Borys Burrough’s record of the designing, carving and gilding of a new Auricular frame for a rediscovered Van Dyck portrait.
This journal is a record of the process of designing and making a new frame for a portrait by Van Dyck belonging to the Bowes Museum in Durham. It resulted from a competition which the Bowes Museum instituted in May 2017, for a wood-carving student from the City & Guilds of London Art School to present a design for such a frame; the winner of the commission would then carve the piece as a final year project. There were specifications within the brief: one of the historic frame styles deemed suitable for the painting was Auricular, and I decided that I would create a frame in this style.
As a woodcarver at the beginning of my career, to have the opportunity to re-frame a Van Dyck portrait is dream commission, especially as I have a particular interest in and history working with picture frames. Before I started my ornamental woodcarving course I worked for the well-known framemaker and dealer Rollo Whately, whose workshop in the West End of London is a treasure-trove of beautiful antique frames. I worked as his assistant for five years, gaining skills in restoration, gilding and toning, and – above all – a love for antique frames. Rollo was able to help me with this commission by allowing me to use an early 17th century British Auricular frame to study, and as a model in my early designs.
In August 2017, after researching the Auricular style by looking at further examples of frames in Ham House, Richmond, and in the National Portrait Gallery, I made drawings of my design and sent them to the Bowes Museum in a presentation document. Following this, in September 2017 a Memorandum of Agreement was reached, and, after feedback on my initial designs in October (which included a modification of the brief), I redesigned the frame almost completely. I then carved sample sections which I took up to the Bowes Museum in the November, and after this successful meeting I was given the go-ahead to begin carving the frame.
The monthly journal which follows is a record of the process.
The brief which I had received announced that the Bowes Museum was mounting a competition for a student from the Art School to create a new frame for the portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter (c. 1630-40) by Van Dyck.
Van Dyck (1599-1641), Olivia Boteler Porter, c.1630-40, o/c, 72.4 x 61 cm.; uncleaned and cleaned states; Bowes Museum, County Durham
The sitter was Queen Henrietta Maria’s lady-in-waiting, Olivia Boteler Porter (d. 1633), the wife of Anthony Van Dyck’s friend and patron Endymion Porter, whom she married in 1619. While in England, Van Dyck painted a number of portraits of different members of the family. Olivia Porter was the daughter of Sir John Boteler and Elizabeth Villiers, niece of the Duke of Buckingham. The red carnation in her hair might be an heraldic motif, since it appears in other images of female members of the Villiers family.
Her dress is white with large sleeves, with a gold brooch on the corsage, and she wears a pearl necklace and earrings. She is presented within a simulated oval which is larger than the canvas. The painting was identified as being by Van Dyck following an investigation by Dr Bendor Grosvenor which subsequently became the subject of a Channel 4 documentary shown in March 2014.
The Bowes Museum listed a number of historic frames of the period which were deemed suitable for the painting, from which I chose the Auricular: it was a dominant style from the period when the portrait was painted, and is therefore often found on portraits by Van Dyck. ‘Auricular’ means literally ‘of the ear’, and was a free-flowing interpretation of organic and cartilaginous forms, animal or marine in nature, sometimes combined with foliage and scrolls or volutes. Framemakers working in London embraced this fashion with enthusiasm, using it for pictures from the 1630s to the 1680s (Penny, 2014, p.3). I also enjoy the sculptural nature of the ornament and thought it would be a good challenge to design a frame in this style and would also test my carving skills.
Christiaen van Vianen (fl. 1600-67), The Dolphin Basin, 1635, silver, Victoria & Albert Museum
I began my research by going to the V & A Museum to study the silver Dolphin Basin by Christiaen van Vianen. This is an amazing piece of silverwork, and luxury objects like this (in the popular European Auricular style) were very much sought after. Van Vianen (who worked for both Charles I and Charles II) and Dutch craftsmen like him came to London and set up workshops to cater to this new taste and the growing market it spawned.
Two great Dutch dynasties of gold- and silver- smiths were involved with the creation of various versions of the Auricular style. One was the Van Vianens – Paulus (ca. 1570–c.1613/14), generally credited with much of the development of the style, and his brother Adam (the father of Christiaen).
Isaack Luttichuys (1616-73), Portrait of a young lady, 1656, o/c, 99 x 82 cm., in original ‘Lutma’ frame; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The other was the Lutma family, whose name is now given to a type of 17th century Dutch Auricular frame which incorporates flowers and foliage..
Jacob Lutma (1624/44–54), after Johannes Lutma the Elder (1584–1669), Festivitates Aurifabris (…) / Verscheide Snakeryen dienstich voor Goutsmits, Beelthouwers, Steenhouwers, en alle die de const beminnen (Plate 4), 1654-78, etching & engraving, 8 7/8 x 7 5/16 ins (22.6 x 18.6 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Descendants from both these families spread their designs through the medium of engraved prints.
Michiel Mosyn (b.1630), after Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-74), Veelderhande Niewe Compartimente (title page in Latin), c.1650-74, etching & engraving, 9 7/16 x 7 ½ ins (24 x 19.1 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Another Dutchman who helped to diffuse this style was the painter Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, who designed several series of prints of cartouches and decorative objects in the Auricular Style; his most famous series was Areolae (above).
I also researched the Auricular by visiting various museums, and photographing and drawing some of their frames to assimilate the style. Amongst others I visited Ham House in Richmond, which holds some of the finest examples of early 17th century British Auricular frames.
Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemach, later Countess of Dysart & Duchess of Lauderdale with a black servant, c.1651, Ham House, National Trust
Unknown artist (possibly Gilbert Jackson; fl.1621-43), Portrait of an unknown lady in red, c.1630, o/c, 117 x 89 cm., Ham House, National Trust
Two of the Auricular frames which I found at Ham House greatly influenced my designs: those on Lely’s portrait of Elizabeth Murray with her black servant, and on the unknown lady in red, possibly by Gilbert Jackson.
In October 2016 a conference, ‘The Auricular Style: Frames’, was held at the Wallace Collection in London, with speakers delivering papers on various different aspects of this subject. After the conference I had numerous meetings with one of the speakers, Gerry Alabone (Senior Conservator at the National Trust and the Head of Frame Conservation at the Art School) who was very helpful in showing me many different examples of Auricular frames from his archive.
Jacob Simon, the former Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery and author of The art of the picture frame , also presented a paper, ‘Documenting developments in the taste for Auricular framing in England, 1620-1700’, which has been particularly helpful for my project. He argues that Charles I and his court were great collectors of European Old Masters, and that these pictures would often have come with elaborate frames, especially those from Italy. This would have created new expectations among collectors for elaborate gilded frames such as the ‘Sansovino’. Most of the frames made in Britain would have been executed by craftsmen with close links to the continent, especially to the Netherlands – from where ideas were imported both through the movement of the craftsmen themselves, and via engraved designs, as we have already seen.
Rollo Whately has an early 17th century British Auricular frame in his collection, and I was able to borrow it for study. During this period British paintings (and necessarily, of course, their frames) began to be standardized in size; for half-length portraits the frame thus has an ideal aperture of 30 x 25 inches, or 76 x 63.5 cm. The portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter measures 72.4 x 61cm., which is roughly in proportion to the standard size, and so I used Mr Whately’s frame as a template for my design drawings, first by creating a photomontage of the portrait within this period Auricular frame.
Van Dyck, Olivia Boteler Porter, c.1630-40, montaged into Auricular frame; collection of Rollo Whately
The frame is in original condition and has a scroll-topped grimacing lion mask at top centre, with a monster mask at the bottom and stylised foliage. Rollo Whately has dated his frame to the 1630s, and this accords with Jacob Simon’s judgement, given in in his paper at the Wallace Collection conference:
There were several standard frame patterns which were used in the 1630s and subsequently. For the most part these were frames in the Auricular style. They can be categorised by the differing mask types which crown the frame, or by other distinctive features: The lion mask at top centre and paws, highly stylized. The sides of the frame are like a flat skin, the edges of which are irregular and curling. The scroll-topped grimacing mask at top centre, with a monster mask at the bottom and stylised foliage……
Auricular frame (collection of Rollo Whately); reverse
The Whately frame is carved from oak which is 2.5 cm. (or one inch) thick, with mitred and lapped construction at the front (after the style of a Northern European cassetta), and an applied pine back frame (which also creates the rebate), secured with tenons. The frame is symmetrical on the vertical axis-.
Auricular frame (collection of Rollo Whately); mask at base of frame
It is covered on the face with a thin layer of gesso, and is oil-gilded in the pale gold with a lovely flat tone and flakiness which is so typically English. In A history of European picture frames, for instance, we are told that frames in the British Auricular style are ‘almost invariably gilded in a blond gold, which picks up the pale skin tones of the contemporary school of portraiture’, and that they also worked by ‘isolating a painting from the dark walls of the period, which would be wainscoted or covered in tapestry or leather’ .
I made my initial design drawings and sent them to the Bowes Museum in a presentation document.
First design: replica of Auricular frame, 1630s, collection of Rollo Whately
My first proposal was a carved replica of Rollo Whately’s frame, made in pine, and of the same construction, with the pine back frame. The width of the frame rail would be 9.5 cm. (14.5 cm. for the mask at the top centre), whilst the depth (including the back frame) would be 4 cm. for the main structure, and 6.5 cm. for the top mask, 5 cm. for the mask at the bottom.
I like the way in which the long sides have cornucopiae curling up from the corners, and flowers just above them which resemble carnations – amongst the characteristic twisting and scrolling Auricular forms. These flowers could be seen as an echo of the heraldic red carnation in Olivia Porter’s hair.
Second design: a more eclectic solution based on various sources
My second proposal was my own design, freely adapted from the frame above but incorporating elements from the frames at Ham House, and from other Auricular patterns in Gerry Alabone’s archive. This would be made in exactly the same way and to the same dimensions. There was a new grimacing mask crested by a wavy scroll at the top centre, and the long sides were redesigned to flow in a more ‘feminine’ way. I kept the monster’s mask at the bottom centre, with its bat wings and flanking scrolls from the Whately frame.
Second design: alternative top mask
I also included a drawing of an adaptation (from my first design) of the mask at the top, because I wanted to substitute two more scrolls for the feline whisker pouches in the original frame.
I received a Memorandum of Agreement drawn up by Tim Crawley, the Head of Historic Carving Department at the City & Guilds London Art School; this indicated a timetable for sample sections to be carved and gilded, to be taken up to the Bowes Museum for final approval in November.
In response to my designs I received a letter from Matthew Read, who is the head of the new Centre for Art, Craft and Design at the Bowes Museum.
Matthew came to this position and to the frame project after the commission was offered to me in May 2017; his participation was therefore much more recent, and he had new ideas for the type of frame he wanted me to make, modifying the brief from his own point of view, and also incorporating other opinions from his colleagues. This is an extract from his letter:
‘Several members of the Bowes team have reviewed the design and we have the following feedback:
We feel the grotesques are broadly overbearing in relation to the subject matter and could be replaced with more feminine motifs or themes. Maybe the Auricular theme could be expanded further to include both an historical and modern perspective? I see the frames have both Auricular forms and what appear to be auricular flowers? The auricular flower in modern times has a particular association with the north; the jewel that shines through coal dust and mining grime so would resonate with our North-East audiences.
We recognise the student has invested heavily in the process of researching the frame. It would be nice to see the student’s personal perspective and interpretation represented in the design and overall philosophy. At present there is a sense of generating what may be regarded as a high quality and skilled reproduction rather than new and explorative work.
A final personal thought, to balance the historic research and retrospective nature of the design, a sense of the contemporary and looking forward could be introduced in the form of some clear space or undecorated sections (consideration perhaps of the sitter and artist as promoting the latest fashion and ideas of their time?) This could of course also be manifested in modifying the nature of angular detail in the carving etc.
We strongly encourage the student to more overtly make the work their own, to reflect their ownership and philosophy in the design…’
Third design, incorporating suggestions from the Bowes Museum; detail of crest
I began to recast my designs in the light of this response from the Bowes Museum. For example, I replaced the top centre grotesque mask with a more ‘feminine’ cartouche, in which you can make out a vial or bottle, inspired by the story of a poison, ‘Viper Wine’, told me by Matthew Read. Olivia Porter is said to have used this substance, and since she died around the time this portrait was painted, it seemed like a fitting reference to her tragic story. ‘Viper Wine’ was an elixir that ladies in the court of Charles I took to make themselves more beautiful; it worked by numbing their faces and plumping their cheeks, very much as Botox is used today, and (again, rather like Botox) it was in fact a poison made from snake venom, and could certainly have been very harmful, if not fatal.
Third design; detail of ornament at base
I replaced the grotesque mask at the bottom centre with the form of a scallop shell containing within it double pearl drops, which refer to the earrings Olivia Porter famously wore in her portraits. I also cleared some of the space in my design by removing a few more ornate elements and simplifying the forms; and finally I restored the pair of scalloped swags from the Whately frame two-thirds the way up the long sides, since they echo the neck line of her dress, and have pearl drops – again reflecting the pearls contained in the painting.
I sent this design to Matthew Read at the Bowes Museum quite soon after receiving his letter, as I was anxious that we were now behind schedule in the timetable set out in the Memorandum of Agreement, and I wanted to know how he would respond to my new ideas.
I also wanted him to understand the philosophy behind my work. I felt that my design must remain historically faithful to the Auricular style, which – although polymorphous and playful – still has a grammar and an accepted arrangement of ornament which must be respected. If this style were to be subverted too far, I think that the frame might look like a post-modern joke, and would be completely inappropriate for an artist like Van Dyck.
Matthew’s response to this was positive, and I felt that he had confidence in my approach.
The next step was to carve a length of the frame as a sample of the finished piece. This was incredibly useful as it allowed me to see how my design would look like in three dimensions, and – perhaps more importantly – I gained insight into how these frames would have been produced.
Fourth design: revisions
Fourth design: further revisions; the drawing montaged onto the Van Dyck portrait
I then changed my frame design, starting with the bottom rail. I decided that the shell form in the centre was too obvious, and so I replaced it with a bold clean leaf shape which also forms a sort of residual grotesque mask. In the centre of this I set the pendant double pearl drop which echoes Olivia Porter’s earrings. The flow of the design continues from the centre outwards, with the bat’s wings and scrolls.
I continued to rearrange the design of the long sides, moving the shapes and forms around to get a more fluid feel. Designing these lateral rails has been the hardest part of the whole process, and for some time every variation felt unsatisfactory. I think that this is because the flow created by the top and bottom rails starts from the centres, and naturally takes the eye away horizontally; however, I had been unable to achieve an equally nice vertical movement on the sides. There seemed instead to be an awkward chunkiness about them that I continued to struggle with. After rearranging the flow of scrolling leaves, I added a pair of much bolder primula auricula flowers – at first rising up from the acanthus leaf corners, and later moving them up between the top corners and the swags and pearls.
I also refined the design of the ‘Viper Wine’ cartouche until I was much happier with it.
Carving the design as a sample
I began to carve the trial sections I would later take up to show the Bowes museum.
I modelled the Viper Wine cartouche in clay to work out how it would look in three dimensions, and then I carved a trial version.
I gessoed both of the trial lengths, with a mixture made from whiting (calcium carbonate ground to a fine powder), and rabbit skin glue (approx. 1:10 ratio rabbit skin granules to water). Gesso is mixed to a consistency ideally like that of single cream and brushed on in many layers – ten, in this case. It can be sandpapered when dry, or, in this case, smoothed with wet rags.
I then applied a pale grey/yellow bole. Bole is a coloured clay, mixed with weaker rabbit skin glue, which is used to enable the gold leaf adhere to the gessoed surface.
Onto the bole goes the oil gilding. I used a one-hour size (the glue the gold sticks to): in other words, the size is left for an hour to go tacky, and then the gold leaf is laid onto it.
I toned and distressed both rails, leaving the bottom one slightly cleaner. The mixture I used to tone the gold was composed of dry pigments, pumice powder and watercolour, diluted with water.
Van Dyck, Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter, and the trial sections of the proposed frame
After I had prepared the trial carved and gilded sections, I went back to the design and revised it further. I then took both the sample sections and the latest design up to the Bowes Museum to show them to Matthew Read; at this point we were also able to examine the trial sections in relationship to the portrait. Matthew was, I hoped, sufficiently satisfied by my work to give me the go-ahead to begin carving the actual frame.
I now transferred my final design to the wood and began carving the first piece of the frame – the bottom rail.
When I returned to the Art School after the Christmas holidays I redesigned the side rails of the frame for the final time. Having had a few weeks away from the drawing allowed me to see it again with fresh eyes, and I felt that with the changes I made at this point, the design was much stronger. There is now an S-shaped scroll at the lateral centres, interlocking with a smaller scrolling leaf, from which the design seems to flow away. The ornament feels softer and has a melting quality that I find much more pleasing and in keeping with the rest of the design.
Bottom rail carved; lateral rails drawn in
I had been quite disheartened by the response from the Bowes Museum to my original designs, back in October. I thought that the suggestion that the museum did not actually want an historically faithful replica of an Auricular frame was a major setback; I felt very uncomfortable about subverting the style. Now, three months later, I realized that having gone through the struggle of creating an original design I had learnt a great deal more about the Auricular style – and design in general – than if I had been allowed to carve a faithful replica.
With the carving of the bottom rail complete, and a strong and coherent design for the whole, I was confident that I could create a frame which would complement and even enhance the portrait of Olivia Porter; and also that the design might stand the test of time.
Three rails completed
The carving finished
The frame gessoed
The gilding completed
The gilding toned, and the frame finished
Van Dyck, Portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter in her new Auricular frame
A note on the Bowes Museum portrait
Van Dyck, Olivia Boteler Porter, c.1630-40, o/c, 72.4 x 61 cm., Bowes Museum, County Durham
The sitter was formerly identified as Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), wife of Charles I. However, this portrait differs from all known images of the Queen. The sitter was instead the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Olivia Boteler Porter (d. 1633), the wife of Anthony Van Dyck’s friend and patron Endymion Porter, whom she married in 1619. While in England, Van Dyck painted a number of portraits of different members of the family. The white satin dress with long puffed sleeves was intended as a classicising note of timelessness. Olivia Porter was the daughter of Sir John Boteler and Elizabeth Villiers, niece of the Duke of Buckingham. The red carnation in her hair might be an heraldic motif, since it appears in other images of female members of the Villiers family.
The sitter is shown half-length. Her dress is white with large sleeves, and has a gold brooch at the front. She wears a pearl necklace and earrings. Her hair is brown and in ringlets and has a red flower in it. She is within what appears to be a simulated oval which is larger than the canvas.
There is a note in the archive in John Bowes’ handwriting of paintings he bought in the 1860s from Madame Lepautre, one of his regular dealers. This includes a portrait of Henrietta of England (presumably Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I) and a portrait of a lady of the same period, both bought on the same day. The actual bill from Lepautre for this purchase doesn’t give any details of the paintings – just ‘2 pictures’. John may have written the list as an aide-memoire when he was compiling the catalogue – the handwriting looks more like the 1870s than the 1860s.
The painting was identified as being by Sir Anthony Van Dyck following an investigation by Bendor Grosvenor which subsequently became the subject of a Channel 4 documentary shown in March 2014.
Diagram from the Bowes Museum, showing how the canvas would be fitted into the new frame (canvas & frame surface are at the bottom)
Hubert Baija, Auricular Frames in the Netherlands, conference abstract; Auricular style: frames
D. Davis, The Secret Lives of Frames, 2007, New York
Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts, A History of European Picture Frames, 1996, London
Nicholas Penny, A closer look at frames, 2010, London
Michael Savage & Lynn Roberts, Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames – an exhibition at the National Gallery, 2015; The Frame Blog
Jacob Simon, Picture frames at Ham House, 2014, National Trust (Enterprises) Ltd.
Jacob Simon, Documenting developments in the taste for Auricular framing in Britain, 1620-80, 2016; Auricular style: frames
F. Speelberg, Extravagant Monstrosities: Gold- and Silversmith Designs in the Auricular Style, 2014; The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 Jacob Simon, The art of the picture frame: Artists, patrons and the framing of portraits in Britain, 1996; published to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the National Portrait Gallery, London
 Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts, A history of European picture frames, 1996, London, p. 59