Our design team recently enjoyed a creative recharge when visiting the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) Conservation Framing Studio, where Rob Zilli took them on an inspiring journey into his world of traditional picture frame making, antique frames and their conservation and restoration.
Rob is an expert in his field, earlier in his career, he studied in Florence, Italy, and then, nearly three decades ago, began volunteering one day a week under QAG’s Artisan Framer. A year later, an opportunity came up for him to take on a traineeship. On Rob’s mentor’s retirement, he was the successful applicant to step into the role of Artisan Framer.
Rob believes the key to success in this kind of job is having a genuine passion and curiosity for the Art world. It sustains the energy and patience necessary to learn intricate and detailed crafts such as working with gold leaf, and fans the flame to methodically research past techniques and materials.
As our designers Sirena Varma, Zain Mills, and Principal, Kate Jolly followed Rob through the gallery, they drank in the atmosphere. Rob explained that the few empty gallery spaces were waiting for the gallery’s curatorial and design team to come together and collaborate on new exhibitions. Many elements need to be considered–temperature, lighting, and humidity–to ensure that artworks are kept in optimal conditions. This led to a conversation about the best way to transport art to and from galleries, which involves carefully packing artworks into custom built crates, specifically designed to protect them during transport, including fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
Upon entering the Conservation Framing Studio, our designers instantly connected with its vibe. The creative yet practical environment is coloured by an interesting blend of raw materials, woodworking machinery, chemicals, and of course many, many frames. Rob showed them the materials, methods, and techniques he’s been perfecting for over almost thirty years, when making replica historical frames. Such as traditional water gilding using genuine 23 karat gold leaf, wood carving, mould making and French polishing, using shellac, which is resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand.
Timbers used are sustainably sourced from various local and global specialist suppliers, for instance, European Walnut from New Zealand, as this particular timber is an introduced species its removal has environmental benefits. This and other initiatives are part of the gallery’s growing focus on sustainable practices.
As Rob showed our team through his space, he was able to share with them the history around the evolution of the picture frame. The idea of a frame was that it contributed to the perspective of the painting. Pre-1800 the majority of picture frames were hand carved, however during the Industrial Revolution, new materials and techniques replaced traditional ones. Applied ornament made from composition or ‘compo’, a type of thermoplastic that when heated is pressed into moulds and then applied to the picture frame replaced hand carved ornament. Historical frames were almost always gilded with gold leaf. This not only imparted a display of wealth and importance, but when viewed in candlelight, gold would draw the admirer’s eye to the artwork and highlight the subject within.
One current conservation treatment Rob is working on is a large mid 18th century English picture frame original to the painting ‘ Mrs Yates as the Tragic Muse, Melpomen’ 1771 by Georg Romney. The frame has been poorly restored several times over its life, prior to it entering the QAGOMA collection, with the use of imitation gold paints, known as ‘bronze paint’ and plaster or composition to replace missing carved ornament. The treatment includes surface cleaning and removal of all non-original previous repairs. All treatments are meticulously documented and photographed in accordance with QAGOMA conservation policy.
The visit was engrossing and our designers each took slightly different impressions away from their experience. For Sirena, it was the realisation that the process of replicating antique frames was just as creative as producing something new–not only the process, but also the act of filling in something that is gone by researching and imagining what it was like. Kate was completely inspired by the amount of detail and thought that goes into recreating a frame as closely as possible to the original. It was a real WOW moment for her. Zain had a similar reaction to Kate and Sirena, and he also felt that conservation framing was like a metaphor for the entire creative process: It’s not just about the result; it’s about the whole journey…
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