Framemaking for the Fire Judges: an abstract by Gerry Alabone

by The Frame Blog

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Crest of frame made by Mary Ashfield, 1671, for John Michael Wright, portrait of Fire Judge Sir Thomas Twisden, with others of the same series at the store of Arnold Wiggins & Sons, 2016

Following the Great Fire of London, judges were appointed to adjudicate on the property and compensation disputes which followed. The City Corporation decided to mark the work of these ‘Fire Judges’ by commissioning John Michael Wright to paint a total of twenty-two full-length portraits, completed between 1670 and 1675.

The City’s accounts name five framemakers who carved and gilded the fashionable Auricular-style frames of these portraits. Interestingly, three of these framemakers were women. This large and important series, framed in an apparently unique pattern, hung in the newly reconstructed Great Hall of Guildhall for more than a hundred years.

The records state the specific maker for only two of the frames. For this paper, images of the frames for the whole series were collected and the frames themselves examined where possible. This matching series of frames clearly all derive from one common pattern; however, there are significantly different design and construction characteristics among them. In this way, it has been possible to group the frames. Using this and the (incomplete) record of the number of frames supplied by each framemaker, this paper seeks to ascribe each frame to one of the makers listed. The characteristics common to the whole series are considered, as well as those relating to the groupings. Very close similarities in size and shape of particular ornament make it likely that stencils were used for transferring the design across a frame when setting out, as well as within, and possibly between, groups of frames in the series.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the paintings were moved around Guildhall, and the frames redecorated several times, until all but two were deaccessioned and dispersed in 1952. Paintings were presented variously to Inns of Court or individuals; several of the most degraded canvases were destroyed, and some cut-down.

In contrast, their interesting and robustly-made frames, mostly of oak, fared significantly better, and all twenty-two survive in some form. Seven of the frames remain with the framemaking firm of Arnold Wiggins & Sons, which bought them in 1952; two have been resold; and thirteen do still contain Fire Judges – and are now hung across the City. The survival of this high-status series of English picture frames, and important records as to their makers, is remarkable. Whilst no frames similar to those of the Fire Judges have been found, this paper will make some comparisons to frames on paintings by Lely and Kneller.

Biography

Gerry Alabone is Senior Conservator (furniture & frames) with the National Trust, based at their new national Knole Conservation Studio. After studying painting at Bath Academy of Art, he was employed in the framemaking trade and public galleries before studying conservation at London Guildhall University. Gerry was Lead Frames Conservator at the City of London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, Head of Frames Conservation at Tate, and Joint Chair of the Institute of Conservation Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group. He is also Lead Lecturer of wood conservation at the City & Guilds of London Art School. His research concentrates on how we understand, manage and communicate the assistance that frames give to paintings within their settings.

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