People have been drawing pictures for as long as we have had the materials available to do so. With cave paintings that date as far back as 700,000 BC, the history and evolution of art has left a trail that spans the globe and touches every civilisation and culture the world has ever known. But what of arts partner, the humble picture frame? At what point did people begin framing pictures and why?
The initial concept of a frame for an image began with the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who were fond of breaking up the images they created on vases and pots with illustrated borders. These pictures were telling stories – of battles or deaths or other serious events of the time – and so the frames and edges were used a little like punctuation, to split the story up into coherent and relatable parts.
One of the earliest physical frames dates back to AD 50-70. The frame, which was found in an Egyptian tomb, is made of wood and contained a portrait.
Other early examples are large, heavy and intricate and in many instances it appears that the frame was given greater prominence and importance than the item contained therein.
Smaller wooden frames which were hand-carved and looked more similar to those we know and use today didn’t make a appearance until the 12th or 13th century AD. Known as panel paintings, these were one piece, with the part for painting hollowed out of the middle and the raised edged gilded and carved with intricate decorations. Once the frame was complete, the image would be painted within it.
This method took a lot of time per piece and left no room for error, which led to a lot of waste and kept the product expensive. People eventually realised that using moulded wooden strips attached to the edge of a panel allowed for quicker repetitive work and cut costs enormously. If a mistake was made using this method, one part could be discarded whilst the rest could still be used.
Through the 14th and 15th century, many European frames were inside churches. Known as altarpieces, these frames were huge and immobile and on many occasions part of the architectural structure of the church. During this time, though, the Italian Renaissance saw arts patrons suddenly come from places beyond the church. This required mobile frames to be commissioned, usually alongside and to suit the piece itself.
As art itself flourished through the 16th century, the frame followed. They were no longer designed and built by the artists but had come to be a commission in their own right and were constructed by furniture makers.
As the century progressed, the frame designs did, too. The profiles of the frames thinned, and new and continuous designs appeared. Egg-and-dart, flowing leaves and ribbon frame designs were the groundwork for Baroque design and European influences soon combined to produce a variety of patterns and styles, many of which which are still in use today.
The frame has had a rollercoaster ride through history. From complementing the picture to overshadowing it; from being a part of the piece to being an artistic consideration in its own right, the concept of the frame in your living room was born much further back than the factory which made it.