them in particular has some direct relevance to our search for understanding. That is, the frame has been cut down from its original dimensions. Occurrences such as this are remarkably common and come as no surprise. The painting itself does not appear to have been reduced in size, and is not one of a number of standard sizes that were common in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The frame was cut down to fit a non-standard size painting, and so we can surmise that it was cut down for our painting. By examining the evidence of the carved corner motif on the front and the cross keys on the back used to strengthen the mitre joints, we know how much was cut from the two mitres and that the original frame aperture corresponded neither to the standard canvas sizes common in England or those (different ones) common in France. The other intervention to the appearance of the frame, involving a regilding of the outer sides, I shall return to in a later post as it does not bear on this discussion of authenticity and origin.

In our part of the world the sense of rightness of matching of painting and frame is all too rare and I delight in this occurrence of it.

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