You rarely get one without the other but frames don’t often receive the fame and recognition that their contents do. Regardless of this, frames and their makers have still made their mark throughout history and may have influenced more than you realise.
1. The changing nature of the frame and its function
The frame has origins in the painted borders used like punctuation by the Ancient Romans and Greeks. Throughout the intervening time, they have been used to protect works, to enhance them and even to denote their significance, as with religious triptychs. Now, in the modern world, although protection is a consideration it once again takes a back seat to aesthetics, as the galleries and museums which display the most valuable pieces can use other means, such as temperature and moisture control as well as other barriers, to protect them.
2. Attitudes to picture frames have changed
Many frames through history were crafted to house specific works. Removing pieces from their original frames, which may have been chosen or designed by the artist or their patron, was frowned upon for centuries by many and seen as disrupting the history of the piece.
This is no longer the case. Reframing is understood today to have taken place for a variety of reasons, including the aesthetic, and as long as the frame chosen is deemed befitting of the piece, it doesn’t raise too many eyebrows. Keeping track is still important, though, so it is recommended that if you do change a frame from an original, that you box and record the original and its contents.
3. There is no copyright on frames but they can still be protected
There is no copyright on frames, which means that designs can be copied and repeated but that doesn’t leave designers or craftsmen with no protection. Patents and Trade Secrecy may still be able to help you protect your property if you come up with a new technique. There can still be hurdles, like keeping the technique a secret before applying for protection, but this does at least mean that people stealing or disclosing your ideas are liable and can be sued.
4. Frames are connected to much more than their subjects
The style of a frame as well as the materials and techniques used to make it can tell you much about the era it was created in and the people who lived at that time. A good example of history changing frames is the photograph and its influence. When photography became cheaper and more widely accessible, the shapes and styles of frames available to hold them underwent a corresponding boom as people tried and tested new techniques to fashion their own.
Similarly, changes and new movements within the art world created more opportunities for experimentation. On top of these influences, new techniques and materials, such as plastic or moulded metals, made their own changes to framing, leaving a history rich in industry and culture.
5. Different areas of the world have a distinctly different sets of frames
Cultural influences and available materials have left frames through history whose origins can be identified through common features. The type of wood or pulp used has always had some bearing on the end product, but themes and styles were influenced by much more.
Tobacco, corn or wheat leaves are much more prevalent in the US frames because they were much more common in the US and seen as symbol of the agriculture that they were benefiting from. European frames are much more likely to feature acanthus or other leaves from trees native to Europe and the same tends to be true for other areas, too, with East Asian frames favouring Chinese cedars, cherry blossoms and Chinese pine trees.
These facts only give a hint as to the cultural and societal importance of the picture frame. Pictures are the best way we have of capturing moments, thoughts, ideas and feelings and have been an important cultural phenomenon throughout history. The way that we treat and display them can surely tell us much about the people we have been, the people we are and the people we are yet to become.