A Second-Generation Framing Conservator on Tinkering with Picasso, van Gogh, and Titian Frames

Aug 4, 2020 12:21 pm

A Q&A with framing conservator Allison Jackson.

How did you get into framing conservation?I’m a second-generation gilding conservator, so I’ve been aware of the field for a long time. I spent a lot of time in my mom’s home studio when I was growing up. It’s a niche job, even within the field of conservation.

What kind of training do you have?I studied fine art in college. Afterwards I worked for a few private conservators in the Boston area. Then I moved to Hawaii and apprenticed with a master carpenter and learned the basics of woodworking. One of his clients was a descendent of the royal family who had inherited a lot of furniture from King Kamehameha and Queen Lili‘uokalani.

Tell me about some of your more recent museum jobs.I started at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2006 while they were in the process of opening a new American art wing. From there I was hired by the Harvard Art Museums because they were also preparing to open a beautiful new building. I have my own private conservation business, and have worked a lot with the Davis Museum at Wellesley College and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

What were some of your biggest framing challenges?At Harvard, I worked on about 150 frames from the summer of 2012 through 2014. The project that I spent the most amount of time on was creating a frame for the Master of the Fogg Pietà’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ [ca. 1330]. The painting is from the predella of a large altarpiece. It had a cassetta-style [box] frame, when originally the frame would have been a quatrefoil shape. I worked with a master carver to build the new frame and then decorated it to look like it was from the fourteenth century—a floral pattern on the edges, punchwork, some raised ornamental elements. It took about 250 hours.

Are there any paintings that you’ve been particularly excited to work on?It was fun working on the frames and replacing liners for the paintings in Harvard’s Wertheim Collection. The van Gogh self-portrait got a new gilded liner, and I did some work on the frame for a double-sided Picasso painting, as well as his Mother and Child. Handling those paintings made me a bit nervous.

What’s a liner in this context?It fits in between the painting and the frame. The Wertheim Collection frames had white linen liners that were stained and grimy. Replacing them was so satisfying; it allowed the paintings to be viewed totally differently, as if they had more space.

When you go to museums as a tourist, are you always checking out the frames?Definitely. I tend to look at the frames more closely than the paintings. There is so much to learn—is it gilded with gold, silver, or another type of metal leaf? Is it water- or oil-gilded or both? Hand-carved or cast with composition ornament? Every frame has a story to tell. Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is one of my favorites. It has a picture gallery with lots of framed paintings crammed together—Canalettos, Guardis. And the walls open up like doors, so that even more can be displayed.

What are you working on next?At the Fogg, I’m about to work on the frame for Pantoja de la Cruz’s Philip III of Spain. The painting, its stretcher, and the frame all date to about 1600, which was proven by radiocarbon dating. A lot of the work is actually going to be done to the back of the frame, which is badly damaged by insects.

Any dream projects?I’m excited to work on the Gardner’s Titian painting, Rape of Europa. It’s in a late-eighteenth-century Roman gallery frame, hand-carved and gilded with a combination of water and oil techniques, which would have added to its ability to reflect light. I’ll clean it, remove some tarnished overpaint, smooth out lumpy fills, and return its large scrolling leaflike elements to the miters.

—As told to Leigh Anne Miller

This article appears in the October 2019 issue, p. 112.